Small Grains on Very Small Farms

Progress 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
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

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.

Research

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.

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

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.

The year 2 crop is looking much healthier and more vigorous thanks to higher seeding densities, better field fertility, and foliar fertilizer applications to address nutrient deficiencies. 

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Other educational activities: Short videos (not yet edited).

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

During harvest 2022, we filmed several short videos about how we harvest by hand, which will be edited and made available online in the near future. We are partnering with Common Grain Alliance to host a field day demonstrating this project on May 8 2023 and expect 20-40 farmers, local food buyers, and ag professionals to attend.

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.