Small Grains on Very Small Farms

Final report for FS22-340

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $13,987.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Great Day Gardens
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Michael Grantz
Great Day Gardens
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Project Information


The proposed solution is to develop a feasible model for harvesting and marketing rye and wheat grown in rotation with mixed vegetables on a very small scale (up to 5 acres). We will do this by piloting wheat and rye enterprises on our farm in central Virginia.

While many produce farms already have access to the soil preparation, planting equipment, and fertilizers needed to grow a cereal crop, the harvesting and processing steps require more specialized equipment. Small farms may need to combine capital and share equipment, or purchase harvesting, cleaning, and processing services from a more specialized third-party.

Rye and Wheat have been chosen for several reasons:

  • Small produce farms commonly plant them as cover crops and have access to seed.
  • They sequester carbon, improve soil organic matter, improve soil structure, and feed soil microbiota.
  • Wheat and rye flour are familiar products and more easily marketed to a general customer base than other grains.
  • They produce straw as a by-product, which can be used in making compost or mulch on a small, diversified farm.

Creating a high-value, direct-to-consumer market of small, diversified farms selling “Estate-grown” flours and other value-added products has the potential to broadly impact small farm profitability for the better.

Our farm, like many similar farms across the country, already has an existing customer base of local families and individuals. These customers are already willing to pay a premium for the nutrition, safety, and freshness of local produce, and we plan to market grain and flour to them so that they can round out their local diet.

To measure the economic impact of these cereal crops in practice, we plan to gauge what price the local market can bear, while meticulously recording labor and expenses incurred in the growing, harvest, processing, and marketing. This data will be used to create a comprehensive Enterprise Budget available to the public.

Whether these can be grown and sold profitably at such a small scale is still in question, but we plan to use this research project to at least determine the bare minimum price at which a farmer under 5 acres can sell their grain and make a profit. Should that price be within reach for the farmers’ consumer base, we will have created an opportunity for small farms to diversify their operations, feed their communities with a wider array of produce, and make ecological use of vacant land on their farms.

Project Objectives:

Great Day Gardens has already planted and established 35,000 square feet each of winter wheat and rye in October 2021. In fall 2022 and 2023, we will plant an acre of each crop. We proposed a smaller acreage in our 2020 SARE submission and received feedback that our proposed plantings were too small. We think 1 acre plantings are large enough to give significant results and small enough to manage on our farm.

We will use the same soil preparation techniques we would have otherwise used in seeding cover crop or planting vegetable crops. Typically, this involves rototilling to from the seedbed (also incorporating soil amendments), broadcasting wheat or rye seed, and incorporating with a disc harrow. While drilling seed in rows may improve yields, seed drills are not as common on produce farms and so will not be used. We will also frost-seed red clover in early spring for additional soil benefits.

While the enterprise model of this project proposes growing grains on up to 5 acres, inputs expenses and yields can easily be extrapolated over a larger acreage. Therefore, larger plantings are not necessary for the purposes of data collection.

Harvesting is perhaps the trickiest step for small producers, and cover crop plots on small farms are often not scaled appropriately for a full-size combine. Therefore, we plan to cut the grain by hand and thresh with a plot threshing machine. This is labor intensive, but benefits the farm system by:

  • Concentrating the straw for use as mulch, bedding, or compost.
  • Reducing compaction on valuable fertile ground.
  • Improving grain quality and flavor by drying it on the stalk.
  • Allowing us to get the grain out of the rain earlier, preventing pre-sprouting and grain damage (a common problem in the southeast).
  • Reducing post-harvest drying and cleaning needs.
  • Providing employment to harvesters.

With moderate yields we expect an annual harvest of 1,100 pounds of rye per acre and 1,000 pounds of wheat per acre (based on our own 2021 yields). These crops will be threshed and cleaned on site using rented equipment and taken to Deep Roots Milling for custom milling.

An enterprise budget is a thorough estimate of the costs and returns for a given product or enterprise, in this case rye or wheat. We will meticulously record all inputs and labor in a journal on the farm to account for all costs involved in growing and processing. Revenue will be determined by yields and what price the market will bear for the flour. Budgets will be created based on those from Iowa State University and other institutions, which are widely available online. Overhead and marketing costs will not be included in the budgets because of farm-to-farm variability. Enterprise budgets will be displayed in a small variety of scales and equipment setups to give a more complete picture of the possibilities. The goal is to give a complete picture of small grain profitability to inform farm decision making.


Materials and methods:

In our first year we have generally followed the plan outlined in our original grant submission. In June we harvested wheat and rye by hand, which took more effort and labor than expected. We then threshed the grains using a stationary thresher, winnowed by hand, and dried the grain in our high tunnel.

