For amber waves of grain

Kingston Bread Lab semolina sesame loaf.

Overheard in the Stadium Diner in Kingston about noon last Sunday, April 14: Man, standing near small table, says to seated woman, “You have beautiful eyes.” Woman promptly responds, “So do you.”

It’s springtime. Picking up a handful of fresh scallions to chew on in mid-April, one wonders what that same experience must have been like for the first farmers of the region, the Native Americans, and for the pioneering European settlers who had spent a long Hudson Valley winter consuming a limited cellar-full of stored root crops, grains, fruit and dried or salted foods. No strawberries flown in from California for them. No crate of oranges from friends wintering in Florida.

We have survived another winter, and our Hudson Valley world is coming back to life. It feels wonderful. The spring sunshine warms our faces. Reflect on what that moment must have been like for those who had barely survived their first uncertain and surprisingly inhospitable winter in our clime.

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Our part of upstate New York became one of the important breadbaskets of colonial America in the 18th century, renowned for the export of its grains. The settlers built small community mills at waterfalls and next to streams. Catskills historian Alf Evers used to show a map of the Sawkill Creek where the mapmaker had carefully evaluated the quality of potential Woodstock mill locations with Dutch phrases.

As manufacturing continued to evolve throughout the nineteenth century, breadmaking moved into the cities. More additives were used, and the older stone milling processes were abandoned. Flour production moved westward toward larger and larger farms on the prairies of Kansas and North Dakota. Americans learned to love Wonder Bread.

Manufacturers learned to add ingredients that compensated to some degree for the more complex textures in the old stone-milling process. Among some, the exploration of heritage grains in various climates became a subject of interest. That work is continuing on the Hurley Flats these days.

Practically every Saturday I buy a loaf of bread and a fresh bagel with cream cheese and a slice of onion at Rough Draft on the corner of Crown and John streets in the Stockade district of Kingston. Operating out of that location, Kingston Bread Lab is a project of and passion for Aaron Quint, who describes himself as “a gluten obsessive.” He bakes each loaf by hand, using only fresh flour, water, salt, and the starter culture he’s been nurturing over several years. His goal, Quint has said, is to be able to experiment, refine, and push the boundaries of deliciousness. Godspeed, intrepid explorer of the outer limits of fine breadmaking. The customers lined up between the baking area and the books don’t leave empty-handed. Empty-stomached, either.

Rough Draft is an honorable successor to the various users of the historic structure on the northwest corner of Crown and John streets. From 1774 (with an interruption of a couple of years when the British burned Kingston in 1777) until its move to Kingston’s Academy Green in 1830, the Kingston Academy building served as the community’s grammar school. A lot of Latin was learned, or at least taught, there.

 

Sarah Brannen is a Poughkeepsie native, researcher and activist who wrote a thorough paper entitled “Reviving Grain in the Hudson Valley” for the Local Economies Project of the New World Foundation. Since grain production in the Hudson Valley hasn’t been central to local agricultural practice for over a century, the knowledge of how to grow small grains in this geographical context, including pest control and farming practices, was limited. There was also a lack of appropriate equipment and proper storage facilities, Brannen found.

Extensive field trials have been taking place at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub on the Hurley Flats, the rich alluvial farmland where the topsoils carried every springtime down the Esopus Creek and its tributaries have gathered for centuries. Work at the farm hub has involved several cycles of growing seasons devoted to testing, learning, discussion and experimentation.

Wonderful natural assets are just the beginning of the story. Location in relation to market is key. Tens of millions of potential grain consumers, including the New York City greenmarkets and the relatively large number of farm breweries, malt houses and distilleries in the state, are not far away.

Toward the end of 2018, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub added to its 1,255-acre holdings by acquiring the 260 acres of the former Henry Paul farm that it had leased since 2013. Since 2006, the newly acquired property had an agricultural conservation easement that prohibited non-farm commercial or residential development. The farm hub’s 30-acre vegetable field is on that part of the property this year in the farm’s crop rotation plan.

A 2019 farm hub map shows 400 acres of field crops, the 30 acres of vegetables, a considerable selection of cover crops planted for protecting and improving the soil, various field and meadow trials, and the Native American Seed Sanctuary, which among other things grows varieties of corn, beans, squash and sunflowers.

“The most encouraging news from the project is that the Hudson Valley can produce high-quality food-grade grains,” a 2018 preliminary research summary concluded. And what study would be complete without recommendations for further research, as this one contains? The idea behind this project is to share the information with regional farmers, not just for the farm hub’s own knowledge and use. The study’s findings have been extremely valuable to regional farmers, the main audience for the study, who have struggled in recent years to remain viable and diversify their crops.

Farming requires farmland. And the amount of local farmland has, alas, been shrinking.

According to the 2017 federal Census of Agriculture, released just last week, New York State continued to lose farmland. It has lost more than 3,000 farms since the last census five years ago. The 2017 census counted 32,438 farms with 6.9 million acres of farmland in the state, a loss of 2100 farms with 317,000 acres of farmland in the past five years. Statewide, the size of the average farm increased slightly from 202 acres to 205.

There was a decrease of 65 farms in Ulster County between 2012 and 2017. There are now 421 farms left. The long history of dairy farming — still easily the largest category of agricultural products sold in the state — appears virtually over locally. Other kinds of farming continue in Ulster County. But land in farms in Ulster County dropped from 71,222 acres in 2012 to 58,932 acres in 2017. Acreage of the average local farm decreased from 147 to 140 acres. There were 25 farms with 500 or more acres in Ulster County in 2012, according to the data, and only 15 of that size remained in 2017. The number of farms with at least $100,000 in sales remained about the same.

With the amount of Ulster County farmland gradually shrinking, there’s been an impressive continuing effort to find an economically successful use for it. Hope is not lost. Local specialized foods provide different flavors and higher nutrients with less negative environmental impact than commodity crops.

In 2004, New York City’s Greenmarket began investigating methods to bring local grains to the forefront. Five years later, it required all bakers selling at its markets to use a minimum of 15% local flour, defined as product grown and milled in the New York region. Greenmarket bakers use more than three tons of local flour each month. Greenmarket’s regional grains project also reintroduced multiple heritage wheats that had disappeared from the Northeast. In 2017 alone, the project moved 23 tons of local wheat and beans to New Yorkers.

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