Development of Local Small Grain Value Chains for Kentucky and the Mid-South

Progress report for LS19-319

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $232,669.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Kentucky
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Dr. David Van Sanford
University of Kentucky
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Project Information


Farmers are hesitant to enter specialty grain production without proven markets, while food entrepreneurs are stymied in their development of regional small grain products due to lack of supply from farmers. A solution would improve economic sustainability for participating farmers and processors, improve environmental benefits via the double cropping system used in the South to produce specialty small grains, and engage consumers more with their food system.

We seek to circumvent the chicken and egg paradox of specialty small-grain production by working with farmer and industry partners to create new value chains for baking, brewing, and distilling products made from Kentucky-grown wheat, malting barley, and rye. Our farm-to-loaf and farm-to-bottle objectives require agronomic, economic, and sociological approaches, and a blend of research, Cooperative Extension, and outreach activities. Research on small-grain, and in particular, malting grain, production in the Northeast and Northwest supported the emergence of craft beverage and artisan baking sectors. In the South, while Kentucky is renowned for its distilling heritage, there has been less development of malting grains to support our superlative spirits and rapidly expanding craft beverage sector. Preliminary Kentucky research demonstrated the viability of regionally adapted hard red winter wheat in artisan bread production. Demand is strong; in addition to consumer preferences, a growing number of contractually or legislatively obligated institutions (universities, hospitals, public schools, state parks) seek to purchase Kentucky farm-impact foods for their dining services.

Through previous work, we identified growers, artisan bakers, flour millers, maltsters, brewers, and distillers with whom to partner, bu we likely just scratched the surface. We will perform a value chain mapping procedure that combines key stakeholder interviews, focus groups, enterprise budgeting, and market analysis to identify critical success factors for each market segment. These factors include grain quality characteristics, economic factors of production, logistic or technical considerations across value chain levels from the farm to the retailer, and consumer preferences. In parallel, we will conduct small-plot non-GMO agronomic trials to identify cultivars and breeding lines with sufficient agronomic fitness and superior flavor/malting/baking characteristics. Seed of superior breeding lines will be increased and provided to growers for pilot-scale baking, malting, brewing, and distilling trials. Production performance and sensory evaluation are components of the pilot product evaluations. The results will be shared with our network of partners through print and online media as well as Cooperative Extension programs and publications, industry and academic presentations and publications, and annual Grain Exchanges that will connect our farmer and industry partners with the wider community of interested farm and industry stakeholders. Participants in the Grain Exchanges will share experiences and final products. Speakers from regions with more developed local small grain value chains will share lessons learned. Relative to the existing commodity-oriented value chains, we intend the end results to be self-sufficient networks of farms and businesses that create new economic activity, use environmentally superior farming practices, and give people ways to feel socially connected and rewarded via the food system.

Our SARE grant Development of Local Small Grain Value Chains for Kentucky and the Mid-South has benefited our research and outreach efforts tremendously, by giving us a structure and calendar that guide our planning and implementation in the specialty small grains arena. Prior to receiving this grant these efforts were carried out by individuals but we were not always aware of each other’s activities. Further, and possibly more important, this grant has provided a platform for putting us in touch with our stakeholders on something more than a one on one basis. Through advisory committee meetings and field days we stay in continual touch with bakers, distillers, farmers and processors who are deeply interested in these specialty small grain markets.

Project Objectives:
  • Complete a participatory value chain maps for rye, barley, and wheat in Kentucky.
  • Develop and implement production process activities that resolve challenges in growing and marketing wheat, rye, and malting barley with flavor and quality characteristics desired by artisan food and craft beverage producers.
  • Foster cross-sector understanding among value chain stakeholders with the aim of supporting strategic product development, entrepreneurial efforts, and future research and technical assistance initiatives.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Sam Halcomb - Producer (Researcher)
  • Russ Case - Producer (Researcher)
  • Hoppy Henton - Producer (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Wheat plots including strong gluten types were planted at four locations throughout the state to be evaluated for breadmaking quality in late summer and fall. Malting barley was planted at two locations for evaluation as malt used in brewing and distilling and rye plots were planted at three locations for agronomic testing and post-harvest quality evaluation. All of these plots relate to our project objective 2: Develop and implement production process activities that resolve challenges in growing and marketing wheat, rye, and malting barley with flavor and quality characteristics desired by artisan food and craft beverage producers.

