A Modular Curriculum for Growing Food Grain for the Local Market

Final report for EDS20-20

Project Type: Education Only
Funds awarded in 2020: $50,004.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2023
Grant Recipient: Common Grain Alliance
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Heather Coiner
Common Grain Alliance
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Project Information


Grains and legumes are largely absent from the Mid-Atlantic’s otherwise strong local food system, notwithstanding the fact that historically, states like Virginia had a strong food grain economy. The Common Grain Alliance (CGA) is a nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding a localized food grain economy. Founded by thirteen members in 2018, CGA has recruited over 130 members. Some members come from long family lines of grain growers and millers, others are new to the scene.  Motivated by the absence of grain on the local food table, CGA members are dedicated to working with growers to help them realize the market opportunities in food grain and thereby strengthen the local grain value chain.

Most food grain currently grown in the region is sold on the commodity market despite the potential of a six-fold price premium or more on the small but growing local market. Existing food grain growers lack the connections, marketing strategies, and often the sustainable growing practices needed to access higher prices, while beginning growers face cost barriers, lack of know-how, and market uncertainty. The purpose of this project is to develop and implement a modular educational curriculum to train and recruit food grain growers for the local market in the Mid-Atlantic. The project will directly address the educational barriers to growing grain for the local market through partnerships with experts at Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), and the Natural Resources & Conservation Service (NRCS), who will help develop, distribute, and conduct the curriculum and its associated resources. 

This project has met the following objectives: 

  1. Provide grain farmers and people considering farming grain in the Mid-Atlantic with the flexible educational resources they need to start farming food grain for the local market. 
  1. Establish the Common Grain Alliance as the key advocate for food grain producers in the Mid-Atlantic. 

Our methods for the first objective were conceived as a set of eight 60-90 minute classes that would travel to where farmers gather throughout the region and that could be customized to the intended audience. Pandemic shut-downs coincided with the beginning of our project period, canceling conferences and preventing in-person events. Consequently, we switched from an in-person format to webinar- and video-based education in the first year. As in-person events were slowly reinstated, we added some conference presentations and field days as well as a Growing Grain blog to our website.  In the final year of the project, we developed a handbook that is available on our website, and a rack card to promote the project resources at regional extension offices. In addition, we used funds from this project to develop indigenous crop info sheets (see Information Products) for the CGA Grain Stand pilot in Washington D.C., which was funded by the Farmer’s Market and Local Food Promotion Program in partnership with FRESHFARM.  

As a result of these efforts to achieve the first objective, the number of grain farmers, acres in food grain, enterprise diversity, and the quality of food grain available in the Mid-Atlantic have all increased since project inception. This work has also raised the visibility of grain in the public eye, exemplified by the first grain-focused issue of Edible Blue Ridge, a food magazine, published in September 2023 (https://www.commongrainalliance.org/news). This issue of Edible Blue Ridge was accompanied by a series of video interviews showcasing the regional food grain value chain on social media and YouTube (https://www.herdventures.org/edible-blue-ridge-case-study). 

Moreover, this project has helped create a farmer network that will continue to facilitate peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing. The rack card and social media posts will continue to promote the resources available on our website at extension offices and online. The resources produced by this project are being shared with the Agricultural Leadership Development Initiative (in partnership with Future Harvest) (https://futureharvest.org/programs/agricultural-leadership-initiative/), which targets BIPOC and veteran farmers. And as this report is being prepared, CGA is working with the Rodale Institute’s Consultancy (https://rodaleinstitute.org/consulting/) to make the SARE materials available to them for use in their education work, which has nationwide reach. So while the project took on a different shape than originally conceived, we have achieved our objective of producing farmer educational materials that can be adapted to a range of audiences.

To achieve the second objective, we have established a website (with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation) that hosts our education resources and we have promoted the resources through our social media channels and newsletters. In addition to the full grain issue of Edible Blue Ridge, Common Grain Alliance and its members were featured in eleven press mentions, including Bon Appetit and NPR.  CGA has established new partnerships with FRESHFARM, Virginia Association for Biological Farmers, Future Harvest CASA, CRAFT Chatham, the Philadelphia Grain and Malt Symposium, Friends of Peirce Mill, and Carolina Ground. These partnerships with like-minded organizations throughout the Mid-Atlantic will continue to help CGA fulfill its mission. 

