Practical Magic at the Southeast Grain Gathering

The magic of the first Southeast Grain Gathering was practical in nature. For a day and a half UK’s South Farm was over run with grain enthusiasts huddling under tents and in farm sheds to watch, taste, and learn about a modest revolution happening for small grains in the Southeastern US. Small (grain) miracles abounded: 100% whole wheat croissants at breakfast, bags of freshly milled Kentucky-grown rye flour, flat beer transformed into delicious vinegar, and – most amazing- the fact that we kept Ouita Michael out of the lunch kitchen for almost ten whole minutes before she found and apron and dove in.

Big picture, small grains

The opportunity to convene all the best minds, hearts and hands on an issue to talk about the big-picture is all too rare. Those who excel at their vocation are prone to dive head long into perfecting their craft, and sometimes need the enticement of a good meal or a too-good-to-pass-up conversation in order to come up for air. This gathering was just such an opportunity, and boy did the grain magicians show up in force.

For the Biscuit Lab session, Mindy Merrell and R.B. Quinn prepared endless variations of buttermilk biscuits so we could observe for ourselves the impact of different variables of flour, leavening, and method. Their delight in experimenting with the flavor and texture of a wholewheat biscuit made from an heirloom, Kentucky grown wheat was matched only by the glee of the workshop participants. These were all people who delighted in their craft, and in the opportunity to learn more about their most essential ingredients: grain.

The radical notion of flavor

While watching and expert baker like Ryan Morgan create gorgeous bread out of freshly milled grain (and then eating the results) is a beautiful experience, for me the best part of the Grain Gathering was the least glamorous from a culinary perspective: the barley value chain panel. Farmers, maltsters, distillers and grain scientists sat elbow to elbow and shared their thoughts on how to connect the dots to bring Kentucky grown barley into our food system. We got well into the weeds in the best of ways.

At the heart of our Kentucky small grain research project is our quest to discover what dimensions of quality and flavor can be elicited from the land, from the hand of the farmer, from the know-how of the maltster, and the craft of the distiller, brewer, or baker. These shouldn’t be radical considerations, but in this moment in history and in our industrially oriented agro-food system… they are.

Full bellies, misty eyes, bright futures

During dinner I sat in between Hoppy Henton, a seasoned grain farmer from Woodford County, and RT Case, a farmer’s son whose just opened the doors on his own malt house in Cynthiana . We were only moderately misbehaved during the bourbon tasting, that is until Ben Abel, a Certified Organic farmer and former UK CSA manager, joined us and then all bets were off. Each of us collected an impressive array of small plates from multiple trips to the chef stations. The tender barley-filled cabbage rolls (aka Golumpki in my house) were my favorite. We were sated on every level.The the heat of the day broke as the sun set, and the warmth of the bourbon tasting settled into our bones. Looking across the tables filled with animated conversations, I recognized that the grain gathering embodied ‘local food’ in the way I’ve always cared most about: a community joining together to co-create a food system that places care for farmer livelihoods, vibrant food culture, and the health of the land at its center. By re-centering farmers and place (e.g. Kentucky) in the equation, regionally embedded grain systems carve out a unique, and potentially transformative space outside of the global commodity system.At the tail end of the evening I was introduced to a Certified Organic grain farmer from Illinois. He spoke of how he and his son are slowly gathering a network of like-minded farmers in his area, and how they recently built their own on-farm flour mill to supply local school districts. There is far more to his story than I can share here, but trust me that it is profound. Our conversation ended with misty eyes on both sides and a promise to make a trip north soon. He walked into the dusk dark to find his truck and I turned back to the tent to help clean up. It was a fitting end to a wonderful conference which itself felt like the start of something vital and important. A new chance to get to work.