Articles in Environment
We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.
“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.
Cultivating an agrihood
It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.
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“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,” Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”
Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.
A cornucopia of crops
“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”
The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.
Enjoying the fruits of their labor
The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.
Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.
Rural life, redefined
When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.
“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”
Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann
I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.
Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?
Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.
Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?
Chicken production in a nutshell
Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.
The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.
Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.
Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.
Consumers demand healthier chicken
Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.
Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.
A sustainable buying guide
After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).
In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.
“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.
Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.
“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.
Buying better poultry
One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.
At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.
So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved.
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There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.
Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.
Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock
The garden is bursting just now with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies, all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. And the gardener’s mind is teeming with thoughts of what needs to be done in the vegetable garden to get ready for the explosive growth of spring. So this is the perfect moment to think what we can do to help the great helpers of the garden: birds and bees, toads and bats.
In our rambling old house with its maze of attics, we have a strong colony of bees that live with us. Every spring, a huge swarm emerges and forms on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom, before flying off to begin a new colony. It is much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. It is quite a mess but we love the free honey, which doesn’t get any more organic and local than that.
Be kind to bees
Global crops pollinated by bees are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. But all over the world, bee colonies are under stress and many are suffering from the devastating phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees disappear and leave behind only the queen, some food and a few nurse bees.
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CCD has doubled the normal rate of colony loss in recent years and is causing drastic agricultural impacts. Imagine a world without bees or merely where they are rare — it’s unthinkable, really. Experts are not sure what is causing CCD, but heavily implicated are a class of powerful insecticides called neonicotinoids.
What can we do to help? Well, a great place to start would be with the American Beekeeping Federation. For people willing to explore beekeeping, you can learn there how to go about it. Short of becoming a beekeeper, there are many things you can do to help. If you have space in your garden, you can let a local beekeeper install and care for a beehive; you get all the benefits of the busy bees in the garden, and the beekeeper gets a place for his hive. It’s also very simple to build or buy habitats for orchard mason bees that require no attention from the gardener, and you can get them from sources like Gardener’s Supply Company.
Going to bat for creatures of the night
Bats are also a great help to the gardener, both as pollinators and as voracious insectivores, though many people are squeamish about them. They also live in some of our attic spaces and we benignly look the other way, for all the good they do in the garden; what a joy it is to see them swooping through the evening garden, ridding us of all manner of nuisance bugs. Each bat eats a third of its body weight in insects every night, and several hundred insects in just a few hours. If bats were ever to become extinct, our planet would be overrun with insect pests and we would live in a nightmare world.
It is easy and interesting to have bats live in your garden, and you do not have to have them in your attic as we do. All you need to do is hang a handsome cedar bat shelter in a quiet part of the garden and let these helpful creatures do the rest. A good source is BestNest.com, and there are many others.
Make your garden toad-friendly
"The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty"
By David Jensen
Morgan James Publishing, 2016, 282 pages
Have you seen any toads in your garden lately? Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. Just one ordinary toad can devour thousands and thousands of garden pests in a single summer. If you are plagued by slugs and cutworms, as so many gardeners are, this is the helpmate for you.
They should be part of every healthy garden, and if you do not have friendly toads around the place, you can also provide a habitat that will attract them. Any sort of covered shelter will do, and you can certainly improvise your own but there are also good commercial providers, like Gardener’s Supply Company, and the National Wildlife Federation is a good source for general information about these great helpers and how to make your garden toad-friendly.
And we all like birds, right? They will strip your garden of insect pests faster than anything. What all these helpers have in common is that they will come to you if your garden is free or nearly free of insecticides and other chemicals. This spring, consider ending or at least curbing your reliance on chemicals in the garden. Let your garden heal, and enjoy the delightful, diverse company of these healthy garden helpers.
Main photo: This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen
The northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya is rich in native food traditions. Sandwiched between Bangladesh and Bhutan, and with Myanmar to its east, Meghalaya is a lush, hilly area of forests and lakes, with high rainfall, spectacular waterfalls and “living” bridges woven from trees that attract local tourism. Yet many of its villages are remote, with few main roads or other means of access.
Their inaccessibility has helped preserve many traditional food customs, from rice growing to beekeeping.
Keeping the traditional ways
“Our region has been proud to host this year’s Indigenous Terra Madre,” said Phrang Roy, chairman of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). The event brought 600 members of international indigenous food-making communities together in the city of Shillong for a five-day meeting. “It offered us a chance to showcase the many foods and traditions of the indigenous Khasi communities that are still well-preserved in Meghalaya and its neighboring region, Nagaland.”
Indigenous Terra Madre
Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the third in a series.
» Part 4: How Slow Food’s philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India’s "greenest" luxury hotel group
In Mosakhia, a village of 94 households in the Jaintia Hills so small it’s not on Google maps, a large crowd gathered to greet the visitors. They re-enacted Beh Dienkhlam, a colorful food festival that is usually held in July. During the festival, two life-size oxen effigies are raised on a large wooden platform and carried in increasingly rapid circles as the population rushes behind them, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of loud drumbeats.