Finally, in October 2023, with the help of additional funding from the Farmer’s Market and Local Food Promotion Program, CRAFT Chatham, and the Philadelphia Grain and Malt Symposium, we teamed up with UDC-CAUSES and Friends of Peirce Mill to host the very first Mid-Atlantic Grain Fair and Conference.  The conference drew 142 attendees from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, the majority of whom (81) were not members of the organization. The previous day’s fair drew an estimated 2000 attendees, and was a huge success in exposing the general public to Mid-Atlantic grain producers. Specifically, funds from this project paid for all conference presentations to be recorded and edited for wider distribution on our website in early 2024. This includes sessions focused on “Growing Grains for Soil Health”, “Marketing Your Grains”, “Small Scale Growing and Processing”, and more (see the full conference program here: https://www.commongrainalliance.org/mid-atlantic-grain-conference-program). Overall, the event firmly established the Common Grain Alliance as the key advocate for food grain producers in the Mid-Atlantic.

Project Objectives:
  1. Provide grain farmers and people considering farming grain in the Mid-Atlantic with the flexible educational resources they need to start farming food grain for the local market. This educational program will increase the number of food grain farmers, the number of acres in food grain, the enterprise diversity of existing farms, and the quality of food grain in this region. It will also create a network of grain farmers that will facilitate peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing on key issues like soil regeneration, variety selection, sustainable management of disease and pests, and marketing.


  1. Continue to establish Common Grain Alliance as the key advocate for food grain producers in the Mid-Atlantic. This objective will help establish CGA as a key partner to other organizations involved in rural economic advancement, soil regeneration, and regional value-chain development. It will also help CGA connect with professionals and academics in the cooperative extension and research university network. These connections will be critical to ensuring that this project builds on existing research and policy and complements existing programming. The institutional relationships will also lay the groundwork for future collaborative research and educational programming, both of which are core elements of CGA’s mission and strategic plan (CGA 2019a).


Educational approach:

Our original program was designed to involve a series of in-person educational events focused on topics critical to four grain farming target audiences. To adapt this plan to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team created a new series of educational opportunities that allowed for virtual learning. This strategy included: 

  1. Online Webinars We conducted the following webinars in partnership with the Virginia Association for Biological Farmers and Future Harvest CASA to reach new audiences. 
    • Best Practices in Post-Harvest Storage and Processing (9/29/2020)
    • Grains to Glass: Exploring the Farmer, Maltster, and Brewer Partnership (11/15/2020)
    • Protecting Your Crops Series 1: Understanding OMRI certified Insecticide Options (3/18/2021)
    • Protecting Your Crops Series 2: Breaking the Disease Triangle: An integrated Approach to Disease Management (3/29/2021)
    • Protecting Your Crops Series 3: Flame Weeding for Market Farms and Gardens (5/16/2021)

The “Grains to Glass” webinar can be found on the Future Harvest YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6oVWTvMC5k) while all other webinar Recordings can be found on the CGA youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjx7vmpbplB1gF_DZIPyFug and on the CGA website at https://www.commongrainalliance.org/past-webinars.

  1.   Video Channel We produced videos with CGA members to document best practices and operational set-up. The video channel has 77 subscribers and collects the videos into the following buckets:
  • Stories from the Field (6 videos, 241 views to-date)
  • Member Conversations (3 videos, 192 views to-date)
  • Investing in Soil Health Practices (with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, 4 videos, 2187 views to-date)
  • Grain Farmer Educational Webinars (5 videos listed above, 445 views to-date)
  1.   Growing Grain Blog, Newsletter, and Website With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation the CGA redesigned its website in early 2021. Since then, the website has accumulated over 26,000 views. Starting in January 2022, we produced 22 blog posts covering topics relating to educating farmers about growing grain. This blog addressed both project objectives by allowing our team to increase the accessibility and awareness of our educational resources before the project was finalized. To date, the blog has accumulated 1160 page views, and the associated social media posts have generated 630 likes, 70 shares, and 39 comments on social media. The blog can be read at https://www.commongrainalliance.org/growing-grain. The CGA monthly email newsletter has 952 subscribers.
  2.   Conferences, Presentations, and a Tasting Event The project lead attended five farm conferences and presented project resources at two of them. The presentations are available in the media files. In two of the three presentations we were able to assess effectiveness; 15 out of 22 respondents said they were more likely to try growing grain after attending the session.
  • November 2021: VSU (socially disadvantaged farmers) Small Farm Outreach conference–attended
  • January 2022: Future Harvest (small diversified farmers) Farm Conference–Intro to Growing Grain presentation
  • January 2022: Virginia Biological Farmers  (small diversified farmers) Farm Conference–Intro to Growing Grain presentation and half-day Workshop
  • February 2022: Virginia Grain Producers Association (large commodity grain growers) Farm Conference–attended and tabled
  • October 2023: Mid-Atlantic Grain Fair & Conference–This event reached thirty-six farmers who attended the conference, of which 25 were not CGA members. The conference was also attended by 12 agricultural professionals; distributed rack card advertising project resources; hosted sessions focused on “Growing Grains for Soil Health”, “Marketing Your Grains”, “Small Scale Growing and Processing”, and more that were recorded and will be posted online. 
  • In addition, one virtual tasting event called ‘Your Guide to Grains” was conducted on 3/27/2021, in which participants were mailed flour samples as well as baked goods made with different grains. The facilitators led participants through basic flour testing and sensory assessment of the baked goods.
  1.   Growing Grain Handbook The goal of the Handbook is to collect information specific to small- and mid-size farmers who wish to grow food grain for the local direct market. It is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to growing grain. The focus is on food end-uses, sustainable production and soil health, and on sharing capital resources and knowledge in the grain-growing community. The handbook outline is as follows:
  • Section 1: Overview of the Regional Grain Economy
    1. The Economics of Small Farms
    2. The Direct Market
    3. End-use overviews
    4. Worksheet: Can grain add value to your operation?
    5. Worksheet: Think through your market options
  • Section 2: Factors Influencing Flour Quality
    1. Fusarium Head Blight
    2. Falling Number
    3. Protein Quality and Quantity
  • Section 3: Soil Health
    1. Soil Health
    2. Crop Rotations
    3. Weeds
    4. Worksheet: Making a soil health plan
  • Section 4: The Basics of Growing Grain
    1. Soil preparation
    2. Planting grain
    3. Maintaining a grain crop
    4. Harvesting grain
    5. Drying and storing grain
    6. Cleaning grain
  • Section 5: The Crops
    1. Wheat
    2. Barley

