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By Robin A. Fazio of  Sonrisa Farm in Colquitt, Ga.

I am a sixth generation family farmer.  I grow wheat, rye, peanuts, and pecans on a ninety-acre farm in southwest Georgia.  My long-term goal as a farmer is to make my farm part of a more healthy food system, where the food I grow helps to sustain my local community and the people in it.  For the past three years, my family and I have been working to attain this goal by milling some of our wheat into whole-wheat flour and selling it retail.

Initially, I never thought about growing wheat.  When I started farming on my own nine years ago, I wanted to take better care of the land and farm sustainably.  However, I purchased a part of the family farm that had been rented for over thirty years, and the soils had been degraded from continuous cropping of peanuts, corn, and cotton, intensive tillage, and heavy applications of chemicals.  I decided to grow peanuts on one third of the land and leave the rest in fallow.  I reaped many successes – namely a decrease of around 80% in chemical usage and a dramatic reduction in wind and water erosion.  After three years, however, I noticed an increase in persistent weeds, and I was only making enough income to pay for the mortgage on the land.  A friend suggested that I grow winter wheat, which I have been growing ever since.

After growing a couple of crops of wheat, I was pleased with the results, except that I had no control over the price I received, and I didn’t know where my crop was going after it left the farm.  I wanted a better price, and I wanted to know who was eating the fruits of my labor.  Three years ago, I decided to try selling it locally – to bakeries and at farmers’ markets.

Wheat Production

Wheat is a fairly easy crop to grow, provided one has a good rotation, cares for the soil, and times farming operations properly.  A basic tenet to growing sustainably is knowing as much as one can about the needs of the crop during its different life stages, and trying to time farming practices in accordance with the plant’s natural life cycle.  Wheat for grain needs to be planted within a two-week window in the late fall – from a week before the first fall frost to a week after.  Our first frost date in southwest Georgia is around November 19, so we usually plant the week preceding Thanksgiving.  Plant too early, and the wheat may grow so much before winter that there is a risk for some freeze kill.  However, wheat planted too late may not have the opportunity to put on enough growth before winter dormancy.

A legume crop, in our case peanuts, precedes the wheat crop.  The ground is loose after peanut harvest (mid-October), so one pass with a disk is typically adequate to prepared the soil.  We plant with a grain drill.  We have tried planting by broadcasting and lightly incorporating the seed, but we’ve had better results with the drill.

An important facet of growing wheat for flour is not using pesticides, since nearly all of our customers want chemical-free food.  We do not utilize any fungicides, herbicides, or pesticides in any aspect of our wheat production.  In early February, however, we do spread a one-time, minimal application of conventional Nitrogen fertilizer.  We tried to eliminate the fertilizer application a couple of years ago, relying on the residue from the preceding leguminous peanut crop to provide adequate Nitrogen.  It worked in spots, but growth over the field was patchy.  Also, we lost some parts of the field to weeds, and our yield was reduced significantly.  We are very open with our customers about our growing practices, and most customers don’t seem bothered by the minimal use of fertilizer.  Regardless, I’m not happy with this facet of our production.  Although we’re a few years from making it happen, I’m convinced that we can produce all of the adequate Nitrogen for our wheat through modifying our rotation, cover cropping, and organic soil amendments.  I could use poultry litter, but I have chosen to avoid it.  The litter comes from conventional poultry houses, where the birds are fed antibiotics and other substances that I do not want to spread on my farm.

After February, there’s nothing much to do except hope for enough rain.  Even in notoriously dry southwest Georgia, we normally get enough winter and spring rains to finish the crop without needing to irrigate.

We harvest in late May or early June.  Although we own and use an old combine, I’d recommend hiring out the harvesting unless you really enjoy repairing equipment.

We use a three year rotation with all of our crops.  Peanuts are followed by wheat, as I mentioned earlier.  The year after wheat, we plant a crop of rye.  We go back to peanuts in the third year, after the rye crop.

Post-Harvest and Milling

The more interesting process, and by far more complicated and labor intensive, begins at harvest.  We harvest our grain into wagons, and haul the wagons to our local grain cleaner about 40 miles away.  The wheat is cleaned and bagged in one-bushel (about 60 pound) bags and palletized forty bags to a pallet.  After cleaning, we take some of the wheat to be milled right away, and we store the rest in the cleaning facility.  We can only store our grain there for a couple of months, because the likelihood of weevil damage increases significantly with time.

Although it is quite expensive, we freeze all of our grain for a minimum of one month, which is the only effective chemical-free control for weevils that works for us.  We freeze our grain at a local hotel and food service business, since they have drive in freezers and can handle palletized loads.  By the beginning of August, all of the grain that we have not milled into flour is in the freezer.  We purchased a used 20-foot shipping container for our long-term grain storage.  Shipping containers work well for storing grain, because they are waterproof, animal proof, and nearly indestructible.  After a month in the freezer, we move the grain to storage, and we remove what we need from there throughout the rest of the year.  Incidentally, we have found that freezing the grain, provided that it was harvested at correct moisture (below 14%), has no effect on either baking properties or germination percentage.

