AmericanFarm.com

Group brainstorms how to create co-op with organic grains

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

LONG VALLEY (Feb. 15, 2015) — A small group of farmers, local food activists, bakers and organic-minded conservationists gathered on Jan. 21 at the Middle Valley Community Center to discuss ideas to bring their local organic grain production operations into a cooperative hub.
Growing organic grains is cheap enough, but grain harvesting equipment, like hops harvesting equipment, remains fairly expensive.
The meeting was organized by Mike Hozer, Len Bussanich and Larry Mahmarian of River Valley Community Grains.
“It’s been a loosely forming collaborative thing,” Hozer said, “but I guess conversations started around May 2013. That’s when the initial talk of doing some sort of local grain hub began.”
Guest speakers throughout the day-long session included Dr. Elizabeth Dyck of the Organic Growers Research and Information Sharing Network. Dyck has been growing grains and other products with organic practives for nearly 50 years and has helped many farmers transition their tracts from conventional to organic.
She works with farmers, millers and bakers throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to develop value-added grain systems.
Also among the speakers was Teena Bailey of Red Cat Farm in Germansville, Pa., in the Lehigh Valley, who has been growing organic wheat for eight years on about eight acres of leased land.
A third speaker was Steve Gambino of Villa Milagro Vineyards in Finesville, who has built his own grain harvesting equipment and grows organic wheat on five acres of land.
After the speakers presented their successes and failures and learning experiences, those in attendance broke into small groups to share ideas.
“River Valley Community Grains is a loosely formed collaborative venture right now. We don’t have an office or any kind of facility, so we’ve been trying to put pieces together between the miller, the farmer and the baker.”
Hozer, of Washington Township, has spent his entire career working in the financial information industry in lower Manhattan and is looking to transition to organic wheat farming over time.
Breakout sessions following the talks by guest speakers covered growing, processing and baking of various types of grains, as well as quality control, harvesting, storage and potential customers for the grains or goods baked from them.
“We’d been having these conversations among a small group of people, so the goal today was to broaden the conversation and explore possibilities with farmers who might be interested in transitioning their fields from conventional to organic,” Hozer said, adding several non-farmers were in attendance on Jan. 21.
“There’s a lot of interest not only in farming but in regenerative agriculture to help restore the soils and the waters and lay the foundation for our children coming after us,” Hozer argued.
Hozer credited Dr. Joe Heckman and Al Johnson from the organic farmers group, Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey, as being helpful to get the group off the ground.  Also in attendance was Kurt Alstede of nearby Alstede Farms, which is a major farming operation in Chester.
“In the next couple of days we’ll put down some hard numbers on paper giving us a few different options” as to how to proceed, Hozer said. He estimated about 50 people came out to the meeting or parts of the day-long seminars on Jan. 21.
Organizers also developed a website for farmers interested in learning more about the cooperative and growing grain organically at www.ogrin.org/projects/river-valley-community-grains.
“We had a lot of people who came here from out of state and people east of here. There were quite a few from out of the area, so the level of interest was much broader than we expected,” he said.