Small grain harvest has just been completed across the state. We will gather on a nearby farm with our advisory committee on September 24 to continue discussions on the specialty small grain value chain and gather feedback from our stakeholders on ways to strengthen and sustain this value chain.


Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 On-farm demonstrations
4 Other educational activities: Held the Southeastern Grain Gathering, September 15 and 16, Lexington, KY, attended by 170 people representing growers, processors and end users of grain: bakers, distillers and brewers; Walnut grove farm field day focused on rye project; winter wheat meeting at Princeton KY; Rye luncheon. Details below.

Participation Summary:

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

Events held to address these objectives

Work on each of these objectives was ongoing before the grant was approved for funding.  Given the groundwork that had been accomplished in the way of building relationships over the three years prior to the grant, we have made the most progress on our third objective.  Several events were held during the first year of the grant that facilitated network-building efforts. 

In May we gathered at Walnut Grove Farms, one of our partner farms, to host a field day on our wheat, barley and rye efforts.  There was excellent participation, from growers interested in specialty small grains, to processors and end users, in addition to the SARE team.  At that event we were able to recruit several individuals to participate in the Southeastern Grain Gathering (SEGG, held in Lexington, September 15-16. Approximately 170 people attended the SEGG, including growers (conventional and organic), maltsters, millers, bakers, brewers and distillers.  Among the highlights of the event were the discussion sessions for each of the three value chains– rye for distilling, malting barley for brewing and distilling, and wheat for artisan baking.  Roughly 35 individuals participated in each of these conversations, which featured the viewpoints and perspectives of all parties along the value chain. These sessions were facilitated by the SARE team and included anyone with a potential interest in the value chain. We discussed production practices (Objective no. 2 above), grower and end-user needs and the thorny issue of pricing. Lastly, in January of 2020 there were two events that brought growers together to discuss production practices and prices:

1) Winter wheat growers meeting, January 7, Princeton KY.  SARE team members presented enterprise budgets for specialty small grains and shared insights from the SEGG. There were more than 100 farmers present and we included a survey question to determine grower interest in specialty small grains.  The survey response indicated some interest in growing wheat for artisan bakers, rye for whiskey and malting barley for brewing or distillation. 2) Rye farmer luncheon, January 31, Louisville, KY.  The 4 farmers who participated in the rye project—which involved growing 25 acres of rye according to recommended production practices--gathered to discuss lessons learned.  We took rye produced on one of the farms, milled it in a lab on UK campus and shipped it to Blue Dog Bakery (Louisville), one of our bakery partners, to produce a rye miche for the event.  Farmers discussed their rye production experiences and also tasted and evaluated the bourbon distillate produced from rye grown on three of the farms.  We shared small replicated-plot rye data with growers and discussed plans for the next production year. This effort has initiated an attempt to create a new crop in Kentucky: rye for distillation.

Organized by team members Brislen and Jacobsen, the Kentucky Local Food Systems Summit brought together more than 200 individuals including farmers, chefs, processors, end users, educators and researchers. Other grant team members participated in sessions on the Rye Project an effort to develop Kentucky rye into a viable crop for the distilling industry, and presented a poster on The Approachable Loaf nutritious, healthy, affordable bread for everyone. That evening (February 26, 2020) our grant team met with the Advisory Committee for a working dinner. During that session, plans for the upcoming cropping season and beyond were discussed, and difficult topics were broached, like the thorny problem of creating a value-added system where all players share the added value. The feeling among advisory committee and grant team members as we departed was that connections among the farmers and small grain industry partners had been deepened and strengthened and there was an optimism about our goal of building a sustainable specialty small grain value chain - and then Covid-19 struck.

Plans to attend a multi-bakery evaluation of locally adapted varieties in Madison, WI, organized by the Artisan Grain Collaborative, were put on hold as was our June event - a twilight field tour/evaluation of bread loaves baked from locally adapted wheat and newmade distillate. Instead the team kept in touch with our growers, processors and end users through virtual meetings and email, and very rarely, in-person socially distanced meetings outside in a wheat field for example.


