Spend 5 minutes with Thor Oechsner and I bet a bag of malt you will want to be an organic grain farmer.
When he was a kid Thor loved visiting his uncle’s dairy farm. By the time he was a teenager, he convinced his parents to let him tear up their suburban yard—to plant corn.
Thor now farms almost 1000 acres of all kinds of grains from emmer to oats.
At first, his grains went for animal feed. Watching land get snapped up for housing, he realized he needed to make more money on his rented acres. Thor thought first of flour because his German grandfather was a pastry chef.
In 2009, he started a mill, Farmer Ground Flour. Two years later he helped start Wide Awake Bakery, a Community Supported Bakery that uses his wheat. This farmer-miller-baker partnership is a great model of how small scale production builds businesses and relationships.
We met Thor in 2011 at the NOFA-NY conference, and began hounding him to sell us some of his 9% protein Warthog wheat. The stalking got so serious that Thor knighted Andrea Stalker Babe.
Earning this title was energy well spent. We love Thor's Warthog wheat, and so do our customers.
At the ripe old age of 23, Peter Martens farms 450 acres of organic crops including: barley, wheat, rye, spelt, corn, soybeans, and dry beans.
In 2012 Peter worked for 6 months on an organic farm north of Hamburg, Germany. This experience opened his eyes to the different farming methods in Germany. The farming equipment is expensive but very versatile and efficient.
Peter and his dad Klaas Martens have been growing 2-Row Winter Barley for us since 2010.
On March 25th we received an email from Rob, “Good Afternoon, I am a small part time farmer and have been starting to grow small grains in my crop rotations. This past season I successfully grew winter wheat that we harvested and resold for seed. I am planning on growing malting barley this year, but am looking for a market before I do so. It would be great to talk to you and possibly work together supplying local markets with local ingredients.”
This is the kind of email we love. Rob is young, smart, and interested in becoming a full time farmer. He works for his family's construction business and is not shy when it comes to working hard and getting a job done the right way. Within 2 weeks, Rob visited Valley Malt and left with a ton of Conlon seed. We agreed to supply the seed, share the risk, and stay in touch. We also emailed Kent Falls Brewing to let them know that Rob was in their hood and we may finally have some premium CT grown malt for their farmhouse ales. Everyone was eager to see what the season would hold. The Conlon was harvested and Rob had a good crop to sell. He also grew Organic Rye, which was delivered just a few weeks after the barley. After a successful first, year Rob has planted Winter Wheat, Rye and Barley for 2017.
Cook Farm / Hadley, MA
The Cooks were one of the original 50 families that settled Hadley in 1659. Puritans in exile, they may not have been the biggest fans of beer but today the family is happy to still be stewarding the land and running a thriving dairy farm. Winter Rye is a crop that gets planted in the fall to maintain soil nutrients, prevent erosion, bale straw for bedding, and now make beer and whiskey from. Working with Cook Farm is rewarding and creates a hyper local source for Rye that also supplements their farm’s income.
Mosher Farm / Bouckville, NY
We met Corey through one of our growers Scott Omara, who we had been working with since 2012. Corey, his uncle Terry, and many other members of their family run Mosher Farm in Bouckville, NY. They are an example of a successful diversified farm growing berries, vegetables, hops and grains. About 2 and a half hours away from Valley Malt, their farm’s landscape is vast and they work their farmland in a sustainable system, many times partnering with other growers to rotate land and market their crops. Scott and Corey have worked together and both are succeeding in growing winter malting barley in NY. We can sleep at night knowing that we have Mosher Farms behind the wheel, they care about quality, variety, and long-term success for both their farm and family and ours.
A friend recently shared the African proverb, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The power of these words resonated as I stood waiting eagerly for a silver car to approach the arrival lane at the Detroit Airport. It was 9:00am and the friendly, familiar face behind the wheel was Twila. We hugged, scrambled luggage into the trunk, and departed on our short but malt-filled journey throughout Michigan. Twila and I glanced at each other and smiled at our feat. Escaping from a malthouse and family is about as hard to execute as a trip to the space station. Our mission? Explore the beauty of Michigan, meet maltsters, and drink beer.
First stop was one hour away in Shelby. We met met up with Ashley McFarland to visit with Tom and Dan at Motor City Malt. The malthouse tour was awesome and we talked about winter barley, discussed debearding, and left with our bellies full of toasty malt and cold cut sandwiches. Next stop was Kalamazoo for a talk about Taste of Place at Bell’s Brewery. The flavor that comes from a region, like Michigan, can be distinct and we tasted that in the malt worts made from Bell’s farm’s malt. Compared to a commercial 2-row Metcalf blend, this malt was complex and had notes of vanilla, perfume-like aroma, and a ruby rich color. While drinking beers afterward, talking about the local impact of Marris Otter in the UK, a brewer chimed-in to say that this was just the beginning of a bright future of Michigan made malt and beer.
The next morning we slid into the Honda, figured out how to get a better music situation going in the car, and took off for a long day of driving and visiting malthouses. First stop was Pilot Malt, right outside of Grand Rapids. The guys at Pilot have grown over the past few years and their malthouse was another one to marvel at. Lots of beautiful barley from this year’s crop, getting stacked up and stored and a thoughtfully assembled lab that many maltsters would love to have. As we traveled north the roadside became dense with trees, the temperature cooled, and the landscape demanded our attention. Empire Malt was our next stop, nestled in the otherworldly place of Sand Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan. Alison greeted us and showed us inside her malthouse. Situated on a farm with hops, barley, hay and fruit growing around it, this malthouse is a piece of art welded together with skill and love. Alison also had beautiful barley grown from this part of Michigan and is just getting started making delicious malts that showcase the beauty of this land she loves. Us three women stood for hours as the sun went down, sharing the passion we share for malting. This passion was expressed by talk about airflow rates, beta glucanase, and steep schedules. As fast friends do, we pinky swore to stay in touch.
The fresh cool air and waning moon provided us with everything we needed to sleep deeply that night. We awoke to the sunrise, played in the dunes and then made the quick ride to Traverse City to visit Jeff at Great Lakes Malting. With a friendly smile, Jeff handed us safety glasses and started showing us around his malthouse under construction. It was dreamlike. Shiny stainless everywhere and turners, yes turners, in both of his 2-ton germ/kiln beds. Jeff has other enviable equipment like a diaphragm pump, water treatment systems, and lots of automation. There is no doubt that great malt will be made there.
As we pulled into the departure line at the airport, Twila and I hugged and smiled. It was a whirlwind but epic adventure and one that pressed a re-start button for each of us. Energized our malting spirits. At times, running a malthouse can be exhausting, beat at your spirit, and make you question, “Why am I doing this?” By taking the time to step outside of our own malthouses and connect with our fellow maltsters we clearly saw that the frustrations, the accomplishments, and the vision is not ours individually but a shared experience with a broader community of people. We are going together. We are going far. . . .