Each document in the handbook is written to be a stand-alone resource that can be viewed digitally, or downloaded from the CGA website. The first two sections can be viewed at https://www.commongrainalliance.org/growing-grain-handbook, and have been uploaded to the Information Products. The last three sections are still in final review and will be uploaded by the end of 2023. Draft versions of Sections 3-5 that are not intended for distribution can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/vterkmy9. Final versions will be available for download on the CGA website by the end of 2023. Each section was reviewed by at least one farmer or one expert partner prior to publishing.

  1.   Field days The following field days were conducted in collaboration with Future Harvest CASA. Field days expand network of attendees beyond our current members and facilitate farmer-to-farmer education
  • July 26, 2021: Soil Health and Storage at Cutfresh Organics
  • August 9, 2021: Small Grain Processing For Direct Local Markets
  • May 14, 2022: No-till Grain & Markets for Medium Scale Operations 
  • Sept 11, 2022: No-till Organic Grain Experiments

Educational & Outreach Activities

48 Consultations
55 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 On-farm demonstrations
22 Published press articles, newsletters
7 Webinars / talks / presentations
5 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Online Virtual Tasting Event designed to connecting farmers and end-users to understand grain evaluation processes.

Participation Summary:

286 Farmers participated
118 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:
      1. Consultations indicate informal discussions and meetings with grain farmers and those interested in learning more about grain farming.
      2. On-farm demonstrations occurred at four in-person member meetings
      3. Curricula, factsheets, or educational tools include the Growing Grain Handbook and worksheets
      4. Online training includes all videos prepared to-date. These videos (including videos of past webinars) have been viewed 3065 times. 
      5. Published press articles and newsletters includes our Growing Grain blog posts to date
      6. Webinars, talks and presentations We have conducted 5 webinars to-date and 2 conference presentations
      7. Workshop / Field days includes 4 field days and one half-day conference workshop.
      8. Virtual Tasting Event This was designed to connect farmers and end-users to understand grain evaluation processes.
      9. Grain Fair & Conference Raised the profile of Common Grain Alliance and regional grain producers among partner organization and the general public 

      To evaluate participation relative to our goals, we tracked attendance, and, to the extent that it was possible, effectiveness and audience makeup. Our best estimates are shown in Tables 1 and 2, below.  We fell short in our goals of reaching farmers, though this could reflect the difficulty of finding out who exactly was attending our events. We also did not meet our new membership goals. In contrast, we exceeded our expectations of attendance at our events, and virtual engagement. This partly reflects the post-Covid world, which is much more digitally engaged, but also may point to an untapped opportunity to reach people who are interested in what the CGA is doing but are not grain professionals. While we see the need to improve how we reach farmers, overall we are pleased with our reach as a result of this project. 

      Table 1: Comparing goals from our proposal to what we achieved over the 2.5 years of funding.