“Its purpose is to drive away epidemics during the rainy growing season,” explained H.H. Morhmen, a NESFAS director in that area. “With their brooms the villagers sweep the evil spirits away.”
A native variety of nutritious brown rice, rymbai, is grown in the small rice terraces around Mosakhia that the villagers harvest in November, the women cutting it and the men threshing it by hand.
An ancient method of beekeeping
Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong demonstrated his unusual hives. Made of hollowed-out sections of tree trunks (of dieng maleng or dieng shyrngang wood), the hives are positioned in the surrounding forests and in natural rock crevices. They attract local varieties of yellow or black bees.
Khongiong, a cheerful, sprightly 50-something, has been a beekeeper for 37 years but never uses any protection when working with his bee families. He pulled a large chunk of honeycomb from one of the hives barehanded, simply blowing the bees that were on it gently away. The honey was exquisite: With the delicate floral notes of a citrus honey, it maintained its depth and mineral intensity long after it was eaten. Only 12 people still continue this ancient method of beekeeping.
Fish that’s a delicacy
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“We call these khabah in our native language,” she said, pointing to chunky fish in the carp family. “My grandmother and ancestors did this smoking too, back when our rivers were clean. But 40 years ago surface coal mining began in this area, and our rivers became poisoned and the fish died. Now we buy fish from a nearby region, though the mining has recently been stopped and river life is gradually returning.”
Smoked fish from this and Thangbuli village are a delicacy in Meghalaya, and Mulat and other women take them to market at Jowai to supplement their families’ incomes.
Going to market
Back in Shillong, we visit one of India’s largest and most fascinating food markets. Built in colonial times, it covers a hill in the town with steep, narrow alleys, each filled with boxed stalls of local produce vendors. They come to a pinnacle in the large, open square at the top where brightly colored foods and fabrics compete for the visitor’s eye.
The maket — and the street-food vendors who surround it — showcase the many local and native plants and grains that contribute to the diets of the people of Meghalaya.
Climate change and political borders are just two of the challenges facing the world’s 200 million to 500 million pastoralists — women and men practicing animal husbandry, be they nomadic, transhumant or sedentarized.
Herders from five continents recently came together in Shillong, northeastern India, at the second Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) to discuss these issues and their solutions (the first event was held in Sweden in 2011).
A diverse meeting
The ITM session meeting on pastoralists and their challenges regarding pastureland was attended by a colorful mix of people, including yak herders from northeastern India and Mongolia, Bedouin camel herders from Jordan, and sheep farmers from near Siberia and Georgia. The session began with a tribal dance by a Kenyan tribe and ended with one from two Mongolian throat singers.
The Terra Madre network was launched in 2004 when Carlo Petrini, the food activist and founder of Slow Food, invited dozens of food-producing communities from around the globe to Turin, Italy, to meet and share their experiences in a groundbreaking format. Since then, the network has expanded and become a powerful lobbying voice for indigenous people in 158 countries.
“We keep animals; they’re our daily bread,” said Amina Duba of the Borana tribe in northern Kenya, which works primarily with cattle. “We have helped conserve nature for thousands of years, yet we’re often told that our lifestyle is backward. We’ve been socially and politically marginalized too often.”
Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the second in a series.
» Part One: Native cultures push for sustainable solutions
» Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and rich food-making culture.
» Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's 'greenest' luxury hotel group.
Many indigenous pastoralists are faced with the paradoxical situation of finding their traditional pasturelands off-limits because they have been declared national parks or wildlife reserves by their governments. Others are no longer able to steer their animals to winter or summer pastures because of new political borders, main roads or desertification due to global warming.
Losing their land
“The landscape that indigenous people value most is being taken away from them, either through land-grabbing or wildlife conservation,” said Hassan Roba of the Christensen Fund, a California-based, nonprofit private foundation that backs the stewards of cultural and biological diversity and supported the ITM event.
“In the past, herders and wildlife co-existed and shared access to water points and grazing resources,” Roba said. “The major problem now is that the government policymakers don’t understand how this unique balance, this fragile ecosystem, works. They impose their plans for ‘development’ from the outside, without consulting or taking note of the people who have lived on those lands for centuries, if not millennia.”
In recent years, pastoralists have gained some bargaining power. The 2007 Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists focused on their rights and their main demands: customary laws, accessing water and pastures, improving marketing strategies for their produce, and getting better health care and education. Through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Pastoralist Knowledge Hub has been set up as a platform for indigenous pastoralists to exchange information and improve lobbying and development. But there’s more to be done.
Women remain vulnerable
As is often the case, women remain particularly vulnerable in these situations. Despite women often doing the lion’s share of the manual and agricultural labor in indigenous communities, including the milking and cheese-making or cultivating crops, as well as bringing up the family, they are just as often deprived of their land and human rights. Many are trying to survive in war-torn countries.