Learning Outcomes

10 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Events: Hosting the Southeastern Grain Gathering (SEGG) was a big accomplishment, especially given that it was held in the first year of the grant. The event was made possible by the networking efforts made prior to the awarding of the grant. Not only did the SEGG allow us to extend our network in Kentucky, perhaps more importantly, it enabled us to cast a wider net and establish relationships with growers, processors and end users throughout the region. Two examples illustrate the manner in which the SARE team has been able to make these connections: 1) farmer partner Walnut Grove Farms produced Edison hard white spring wheat in response to a baker request, and now the wheat is being sold to artisan bakers in KY, OH and TN; 2) an artisan miller/baker brought a stone mill to the SEGG to use in a class; the SARE team knew that an OH baker might be interested in buying the mill and was able to connect the two parties; the mill is now established in the OH bakery.

    Interviews: The goal of objective 1 (mapping the value chain) was to identify critical success factors for specialty small grain markets to flourish in Kentucky. As a first step toward this goal, the SARE team conducted interviews with end-users of specialty small grains. These end-users included millers, maltsters, bakers, brewers, and distillers. Overall, we formally interviewed ten end-users (17 interview participants; Table 1) representing at least one from each of the categories mentioned above. Each interview was in-person and lasted 1-1.5 hours. We followed a semi-structured protocol that asked questions regarding the past, present, and future opportunities for specialty small grains grown in Kentucky (See Appendix 1 for interview protocol and sample questions). From these interviews, five themes arose:
    1.) DEMAND: The strongest demand is from bakers and distillers; however, emerging enterprises in both milling and malting will demand more specialty small grains soon.
    - Kentucky’s first malt house is expected to commence operations by barley harvest 2020 in Harrison County, Kentucky. Currently, the closest malt house for Kentucky producers is Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, NC.
    2.) QUALITY: Grain quality standards for specialty grains are more stringent and less flexible than those for commodity grains. Moreover, these standards must be communicated to the end-users.
    - Grain quality standards begin with USDA No. 1 Grade standards, with additional specifications for brewers and distillers.
    - Quality labs for testing malt for brewers and distillers are located out of state.
    - If quality standards are not met, an alternative market must be identified (e.g., animal feed).
    3.) STORAGE: On-farm storage will be required to allow for just-in-time delivery to processors and other purchasing entities.
    - Aggregators exist that will buy and store specialty grains (e.g., Brooks Grain in Jeffersonville, IN).
    4.) FLAVOR: Flavor profiles of the grains are important; variety selection will necessarily encompass more than yield and disease-resistance.
    - Variety selection will also include alcohol yield for distillers and brewers.
    5.) RELATIONSHIPS: All stakeholders valued both professional and interpersonal relationships with farmers and suppliers. These relationships build a story that helps brand products and link the product back to Kentucky farms and their sustainable practices.
    - Stakeholders are willing to work with farmers to ensure fair compensation and risk-mitigation when trying new or specialty grains.
    - Stakeholders are looking to build a long-term, win/win relationship with farmers.
    Details of the interview process are provided in the appendix.

  • Enterprise Budgets: Mapping current and potential value chains for specialty small grains (Objective 1) requires
    1. Assessing the market demand in Kentucky for locally sourced specialty small grains (hard red winter wheat, cereal rye, and malting barley) by end users (millers, bakers, maltsters, and brewers).
    2. Developing enterprise budgets for specialty small grains, up through delivery to end-users, to understand the costs of production and profitability potential for producers.
    Yields and production practices for hard red winter wheat, cereal rye, and malting barley are distinct from those for the traditional, soft red winter wheat grown in the state. By understanding these differences, we can adjust our current enterprise budgets for soft red winter wheat, to reflect growing specialty small grains in a double-crop system with soybeans. SARE team members discussed with UK agronomists knowledge of current yields and expected yields for specialty small grains as compared to soft red winter wheat. In general, yield estimates for specialty small grains are lower than that of soft red winter wheat. Given the current varieties tested in Kentucky, we estimate yields for hard red winter wheat, malting barley, and cereal rye to be 70 bu/ac, 65 bu/ac, and 60 bu/ac, respectively. In addition to specialty small grain yields, the yields on soybeans will change if following malting barley or cereal rye. If soybeans follow malting barley, a 7% yield increase in soybeans is estimated due to earlier planting (0.5% per day soybean yield increase). If soybeans follow cereal rye, a 7% yield decrease in soybeans is estimated due to later planting (0.5% per day soybean yield decrease).
    In terms of production practices, hard red winter wheat and cereal rye have slightly different production practices (compared to soft red winter wheat); these would impact costs. Hard red winter wheat requires an extra application of nitrogen (20 lbs/ac) late in the season. Cereal rye has half the seeding rate requirement and a lower nitrogen rate than soft red winter wheat. All of the specialty small grains are estimated to have a higher seed cost than soft red winter wheat. A seed price per 50 lb. bag of hard red winter wheat, malting barley, and cereal rye are estimated at $34/bag, $30.50/bag, and $36.50/bag, respectively. For the remaining year, pricing data will be collected, and the enterprise budgets will be finalized.