      # farmers reached



      Field day attendees



      Attendees to workshops, presentations, webinars, conference, and other events



      New IG follows



      Video views



      Average effectiveness rating on evaluation forms



      New press reports (about the organization)



      Invitation to present at a conference



      Invitation to co-brand or co-present



      New relationship outside the region



      New CGA members



      Table 2: Breakdown of farmers reached by target audience

      Audience type

      # reached

      Beginning Farmers


      Experienced Feed & Seed Farmers


      Experienced Row Crop Farmers


      Other Experienced Farmers




Learning Outcomes

105 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Feeling empowered to start small

  • Motivated to work grain into their operation to improve their soil health

  • Realizing they are part of a community that values sharing knowledge and equipment; they aren't alone and can ask for help

Project Outcomes

15 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The educational programming proposed here has 1) provided Mid-Atlantic farmers the educational support and farmer network they need to create economic opportunity throughout the grain value chain and 2) helped establish CGA as a key advocate for food grain growers in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The project has helped to improve the quantity, quality, and availability of Mid-Atlantic food grain. Farmers that attend CGA events have the opportunity to interact directly with buyers. The emphasis of this project on connections between agronomic practices and food grain quality has resulted in farmers learning how their practices percolate through the value chain. Moreover, being in a room with people who care deeply about what they are doing, and why, is deeply motivating for our member farmers. This, in turn, benefits rural communities by increasing job satisfaction and retention and raising farmers’ social standing. Giving grain its proper place at the local food table puts a “face” on the previously anonymous grain farmer.

When more farmers grow grain as part of another enterprise, the environmental sustainability of the region is improved. As winter cover, grains hold nutrients in the soil and prevent erosion, thereby improving both soil quality, and water quality.  Livestock farmers can reduce their nutrient loads by growing grain on pasture. The sustainable practices compiled in this project will help young farmers get started, help experienced farmers add grain to existing operations, and help commodity growers understand what it takes to get a better price. Consumers benefit, too, through better access to sustainably grown grain products that are flavorful, nutritious, and deserve a place alongside grass-fed beef and heirloom tomatoes. This benefit helped CGA and partners secure a Farmer’s Market Promotion Program grant that, among other things, is bringing grain from CGA farmers to weekly Washington D.C. farmers markets.


This project has helped to improve the economic sustainability of Mid-Atlantic farmers by expanding small- to mid-size grain growing. A key message that has emerged as we conducted this project is that small- and mid-size growers must take advantage of economies of scope. Rather than each individual farm acquiring all the equipment, farms can offer custom services to their neighbors, or lend equipment. Rather than specializing in one or two annual grain crops, farmers do better for the soil, hedge against disaster, and diversify their incomes, by growing grain in addition to meat, hay, or vegetables. Diversification and cooperation, along with the high prices offered by the CGA value chain, can make the economics work. By keeping a greater proportion of food dollars in the region, the ability of rural communities to ride out economic instability and retain wealth is enhanced.


CGA believes that trust is built and minds are changed at the community level, and that the future of agriculture lies in farming practices that regenerate soils and steward biodiversity. The project has emphasized environmentally sustainable growing practices, such as how to develop long and diverse crop rotations, strategies for managing the most important diseases, limiting soil disturbance, and importing compost and manure in lieu of livestock. Grain crops are responsible for soil degradation when they are grown in isolation as summer annuals. But grains are also one of the few tools farmers have for keeping living roots in the soil over winter.  Thus growing more grain may, somewhat paradoxically, help rebuild soils. 

This is because grains are integral to sustainable soil management in most agricultural systems. Grains promote soil regeneration by capturing and retaining nutrients, adding organic matter, and preventing surface erosion. CGA has partnered with other Mid-Atlantic organizations promoting grain growing. CGA is a sub-recipient of a recently awarded National Fish and Wildlife Foundation project, Building Soil Health Through Collaboration, Implementation, and Market Opportunities (VA), which focuses on soil regeneration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed through soil-health education, raising consumer awareness about the value of these practices, and promoting associated production. Future Harvest CASA invited CGA to partner in the Agricultural Leadership Development Initiative to help educate its veteran and BIPOC participants on growing indigenous and European grain crops.  The Rodale Institute has asked CGA to share the materials developed in this project to help its consultants advise farmers across the nation. These new and existing relationships will enable CGA to fulfill its mission for years to come. 



This project will help to keep land in working agriculture, contributing to the social sustainability of agricultural systems. As higher quality grain enters the artisanal value chain, end-users will be able to access grain products that are fresher, more flavorful, and more nutritious than commodity-grain products, driving long-term demand for similar goods. This will help elevate grain from a cheap commodity crop to a high-value artisan crop, raising the social stature of grain farmers. The venerable status of the farmer was plainly evident at the recent Mid-Atlantic Grain Fair & Conference. Thirty six farmers attended the Washington D.C. event, and it was not hard to see the pride. 

To conclude, the economic benefits of more and better grain will extend into the value chain, including millers, bakers, distributors, and marketers. Higher farm profits and improvements to the natural resource base will have knock-on effects on the health and well-being of all value chain participants, from growers to consumers.  There is much more work to do–three of the five sections of the handbook must be finalized and promoted for starters–but enough resources are out there thanks to this project that CGA is well on its way to meaningfully contributing to the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of the Mid-Atlantic agricultural region.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.