Breaking Bread

White lentils, Painted Mountain Indian corn, heritage spring wheat, whole wheat sourdough bread, and shocks of two varieties of heritage spring wheat grown on the Farm.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the heritage and ancient grains we're growing on Prairie Heritage Farm and how we might market them. It's one thing to simply love growing something, but if this farm business is to be a reality, the other side of the equation is figuring out how to sell what you love to grow.

Since we had a killing frost this past week, our farmers' market table had some room on it. I have been considering baking whole wheat sourdough bread from the grain we're growing on the Farm for quite a while, and so I thought I'd test the waters this past weekend.

I baked 4 loaves of bread, though with store-bought organic Montana wheat since our grain hasn't been harvested or cleaned yet. I offered customers samples and asked them if they liked it, and if they'd ever buy loaves of it in 2010. Most said yes, they liked it, and yes they'd buy loaves. Good enough for me. About 15 minutes before the farmers' market was over, a family came up for a sample and asked if they could buy the display loaf (the prettiest one). Sold. (And so begins my other career as a baker? Anybody want to spot me for a stone grain mill, a floor mixer, a proofing cabinet, and a masonry oven?)

Another idea we have is to sell whole grains at the farmers' market. People could buy lentils or spring wheat, or whatever else we might have, by the pound. A nice addition would be freshly ground flour from our wheat, but then we run into food processing regulations which would require specific infrastructure that we may not be able to afford. We may have to look into it.

Finally, we'd like to create a grain and seed CSA, where after an up front payment in the spring, customers receive 100-200 pounds of grains and seeds in the fall. We would focus on crops and varieties that aren't readily available, such as heirloom dry beans, heritage spring wheats, ancient grains, white lentils, and Indian corn. I tried growing small plots of amaranth, quinoa, and teff, but I have a ways to go before I figure out how to grow them commercially. This idea of a grain CSA is not a new one. I know of programs in California, Canada, and New England, and I'm sure there are others.

The different varieties of ancient and heirloom grains and seeds are numerous, and if we are able to just scratch at the surface of our agricultural heritage, then we maintain the possibility of diverse tastes, all highly nutritious, and we keep our breeds and seeds vital.

Milk Thistle

Blooming milk thistle.

Milk Thistle is one of the "alternative" crops we're growing on Prairie Heritage Farm. "Alternative" in this case means the alternative to wheat, barley, and corn, making it pretty easy to grow something that is alternative.

Milk thistle seed is used to improve liver function. I've eaten whole and find it nutty with a slightly bitter aftertaste. I've heard of some people putting it into tea and some grinding it and sprinkling it on any number of things.

Thousands of ladybugs crawl over the heads helping me with the aphids.

The plant looks an awful lot like a couple of noxious weeds around here: bull thistle and Canada thistle. Noxious it's not, though. It's a beautiful plant that has broad spiky leaves splashed with white (hence the "milk" in the name) with large purple blossoms. It has spikes from the top to the bottom, though, and harvesting entails dressing up in armor since the plant will poke through denim or any other similarly wimpy material - like kevlar.

As the blossoms dry out and the seeds (attached to little parachutes) start to emerge, I walk through the patch and cut those heads. So far I've been cutting every other day, but soon, I think, I'll be cutting every day. I've heard of people using their big combines to cut milk thistle, but in doing so, you have to determine the optimal moment when the most are mature and cut them all down at once. By hand cutting (which I can get away with on 1/10 of an acre of the stuff), I only cut those heads that are ready and let the others mature.

The seed with its parachute still attached.
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