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Five Essentials to Producing High-quality, Food-grade Wheat in the Northeast

Elizabeth Dyck, OGRIN, and Thor Oechsner, Oechsner Farms, March 2011

1. Source and plant high-quality varieties.
Variety matters, not only for yield, but grain quality, Fusarium resistance, and adaptability to our region. Planting seed that is free of disease and uncontaminated by weed seed is also critical.
  • If you are growing hard red wheat, look for varieties that are moderately resistant (that's the highest current resistance there is) to Fusarium (wheat scab). You'll also want varieties that in our region can produce grain with a protein content of 12.5% or higher if a spring variety or close to 12% if a winter wheat. However, some high-quality wheats have less resistance to wheat scab. If you plant a moderately susceptible or susceptible variety, this increased risk should be factored into your crop management (see points 3 and 4 below) and marketing. For more information, see the OGRIN fact sheet on wheat varieties.
  • If planting a heritage variety, like Red Fife, be aware that the risk of wheat scab is likely to be higher than for modern cultivars that are moderately resistant to wheat scab. To reduce risk, it may be wise to grow smaller acreages of the heritage variety than you would of a modern cultivar, especially until you have experience with it.
  • If buying from another grower, make sure that the seed has been cleaned properly (ask how it has been cleaned) and ask for germination and vomitoxin test results.
  • Avoid planting seed that has high (over 1 ppm) vomitoxin content, whether your own or another grower's -- this just adds to your risk of the disease.
  Sourcing varieties that produce high-quality grain and are adapted to regional growing conditions is critical: Warthog, e.g., is a variety of hard red winter wheat that has performed well on Northeast farms.
2. Plant the wheat at an optimal point in the rotation and on suitable ground.
As with any crop that you are intending to market as high-quality, food-grade grain, wheat needs to be grown under optimum conditions. This requires careful planning of when to grow the crop within your rotation and may require that you modify your rotation. Choosing fields with appropriate soil types and background fertility and low weed pressure is also critical.
  • Avoid planting wheat after wheat, barley, rye, or corn, as this substantially increases the risk of scab and other diseases.
  • Wheat should do well after soybean, oats, dry beans, and potatoes. Planting wheat after oilseed/tillage radish or buckwheat can cause problems because seed of volunteers from these crops can be difficult to clean out.
  • Wheat prefers well-drained, medium to heavy textured soils with a pH in the 6.3-7 range. Winter wheat requires higher fertility than spring wheat. An optimal practice is to grow winter wheat after a legume crop.
  • Avoid planting wheat, especially spring wheat, in fields that have high weed pressure. Canada thistle is a particular menace; the thistle will easily grow through spring-planted small grains, blooming and producing seeds before grain can be harvested.
3. Harvest as soon as possible.
Wheat will not wait! Quality decreases and risk of disease increases the longer wheat stays in the field after physiological maturity.
  • Have your method of harvesting figured out before you plant the crop. If you are contracting to have the grain combined for you, make sure that the contractor will/can get your crop harvested when you need it.
  • Prep your combine well in advance of harvest.
  • Consider investing in drying equipment. Harvesting the grain as soon after physiological maturity as it is dry enough to be combined and then drying it to below 13% moisture will protect the quality of the grain and decrease disease risk.
  • Another way of ensuring high-quality is to cut and bundle the wheat at hard dough stage, store the bundles under shelter until the grain is fully ripe, and then thresh. This method, if you can source the equipment, can be well-suited to growing high-value heritage varieties.
  • To avoid quality problems later on, before harvesting scout for and rogue out weeds whose seeds or propagules will be difficult to clean out or that can cause off-flavors, e.g., wild garlic/onion and vetch.
Drying options vary with scale of production: above, a screw-in aerator can work well for smaller amounts stored in totes. For larger amounts of grain, a grain dryer is usually required, given the weather conditions at harvest in the Northeast.
4. Be prepared to clean, dry, and store the grain.
Food-grade quality must be maintained after harvest through sale of the grain. If moisture content is too high or weed matter is not removed promptly, risk of grain spoilage, increase in vomitoxin content, or development of off-flavors is greatly increased.
  • If there is green material from an underseeded legume crop or weed seeds/green matter present, be prepared to do an immediate rough cleaning of the combined grain. This needs to be done at once, since green weed seeds and material, especially that of common ragweed, will impart moisture and, potentially, off-flavors to the grain if allowed to remain in contact with the grain for even a few hours. A double-screen rotary cleaner is an excellent tool to remove both coarse material and weed seeds at once. If the grain cannot be immediately cleaned, a stopgap measure is to apply air to the grain and then clean asap.
Using a rotary cleaner immediately after the grain has come off the field at the Rodney Graham's Oxbow Organic Farm.
  • Further cleaning will be necessary after the grain is dry. Almost all end-users require delivery of clean grain. Air screen cleaners are best for this final cleaning. Gravity tables and indent separators also may be needed to clean out small stones or such noxious contaminants as vetch seed or corn cockle.
  • Be prepared to dry the grain to less than 13% moisture using a grain dryer or, if working with smaller quantities in totes or wagons, screw-in aerators or other aeration devices.
  • Be prepared to store the grain long-term under optimal conditions. Even in the specialty grain market, demand and prices can fluctuate. Plus many end-users, for example, miller-bakers, do not have large storage capacity and will want to receive the grain in a series of deliveries over time. For all but smaller-scale production, bins with drying floors and fans are essential to reduce risk of spoilage and maintain quality.
  • Before loading grain into bins, thoroughly clean and fog the bins with diatomaceous earth added through the air circulation system. Also sprinkle in diatomaceous earth while illing the bin.
5. Research multiple marketing options before planting.
Food-grade wheat and specialty grains vary in value depending on the market. Adding value to the grain through on-farm processing is another option to consider. Also, if weather conditions or other disasters occur to reduce the quality of the grain, be prepared to access other markets. A rule of thumb to keep in mind is that Northeast growers cannot compete with the huge acreages of commodity wheat from the Midwest, Northern Plains, or western Canada. But we can "sell smart," by marketing our wheat as locally grown, value-added grain.
  • Currently, locally grown, high-quality hard red organic wheat can sell from $2/lb on the high end to $12/bushel on the low end depending on the market. Retail markets (direct sales, online sales, sales through CSAs, co-ops, health-food and specialty markets) bring the highest prices. Growers selling moderate quantities directly to bakers and chefs have been getting a range of prices from $15 to over $20/bushel, cleaned and delivered. Sales of bulk quantities to a mill will fetch lower prices. Some growers are able to sell to a range of these markets, pricing the wheat accordingly, which may be the most lucrative and sustainable option.
  • For those growing soft wheat or who have hard wheat that is not baking quality, there are beginning to be more markets available. Distilleries or breweries may be able to take wheat that does not make the 1 ppm vomitoxin standard. There is one company in the region specifically looking for either conventionally or organically grown soft wheat or lower protein wheat to make alcohol.
  • On-farm processing of the grain can substantially add to its value. On-farm milling or making bread, pasta, or some other product may work for some farms. Keep in mind that such enterprises will be subject to each state's department of agriculture requirements. Another option is to develop an off-farm processing enterprise in combination with other farmers or entrepreneurs.
  Direct sales to consumers can increase profitability: Whole grain can be bagged and sold in "consumer-friendly" amounts, e.g., 2, 5, and 10 lb quantities. Milling into flour further increases its value.
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