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“The world is changing, and so are pastoralists,” said Sikku. “They want the Internet, cars and other commodities too. So the question for our communities is how to renew our culture without losing the traditions. How to see the past and take it into the future. We should listen to our traditional knowledge about how to administer the land and think 10 to 25 years ahead. We can’t go backwards.”
Main photo: Sheep are herded across a road in Meskhetia, Georgia, in the southern Caucasus mountains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo
Six hundred representatives of native communities around the world recently gathered in Shillong, northeastern India, for Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM), an event that helps forge a global network of indigenous peoples, activists and their supporters.
The event, under the auspices of Slow Food, takes place every four years. This ITM was held in cooperation with the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (supported by the Christensen Fund) and was hosted by the Indian region of Meghalaya and the North East Slow Food Agrobiodiversity Society. Their individual stories vary but are closely linked.
Focus on food sovereignty
Chi Suwichan is a member of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand. His people have lived there for centuries, yet the current Thai government does not recognize them as citizens. Maria Bautista Leon, from the Tzeltal indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico, and a descendant of the Mayans, is protesting the increase of monoculture and the threat of genetically modified corn in her country. Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people’s local wild rice as she fights for tribal land claims.
Indigenous Terra Madre
Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the first in a series.
» Part Two: At Indigenous Terra Madre, members of international pastoralist communities show and tell.
» Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and a rich food-making culture.
» Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's "greenest" luxury hotel group.
Prince Charles, who has long been a champion of these kinds of issues, sent a video message for the inauguration. “In our modern world, we are totally disconnected from indigenous knowledge,” he said. “The essential unity of things as reflected in nature has become dangerously fragmented. The modern world has shifted away from the holistic indigenous cosmology of seeing ourselves within nature to us standing apart from it. We must look after the earth and help it maintain its health and balance.” He suggests we listen to indigenous wisdom for the guidance we need to live in harmony with our planet.
Uniting voices for change
Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food 30 years ago in Italy and later created Terra Madre to bring together food-making communities from all corners of the globe, also spoke at the meeting. “Our planet is suffering from the greed of those who want to steal its resources,” he began. “We hope the Climate Change conference in Paris will make constructive decisions about this disaster. Our food has lost its value. It has been turned into a commodity to be paid as little as possible for. The truth is that 500 million small household food communities feed 70 percent of the world, yet they are treated the worst of all. The large multinationals claim ownership of their seeds and promote intensive, genetically modified farming and monocultures that are destroying the lives of these indigenous food-producing communities. There can be no sustainability if we don’t change this model.”
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“My people’s history was written in song, in folk tales and by calling the mountains and rivers names in our language,” said Suwichan, one of 500,000 Karen in northern Thailand. “We used traditional natural farming, with a seven-year rotation for our rice and other crops. But since the government has declared our area a national park we are no longer allowed to practice this kind of farming, which has forced us to use chemical fertilizers. We lived in symbiosis with the forest and relied on it for wild plants and foods as we protected it. Now our forest has been designated a wildlife reserve and we are no longer allowed to take anything out of it. But they never consulted us about this, they never consulted our ancestors or our community leaders. My parents say we are now like orphan chickens, that we each have a small voice, but together with the others at ITM it may become louder.”
‘A universal language’
“As Carlo Petrini says, we need to defend our native plants and animal breeds, our flavors and methods, for they are a universal language,” LaDuke said. “We have fought to reject the patents industrial agriculture has tried to put on our indigenous varieties. Our food is pre-colonial, pre-GMO and pre-petroleum. We are part of a movement to stop the theft of our seeds and land, and the theft of our economies. We fight against the politics of those who try to oppress us, and the closer the links between all of our tribes can get, the stronger our resistance will be.”
Main photo: Members of Meghalaya tribes dance during the Indigenous Terra Madre gathering. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo
Would you like to reduce agricultural waste, save water, support innovation, lower your grocery bill and eat farm-fresh produce all at the same time? Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay has you covered.
In “Wasted,” a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientist Dana Gunder estimated that 40% of all the food produced in the United States is lost due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. Her analysis showed that, in the case of fresh produce, these losses occur before it even hits retail stores, the greatest percentage happening in the field and post-harvest in the packing sheds — primarily as a means of meeting customers’ “expectation of cosmetic perfection.”
Three committed food-waste experts — Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark — founded Imperfect Produce to reduce this waste by developing a supply and distribution network that brings physically “flawed” yet edible, in-season fruits and vegetables culled from packing plants directly to customers’ homes via a weekly delivery service. As the slideshow explains, it’s a perfect solution.
Main photo: Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company Imperfect Produce in San Francisco‘s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,” “misshapen” or “funny-looking” — but how about “practically perfect”? Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.
Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.
The importance of malt
Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”
“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”
Craft malthouses opening
At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.
This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.
Brewing at the local level
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“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”
Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.
“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”
His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.
Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.
As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.
Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.
Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.
“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”
A steep learning curve
For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.
“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”
Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett