ORONO — University of Maine researchers are assisting in a multi-institutional effort to create new strategies for producing and marketing small grains like bread wheat, naked barley, hulless oats, rye and others.
Farmers often underutilize small grains because they have less economic value than other crops. To increase their value and provide more revenue streams for Northeastern and Midwestern organic growers, university researchers launched a project to develop new small grain varieties, identify best management practices, evaluate new market opportunities and strengthen supply chains. The endeavour, led by Cornell University, should help bolster small grain production and organic farms’ sustainability and diversity.
UMaine researchers Ellen Mallory and Jonathan Malacarne joined the Cornell-led endeavor as co-principal investigators alongside other experts from the University of Vermont, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, South Dakota State University and Oregon State University.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded a $2 million grant for the project, which includes $332,967 for UMaine researchers, through its Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) program. The grant is the third Mallory has received from USDA’s OREI program. The first project funded by an USDA OREI grant took place from 2009–14 and the second ran from 2015–20. Both involved collaboration with Eric Gallandt, a UMaine professor of weed ecology and management, and Heather Darby, a University of Vermont Extension agronomic and soils specialist who also is participating in the Cornell-led project.
Mallory, a professor of sustainable agriculture and University of Maine Cooperative Extension specialist, says she and Thomas Molloy, a sustainable agriculture research associate with UMaine Extension, will assess the ability for farmers to produce high-caliber wheat, rye, spelt, emmer, einkorn and naked varieties of barley and oats through organic production in Maine’s climate.
Their study will begin with smaller plot trials at Rogers Farm in Old Town, then transition to trials “for promising varieties” at farmers’ fields. After conducting growing trials, researchers will task regional bakers with evaluating “the most promising varieties” for their “baking characteristics and taste,” Mallory says.
Mallory and Molloy also aim to pinpoint the specific reasons why winter grains sometimes die off in the winter, which, Mallory says, serves as a major deterrent for many farmers in Northern New England. They will explore whether crop management plays a role, and devise new tactics for improving the survivability of these grains.
“Winter grains, which are planted in the fall and harvested the next summer, have many benefits for organic farmers,” Mallory says. “They compete aggressively with weeds, protect the soil over the winter, alleviate spring workloads, and yield more than spring types.”
In addition to studying grain production, Mallory will coordinate nutritional analyses of flour produced by small-scale, Northeastern and Midwestern mills so they can promote their health benefits.
Malacarne, a UMaine assistant professor of agricultural economics, will spearhead research quantifying the demand for small grains among health care, academic and other institutions. While institutions represent a “stable, high-volume market, and many want to source more local food”, Malacarne says, “they also have different preferences than other consumers, requiring a consistent supply of high quality product at a competitive price.”
According to Cornell, the research team will collaborate with various food industry partners, including Bread Alone Bakery and Wide Awake Bakery in New York, the nonprofit GrowNYC and the Artisan Grain Collaborative in Wisconsin.
Mallory says several Maine grain farmers will work with her and Molloy to conduct trials at their farms. Matt Williams, owner of Aurora Mills and Farm in Linneus, and Amber Lambke, owner of Maine Grains in Skowhegan, participated in the grant planning session, and Lambke serves on the project advisory board.
The Cornell-led effort kicked off in September, although Malloy and Mallory began planning winter grain variety trials and survival surveys in August, and will conclude in August 2023.
Learn more about the project from Cornell’s release.