Project Outcomes

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

We have had a positive response from growers to the specialty small grain research.  This has come in the form of expressions of interest via our winter wheat meeting survey, phone calls and emails.  The SARE team provided seed and production information to growers in KY and TN after SEGG.  Variety information has been provided to growers interested in growing malting barley and several farmers have expressed strong interest in participating in the rye project.  Currently there are 7 farmers in the project, up from 4 in 2019 and the plan is to grow the number to 20 in 2021.  The SARE team has met twice with the Advisory Committee:  once during the SEGG and in late February.  In both instances we sought and received guidance as to our project direction and whether we needed to modify it.  We plan to meet a third time in June 2020 just before wheat harvest to tour experimental plots and taste bread baked from specific varieties.

Team member Lilian Brislen played a key organizing role in an effort funded by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to create an online resource for local food systems impacted by Covid-19 ( One of the outcomes of this AMS grant was a document that described Neighbor Loaves, a program organized by the Artisan Grain Collaborative ( Our grant team has worked to get a Neighbor Loaves program established in Kentucky; to date two local bakeries are baking sandwich loaves, the majority of the flour for which comes from locally grown and milled wheat. These loaves are purchased by customers and donated to local food banks. Our hope is to grow this program to other bakeries throughout the state.

Grant team member Shockley spoke at the Colorado Grain School virtual meeting in Colorado to 160 participants and presented his work on Enterprise Budgets, which relates to project Objective 1 Mapping current and potential value chains for specialty small grains. Furthermore, Shockley presented market demand and economics of specialty small grains to 90 county agents in Kentucky as well as to a group of farmers in the Central Kentucky region, home to our vast bourbon industry.

During the course of this grant, a project under the auspices of American Farmland Trust (AFT), aimed at bringing rye back to Kentucky has been initiated: The Kentucky Commercial Rye Cover Crop Initiative - Now 27 farmers strong, this project involves several of our SARE team members and overlaps with a number of our grant objectives. Several of the farmers in the rye project are also interested growing wheat for local bakeries and malting barley for local breweries and distilleries and two of the AFT principals serve on our grants advisory committee. Our team updated and expanded the Kentucky small grains stakeholder map, working with AFT leaders of the Rye project, to collect and integrate participating farmers. We have initiated discussions with AFT leadership in hopes of conducting interviews with rye farmers.

Our team has also:

Worked with Maker’s Mark distillery to evaluate wheat varieties as flavoring agents by growing a wheat variety trial planted on their distillery campus and generating grain samples for the distillery to subject to sensory evaluation and potential pilot distillation.

• Facilitated a linkage between Kentuckys Walnut Grove Farms and Sixteen Bricks bakery in Cincinnati and Bluegrass Baking in Lexington in which the farmer is providing the bakers with locally grown wheat and rye for baked goods.

Initiated conversations with Aramark, University of Kentucky’s dining service provider, about development of locally sourced bread products for integration into campus dining operations. 16 Bricks Bakery has so far developed several products for testing, and conversations continue with UK dining. With over 11 million dollars in annual food procurement, the potential for this partnership is significant.

Conducted interviews with 3 national partners engaged in on-site milling for locally grown small grains. A case study is currently in the final stages of authorship.

Developed an introductory video covering the principles of value chain coordination as it relates to a small grains systems. Revisions are in process, as well as additional detailed topical discussions.


Appendix 1: Interview Protocol


We’ve prepared a series of questions that cover different dimension of small grain purchasing, assessment, usage, and possible future use.

