Bulking Up on Organics

Feeding all the pigs, chickens, geese and turkeys of Stone Barns is a big undertaking.  As omnivorous animals, they need a balanced, mixed ration of grains, in addition to forage, to grow well. And our desire to feed them organic grains from well-managed farms adds considerable complexity to the enterprise.

Buying in bulk is critical to a farm operation of Stone Barns’ scale, and our three huge storage bins in the barnyard are intended to store bulk feed.  A few years ago, however, the storage bins fell into disrepair—and repairing an 8-ton bin standing 40 feet tall isn’t a simple task or quick fix, notes Livestock Farm Manager Craig Haney.

Six of the eight years that the farm at Stone Barns Center has been operating, we have used organic grain to feed our livestock. But the infrastructure problem forced Craig to turn to conventional grain, because “bagged organic feed was crazy expensive,” he says. Compounding the problem was finding a steady, reliable source of organic grain, period.

This winter, Craig started buying bulk organic feed from Lakeview Organic Grain, in Penn Yan, N.Y., which delivers the soy, sunflower, flax and corn to the farm by the truckload to store in our newly repaired barnyard bins. Lakeview is one of only two organic feed mills in New York State supplying organic grains to farmers in the region.

“This is one step toward moving the farm closer to self-reliance, one of Stone Barns Center’s goals,” says Craig. “Knowing who the growers are and understanding where the grain comes from is imperative for accountability and sustainability.”

Despite growing demand from farm operations like Stone Barns, times are volatile in the organic grain business. In its winter newsletter, Lakeview Organic Grain reported that organic grain prices are rising everywhere due to a year of multiple natural disasters and farmland loss.  It reports:

The big organic brokers in the Midwest are estimating that, as a country, we will run out of North American-grown organic corn in April and soybeans by early May. After that, organic grain will have to be imported, primarily from India, Brazil and China. The loss of thousands of organic grain acres, mostly in the Midwest, is definitely being felt. With over 60% of US corn being used by the mega-organic poultry operations in the west, keeping the Northeast supplied with grain until 2012 harvest will be a scramble. Enough bad news? Oh no, there is more! Small grains in the Northeast were pretty much a disaster this year, so we’ll be bringing in 1000T barley from Saskatchewan.

This is just a little peek into the trials and tribulations of finding a steady source of bulk organic grains for the animals of Stone Barns.  Craig notes that perhaps the long-term remedy to the problems of supply is the development of more local and regional “foodsheds” around the United States. If organic grains could be grown in different regions of the country, it would build a measure of resiliency into the system—so if one region is particularly hard hit by extreme weather events, then another region would be able to export to areas in need.

“It’s kind of how agriculture already exists but many potentially productive areas aren’t available either because of land costs or lack of infrastructure,” says Craig. “Not all areas of the country are suited for growing grain, but there are many areas besides the Great Plains that could.”

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