Every few weeks, we take grain to the mill to be ground into whole-wheat flour.  Due to the consolidation in the milling industry, there are very few flour mills left, and most of them are owned by mega-corporations that will not custom mill flour.  We lucked into striking a deal with a historic water powered mill.  The owners agreed to trade our grain for their milling services, as they were in need of wheat grain for their own milling business.  For every two bushels of wheat we bring them, they keep one bushel for themselves, and grind and bag the other bushel of wheat into flour for us.  From a business standpoint, milling is the weakest part of our enterprise.  We are completely dependent upon the mill’s capacity to mill enough of our flour to meet our customer demand.  If we wish to grow our business, we will likely need to purchase our own mill and house it in a state health-inspected facility.

Marketing

To sell flour to people who are going to bake with it, you need to know about the properties of wheat.  Due to relatively warm, wet winters, nearly all of the wheat grown in the southeast is soft red winter, a type of wheat with a lower gluten content than the hard wheat types grown in the mid and northwestern states.  Gluten is sticky protein found in wheat; in baking bread, gluten traps air bubbles in rising yeast breads.  Therefore, the higher the gluten content of the wheat, the better the bread rises.  Many bakeries prefer hard wheat varieties, and if we were able to grow them, we could easily quadruple our sales.

We only sell whole-wheat flour, as opposed to white flour.  White flour has had the bran (the outer coating) and the germ (the plant embryo) removed in the milling process.  The bran contains all the fiber, and the germ has nearly all of the protein, vitamins, and minerals.  Whole-wheat flour, on the other hand, is just that – it is the milled whole grain, with nothing removed, and is therefore nutritionally superior.

To sell flour to people who are going to bake with it, you need to know about the properties of wheat.  Due to relatively warm, wet winters, nearly all of the wheat grown in the southeast is soft red winter, a type of wheat with a lower gluten content than the hard wheat types grown in the mid and northwestern states.  Gluten is sticky protein found in wheat; in baking bread, gluten traps air bubbles in rising yeast breads.  Therefore, the higher the gluten content of the wheat, the better the bread rises.  Many bakeries prefer hard wheat varieties, and if we were able to grow them, we could easily quadruple our sales.   We only sell whole-wheat flour, as opposed to white flour.  White flour has had the bran (the outer coating) and the germ (the plant embryo) removed in the milling process.  The bran contains all the fiber, and the germ has nearly all of the protein, vitamins, and minerals.  Whole-wheat flour, on the other hand, is just that – it is the milled whole grain, with nothing removed, and is therefore nutritionally superior.

We only mill enough flour for two to three weeks of sales, thereby insuring a fresh product at peak nutrition for our customers.  Also, it is safer for us to store grain rather than flour, as whole-wheat flour will eventually spoil at room temperature.
The mill puts our flour in 25 pound food-grade bags.  We sell to our wholesale customers in the same bags; for farmers’ markets, we bag the flour in one and four pound bags, as very few market customers want to purchase 25 pounds of flour at a time.

Currently, we sell to one pizzeria, two bakeries, and at one farmers’ market.  In addition to the whole-wheat flour, we also sell the whole grain (wheat berries), wheat bran, and occasionally we make our own pancake mix to sell at the market.  This year, we tried to diversify by selling rye grain and rye flour in addition to our wheat products, with moderate success.

With regards to profitability, selling retail has been more profitable than selling grain to a commodity broker.  However, it is a heck of a lot more work, and when we factor in the added transportation, freezing, milling, advertisement, and countless other expenses, it is not an endeavor that will make a grain farmer rich.

Nevertheless, I emphatically believe that the extra effort is worth it.  I have enjoyed the challenge, and I feel like a pioneer in my area.  To my knowledge, there are no other wheat farmers within a several hundred mile radius that are doing what we do.  This approach involves my family and my brother’s family, rather than my working the farming enterprise on my own.  Learning about my wheat has made me more equipped to farm sustainably.  I am more conscious of the nutritional quality of the food I’m growing and how my growing practices affect that quality.  Most importantly for my family and myself, there is more value in providing food from our farm directly to consumers than can be measured in money.  We have made many new friends at the markets, and our interaction with customers and fellow farmers is the highlight of our week.  We have a loyal customer base, who frequently compliment us on how much they enjoy baking with our flour.  We go out in the community and see restaurants proudly using our products.  We feel as if we are part of our local food system.  Just this past week, my wife and I visited a restaurant that featured our flour in a couple of desserts.  The server, the manager, and the chef all came to our table to tell us how much they enjoyed using our flour.  We walked out of the restaurant that night filled with pride, and I felt that I was doing something right with my farm.

This article is part of a Georgia producer written series for Georgia Organics’ as part of a grant from NIFA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.