Last week Christian and I were both at the malthouse doing our morning chores. Stirring grain, cleaning and bagging malt and sweeping up all the grain that accumulates everywhere. Christian was running late for work. I was trying to get finished with my work early because 3 researchers from UMASS School of Agronomy who are taking interest in barley growing in Massachusetts were coming to visit. They wanted to tour as many of our barley fields as we could squeeze into a few hours. In total we have 48 acres of 2-row barley growing throughout western massachusetts. This could equate to 48,000 or possibly even 90,000 lbs of barley harvested this year in MA. May seem like a lot but the USDA does not even consider placing area growing under 1,000 acres "on the map".
All of these fields are part of our BSA (Brewers Supporting Agriculture) which means that anything harvested from them has been predetermined for the 15 participating breweries. With a $500 deposit each, they have committed to purchasing the local barley being grown for them. It is a collaborative effort between farmers and brewers.
So on this beautiful June day, we started with viewing our 4 acres behind the malthouse. Masoud, the professor from UMASS was excited to see the beautiful field of barley. On our walk down to the field he shared with me that he is from Iran and barley (for food) was the first crop he ever researched and worked on as an agronomist. He could tell that our barley was under some stress from all the recent rain, some phosphorus deficiency was making the barley a little purple but altogether looking good and ready for harvest in about 2 weeks. The next field was about 5 miles north and right in a beautiful spot on the Connecticut River shoreline. This 8 acre field of winter barley was looking incredible. Also ready to harvest in about 2 weeks. Here is a shot of this field:
Our next stop was another 8 miles north in North Hatfield where we had planted 16 acres of spring barley with a new grower, Marty. I had helped Marty plant this field on April 18th and UMASS let him borrow their grain drill. Marty has never grown grains before but wanted to give it a try. He grew up on this land and his family for 2 generations grew tobacco and squash conventionally. Marty had a change of philosophy about 4 years ago and wanted to start growing organic. He has tried for several years to grow squash but there is a persistent fungus that has destroyed his squash each year. We have loaned him our tine weeder (a way to keep weeds down organically) and will also combine the field for him. So far his field is looking great, very few weeds and other than a few stray cows coming over from his neighbor's farms, the field is free of pests. I was excited to show Masoud this field since I knew that we had done a good job keeping the weeds down so I expected him to say, "this field looks fantastic" instead he said, "this barley is severely nitrogen deprived". My heart sank and I know Marty's did too, just looking at him. "What can we do?", I asked. The answer was, "put down some nitrogen". We are not used to hearing this because in organic grain farming, you rely on rotation to get the needed nitrogen for a crop like barley and in general, barley for malting does not need very much. I also knew that paying to fertilize this large field would be financially straining, especially on a crop that carries so much uncertainty for Marty. My mind started to work, considering all the possibilities. Does Valley Malt have the money to front this? Should Valley Malt front the money for this? What if we do front the money and then we still have crop failure? We have lost thousands of dollars over the last 3 years giving seed away and then never seeing a single harvested grain from some fields. Christian has convinced me that we cannot have Valley Malt fail financially because we are loosing money on support others with barley growing. So paying for the fertilizer through Valley Malt was not really an option.
This is where those $500 deposits from brewers supporting agriculture comes to the rescue. I talked to Marty about it, said we could use some of the BSA deposit money to have a company come out and fertilize, and then deduct the amount from what he will be paid when the grain has been harvested. Marty asked if I could arrange it all and I did. That evening the fertilizer was applied right before it rained and could soak into the soil to the roots of the barley. I called Marty a few days later, he said the barley looks much greener.
A few days later I was making a delivery and had some time to reflect on this situation. I knew as it was happening that I felt good about it but it took some reflection to really appreciate what had taken place. We had a farmer who wanted to take a risk and try growing an unusual crop, we had very smart people from UMASS interested in making barley a successful crop to grow in Massachusetts, and we have brewers who are committed to not only buying local malt but in supporting the barley farmers. They are even willing to make an investment before it was even planted.
The phrase, "it takes a village" popped into my head. Without Marty we would not have had the land to grow barley. Without UMASS coming to visit we never would have known that our barley was being starved for food. Without the BSA we would not have so easily and timely been able to make the call on fertilizing the field. Everything just seemed to fall into place.
I hope the outcome is that Marty's yield on this field is increased 30-50% and that the quality is better than it would have been without the fertilizer. I also hope that more people can appreciate everything that goes into making a product that is not a commodity. It really does take a village to raise a pint. Of course craft brewers have known this for decades. They are incredible at creating community. We are just so happy to be a part of it.