Incredible things can happen when you pay a visit to a place like Spence Farm.
I took the above picture during a field day at Spence Farm this past summer. After hearing from the Travis family, several local chefs who buy their grains, and other expert growers during a thorough tour of the fields where the Travises grow grains like rye, barley, flint corn, and ancient varieties of wheat, a tour of their mill room was announced. Having only seen two other grain mills in my life, I hopped at the chance. I had just been in conversation with Will Travis, the son of the family who is a major part of the farm’s management team, about his second year of experimenting with upland rice production. Now we walked over to the red barn together to see how he and his family are tackling the next step in grain production.
We were joined by Dave Bishop, who grows organic grains at PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, IL, and Bill Davison of Extension, who has become a leading proponent of small grain production in central Illinois. Will walked us through the milling process and I learned about how different speeds can affect the grit and quality of the grain, and what have been their successes and bottlenecks in milling on the farm. But then the conversation shifted to larger issues, of the lack of infrastructure for grain processing, and the need for more small grain farmers, and the unmet demand and many untapped markets that exist in our region. Will’s dad Marty soon popped in, and then so did Harold Wilken, who grows over 1,000 acres of organic grains and has his own mill at Janie’s Farm in Danforth, and the conversation got richer.
At that moment, I realized I was surrounded by some of the most forward-thinking and tenacious grain growers in the Midwest. They are the ones who are leading the way for other growers to follow, discovering new markets and old flavors, and exploring both the cutting-edge of breeding and the varieties nearly lost to the erosion of diversity in our agricultural system. And there we all were, sharing the latest news from our separate spheres, learning from each other and each contributing a piece to the ongoing revival of a vital component of the regional food economy and way of life.
I’m happy to say that we will be collaborating with Spence Farm this winter to deliver a phenomenal one-day workshop with these experts. On December 10, we will be bringing together the Travis family, Bill Davison of Extension, Head Baker Greg Wade of Publican Quality Meats in Chicago, and 2015 FarmAid Farmer Hero Andy Hazzard of Hazzard Free Farm in Pecatonica to share the details of what it takes to grow, process, and market small grains in Illinois, from the mouths of those who know them best. If you have wanted to start growing small grains, or to add them to your farm operation, this Small Grains Workshop is a huge opportunity to hear from and network with the experts. We hope you will join us on December 10. You never know what you might learn or who you might meet while milling around in the mill room.