In year 2, the acreage doubled and the plant  density was much greater, meaning an even more laborious harvesting process. We brought in as much seasonable help as we thought reasonable, and even had a weekend long harvest party encouraging friends to help. Even with this team, we only had the labor to harvest under half of the crop, and most was mowed down in the late summer. 

For both years, we took the wheat to another grain grower who allowed us to use his equipment for final cleaning. We then took the crop to a local mill for custom milling, and used the flour in our bread products and sold 2 lb. retail bags.

Stone-milled flour is not shelf-stable at room temperature, so the flour was stored in chest freezers for much of the time to preserve freshness and allow us to sell and use the product over the course of the season. 


Research results and discussion:

We harvested 280 lbs. of wheat from 33,000 square feet (about 7 bushels/acre) and 56 lbs. of rye from 15,000 square feet (about 2.8 bushels per acre). These are significantly lower than typical yields, even on organic farms. The crops struggled with limited fertility, and we have learned to significantly increase our seed planting density.

Wheat quality was acceptable, but Rye was over the limit for DON levels, so we were not able to market this crop.

Year 2 harvests were much higher thanks to fairer weather, higher seeding densities, better fertility, and overall better experience growing the crops. We harvested 339 lbs. of wheat from .44 acres and 200 lbs of rye from .28 acres. This makes for a potential yield of 13.2 bushels per acre for both crops, which is considered acceptable for heritage varieties, given our conversations with experienced growers in the area.

Enterprise Budgets

We created enterprise budgets to track the profitability of the enterprise. We included processing costs including milling fees, but not other marketing costs. We also included hypothetical revenue from selling the straw of the wheat and rye. Heritage varieties produce lots of straw, and we were able to substitute purchased straw with our own sustainably-grown straw after threshing. The budget does not take into account the other benefits the soil received from taking it out of vegetable production to grow cereals (and then clover). The full enterprise budget can be found as additional document in this report.

According to our enterprise budgets, the "break even" price per pound of flour for these 2 crops are as follows:

  • Wheat on 1 Acre: $6.69
  • Wheat on 5 Acres: $5.59
  • Rye on 1 Acre: $5.95
  • Rye on 5 Acres: $4.92

Unfortunately, the break-even prices we found for both crops are well above a marketable price for wholesale customers, and most retail customers. However, heritage grain seeds are often sold above these prices, and retail customers may be willing to pay more for a product with a great story and good marketing.

While the 5-acre costs are lower, we believe it would be entirely impractical to grow at this scale and harvest by hand. We estimate you would need 1,125 hours of labor for cutting, bundling, moving and threshing alone, and this comes all in a 1-month window!


As part of the project, we attempted to market the flour both in retail 2 lb. bags, and by baking into bread for our customers. The bags were unsuccessful, and we sold only a few dozen total bags of flour over the course of the project. Bread, however, proved to be a more reliable way of marketing the grain at a higher price point. We made large Ciabatta loaves on a regular basis which were made almost entirely with our Turkey Red flour. The loaves sold for $13.75, which factored in a flour cost of $6 per pound. Customers were willing to pay that price while knowing that we also grew the wheat. These sold well, but not in as high a volume as our other, more affordable loaves. 

Our suggestion is that pursuing grain production using this system is suitable only for:

  • Under 1 acre of grain.
  • Farms with an available seasonal labor pool.
  • Farms with access to a seed market, especially for small-sized units of rare varieties.
  • Farms willing to put extra effort into adding value (baked goods, pancake mixes, quality branding etc). 
  • Farms with access to a committed retail base willing to pay much more.
  • Farms with access to a threshing device, custom combining services, or the skillset to maintain an older, affordable combine.

Even if these conditions are met, the labor requirements of this enterprise prevent it from being scalable much over 1 acre. In the end, we found that this was not a viable enterprise for our farm without significant investments in equipment. However, we believe it could be viable under the right circumstances on a limited scale.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Other educational activities: Video published on youtube.

Participation Summary:

25 Farmers participated
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

During harvest 2022, we filmed several short videos about how we harvest by hand, which were then published online on Youtube.

We partnered with Common Grain Alliance to host a field day demonstrating this project on May 8 2023 and had about 30 farmers, local food buyers, bakers, and ag professionals in attendance. During this event we walked through the fields discussing our growing practices and talked especially about the challenges of growing on this scale and hand harvesting. 

We created an enterprise budget formatted to share with other farmers.

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Grain agronomics

  • Enterprise budgets

  • Seed and grain cleaning

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Our results point towards a small opportunity for sustainable vegetable farms. Adding up to an acre of small grains to their rotation can clearly benefit the farm ecosystem, and for the right producers, add another stream of profitable revenue. However, this is still only for those with access to the specialized threshing equipment and a market that will pay a much higher price for grain or grain seed, so the potential for this practice to spread is still very limited.


We need research into cooperative models for grain growing including shared harvest and cleaning infrastructure. 

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.