Farmer Ground Flour - Growing a Local Grain Ecosystem
BY EMILY REISS
Farmer Ground Flour (FGF) is an organic, regional, flour mill in Trumansburg, New York. Its power is more than just economic support for the local economy. The mill provides resilience within a local food system and a model for how mutual support and collaboration can drive change. FGF’s story started in 2009 with a vision for vibrant local flour and farms shared by millers Greg Russo and Neal Johnson, and farmer Thor Oechsner. This vision has stayed the same as the mill has matured into its current form with customers across the Northeast.
FGF occupies the middle of a very short supply chain. Farmers deliver directly to the mill, flour is made and then delivered directly to retail stores or to bakeries. This supply chain is short in both the number of stops as well as miles. For farmers, the relatively nearby delivery point saves time and fuel, with both equating to lower costs. For the end consumer, the short distance reduces the impact of food miles and increases the personal connection to a locally produced product.
“Local” also means more than just proximity. FGF fits the local scale of the growers it sources from. New York State organic grain farms tend to be smaller than their Western US and Canadian counterparts (who supply the bulk of organic food-grade grain). By providing a local market that can easily handle smaller amounts of grain, local mills like FGF match the needs of the local growers. Larger mills or other brokers would be less interested in these amounts, and certainly prefer to deal with fewer growers and larger lots. Farmers who sell to FGF plant between 10-200 acres of wheat in a given year. While much has changed from the early 1800s, remembering this region’s past dominance of the grain market provides an informed perspective.
Rochester, New York - “flower city” - was the leading flour-producing city in the world in 1835 with nearly two dozen separate mills powered by the Genesee River. That grain came from the prolific regional supply as well as from farther away via the Erie Canal. Successful organic grain production could once again have a place in this region, especially with the key infrastructure like local mills.
Smaller growers also face unique challenges, particularly since any change to predicted revenue can have a substantial impact. In light of this, FGF’s prices paid to farmers reflect the financial pressures of the growers, and the threshold needed to maintain the health of the mill. These prices are not tied directly to the larger grain market and thus can be kept constant for several years at a time. This allows farmers to plan ahead and be confident that they will receive a high and fair price for their grain when harvest comes, regardless of market volatility. The mill price is on average 15-20% higher than commodity organic, and even in these recent months of price spikes, the mill price has been consistently at or above the high end of the market.
This pricing philosophy also underlines the value of each grower to the mill. While FGF is not a coop, its strength still comes from the group of growers who make up the foundation of supply year after year. This ensures that the mill has a consistent supply and that the farmers will have this market in the future. Because of this consistency, the mill can embark on data analysis over the years for changes in quality, to help tease out what regional driving factors could be isolated to improve quality. This is the knowledge that is derived from the commitment over time and the number of growers participating, which can develop into greater wisdom to be shared with future growers for the mill, as well as organic growers elsewhere. This knowledge sharing is a hallmark of organic growers in general, and ultimately anything that strengthens the regional and non-corporate food system benefits everyone involved, resulting in more possible markets for more farmers. The mill strives to make connections where farmers can collaborate and improve, where each farmer is part of this larger group and effort, stronger together than separately.
The mill can also be more than simply a mill by harnessing its power to affect change. It can do this by actively searching for solutions to some of the farmers’ challenges, like developing products to allow for a larger diversity of crops to expand rotations on farms. With strength in numbers, the mill can also drive larger conversations around climate change adaptation and mitigation. There are increasing numbers of new certifications to address environmental and economic justice crises. With the right approach, the mill can offer an in-demand product to consumers, and support farmers in gaining recognition for their land stewardship. Again, with the collaboration of multiple growers, there is both a critical mass for change, as well as peer support throughout the process. This fosters connections, and strategies, and demonstrates a model of success, one that ultimately can influence others within the food system to enhance community resilience.
Emily Reiss is an independent agricultural consultant in Western NY, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org