It’s totally fine and understandable if you don’t know some of the answers – we’re covering a lot of ground as we try to map out the value chain.

We’re also happy to be as specific or general as feels comfortable to you – meaning, we don’t want to reveal any trade secrets. I totally understand if you’d like to pass on a question or circle back at some other time.

We’re just here to get a sense of what we should take into consideration as we’re working with everyone across the small-grain value chain to develop seed stock, farm management practices, or different ways of assessing and managing small-grains that will open up as many chances for innovation or creativity as possible.

Business Basics

  • Can you give me the readers digest version of the story of this business? (history, product lines, what markets to they sell into (local, national, global)
  • What distinguishes your company’s products or brand from others?
  • How strongly is the company’s identity or brand tied to “Kentucky”?
  • How would you describe your typical or best customer?

Grain Basics

  • What small-grains does you company use (wheat, barley, rye), and how do you use them?
  • Where are you currently sourcing those grains from?
    • Direct from a farm, from a merchandiser such as a grain elevator, or from an intermediate processor, such as a miller or malthouse?
  • Are any of your grains currently coming from Kentucky?
    • If you are not already buying raw product from farmers, are there any plans to do so in the future?
  • Do you buy grain through contracts with suppliers, on the open market, or through some other pricing method?
  • Speaking in generalities, how is price you pay for grain, flour, etc. determined?
  • Who pays for transportation, and are you taking deliveries or picking it up yourself?
  • What’s your Plan B for grain sourcing?
    • What options are available if you source grain that does not meet your needs (e.g., discounts, change supplier, adapt recipes, etc.)

Volume and Storage

It’s not secret that the volume of purchasing by any given producer drives a lot of other considerations for small-grain supply chains.

  • Can you give me a rough idea of what sorts of volumes of each of the small-grain your purchasing, and does that fluctuate over the course of the year?
  • Do you or your suppliers consider yourself a small, medium, or large grain buyer?


How about storage? How do you all receive your small-grains, and what sorts of storage infrastructure (if any) do you have at your facilities? How often does that stored small-grain inventory turnover?

Quality Standards

  • How do you assess the quality of the small-grains you work with?
  • Are there industry standards, or do you have any unique or extra requirements?
    • We’re not looking for trade secrets, just to know if standards vary by manufacturer
  • Thinking about the quality assessment measurements, what aspects of your product or your production process do they affect? Meaning, why are they important?
  • For your products and business, what are the tolerances for variation in grain delivery schedules, quantity, and storage?
  • How much do those dimensions of ‘quality’ impact the flavor of your product, or other distinguishing characteristics?

Specialty grains/products

As you know, our research is looking specifically at Kentucky-grown small grains. One question we’re particularly interested is what – if any- unique value can Kentucky-grown grains bring to the table (pun intended).

  • Can you walk me through a time you company experimented with a special product or unique offering?
    • How did the decision to explore that product come about?
    • Who was involved, and how did the decision making happen?
    • Did you encounter any unique barriers or challenges?
    • Did you ultimately move ahead to production, or did it end in the development stage?
    • What did you learn?
  • Do you currently order and premium or specialty small-grains to meet specific needs/goals? Have you ever considered doing so?
  • What kids of specialty standards or needs do you have? What do they bring to your product?
  • Thinking both of general characteristics and specialty grains, what quality benchmarks would Kentucky grains need to meet to be suitable for your products (moisture content, protein content, baking properties, others)?
  • Is small-batch production typical or feasible? What is the lower limit of grain purchases you can make in your operation?

Kentucky Value-add

  • How strong do you think your customers’ demand is for products using Kentucky grains?
    • Are there other value-added product attributes that your customers demand more?
  • Would some local grain products be more attractive to customers than others?
  • What information do you need to make a business decision about whether to source grain (or flour or malt) from Kentucky?

Looking to the future

  • What aspects of the business are really dialed in, and where do you see areas of growth or experimentation?
  • Do you see a place of Kentucky-grown grains in any piece of that growth or innovation?


  • What other barriers to sourcing Kentucky grains are we not thinking of?
  • Given your expertise in your business compared to our lack of familiarity, what issues have we not yet talked about that we should be paying attention to?
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.