Potential in Pennsylvania

Picture a seed in your mind. It’s small. Even sitting in the palm of your hand, it doesn’t seem like much. But for all its unassuming nature, make no mistake, that seed holds powerful potential. Grind it, smash it, plant it, grow it, soak it. The seed is a food. It can multiply itself when planted and grown. A seed can be ground into flour. Its versatility has literally changed mankind from hunter-gatherer to farmer through its cultivation.

Rosen rye breaking through the soil in early October

In our modern times, its importance gets lost amongst high tech gadgets, ultra-capacity food distribution and light speed communication. Just for a moment, I want to reset and refocus our attention back on the humble seed and its unlimited potential. It is not just a food stuff, it is an economic powerhouse.

The creation of the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation started with a passion for the preservation of soil and farmland ownership. It is the mission of the foundation to work to help secure the heritage and the future of small farming across the state of Pennsylvania.

A realization that became clear early on, is that no matter how much love for the land or passion for farming we might have, our fields are kept green through economics. And like every industry, success depends on innovation, creativity and hard work.

For the famer, hard work is just how the day starts. Innovation and change is more difficult. For the farmer, innovation is a group effort. While the farmer creates the raw goods, that raw material must undergo a transformation as it makes its way to the marketplace. There is a supply chain that must participate in unlocking the potential of new products. Even more difficult is the unchoreographed dance of cooperation between the different small businesses involved in the supply chain.  Does the farmer create the supply before the demand? Do producers ask for a supply that doesn’t yet exist? These are basic economic questions, but in agriculture the answers can be a little tricky.

Releasing the potential

We can see this dance playing out right now through newly-forming agro-distilling relationships. The Pennsylvania distillery industry has been reborn after recent changes in the law, such as 2011’s Act 113 (the first change to PA’s liquor laws in 60 years) and 2016’s House Bill 1690.  Craft distilleries in Pennsylvania have grown from about 4 in 2010 to nearly 70 in 2017. These changes have created an enormous opportunity for local small farmers to provide grains to these distilleries. However, there is a lot work to be done to realize these opportunities.

An important thing to consider in this modern rebirth for PA’s distilling industry is the lack of a grain infrastructure in our region.  In the late 19th century, there was a grist mill for every farming community. Grains and bread were produced and bought locally. The grain economy was regional.  Today, less than a handful of mills remain. It is less expensive to ship rye in from large producers in eastern Europe and Canada that sell massive quantities of grain for pennies on the dollar.  Fortunately, our new distilling industry is more concerned with high quality than low cost.

Blue Hopi heirloom non-GMO corn
many heirloom varietals of corn grown in PA

This is where the distilling industry provides new potential. Rye whiskey is a high-quality, hand crafted product that people will pay a premium for when it is excellent.  Distillers are willing to pay more for better grain to make better whiskey.  Where is that better grain?  We believe that it is here, in Pennsylvania.

Opportunity Quantified

Distilling one bottle of 80 proof rye whiskey requires 2 lbs of rye grain.  There are 56 lbs of rye in a bushel and with a reasonable yield, there are about 60 bushels of rye in an acre. That means that one acre of rye grain can produce 1,680 bottles of whiskey.  Talk about potential.  Now, these are ideal conditions, but we can begin to see how a farmer in the 18 and 19th centuries in Pennsylvania may have chosen to distill his harvest and sell rye whiskey instead of selling flour from his mill.  Today, farmers are at least two generations removed from the idea of selling grain to make whiskey.  They have come to rely on the tried and true, but heavily competitive, harvest of corn and soy.  The potential that lies in small grains (and specifically in rye) for the distilling market is a “new” idea that needs encouragement.

Changing the Field

There is a great deal of potential for heirloom varietals of rye seeds that were once grown in Pennsylvania but have been missing for almost a century.  Research on rye grain genetics halted in the 1970’s.  There was little need or desire for research on a grain which was only being employed as a cover crop.  A cover crop is planted in the autumn before the frost whose purpose is to anchor the soil against erosion throughout the winter and restore nutrients to the soil. It may provide grazing for cattle or may be plowed under in the spring to prep the soil for the next growing season. Any specific varietals of rye for distilling or malting disappeared in favor of a cheaper, non-specific cereal rye seed.

Returning these long absent varietals to the state’s agricultural economy and providing research into these species could place Pennsylvania farmers in a strong position for both local and export grain markets. Cultivating these varietals is not an overnight process.  While there is great opportunity, there is an economic risk for the farmers.

A handful of Rosen Rye

Helping Make Change Possible

SeedSpark, one of the projects at the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation, has given a grant to the Penn State Agriculture to help research and propagate a rye varietal called Rosen. By funding the research, SeedSpark reduces the risk to local farmers by helping to jump start the process. Once farmers know they can get the seeds into the ground, produce a successful crop and that crop has willing customers in the marketplace, they will be eager to join this emerging market.

This success isn’t an overnight process. Aging whiskey takes time. Most rye whiskeys, even the bottom shelf varieties, are at least 4 years old.  Our palates want older whiskeys, but our new Pennsylvanian distilling market is barely 7 years old.  The oldest available rye whiskey in Pennsylvania right now is just over 3 years old.  We must be patient and consider the potential that lies in our distilling future.

What this means for Pennsylvania

By following this blueprint, Pennsylvania can aim to its pre-Prohibition heights in agriculture production. The distilling movement demonstrates that the public has a great interest in well-made products. If local farmers can produce high quality grains and get them into the hands of local distillers, then we have the foundation for a strong economic platform. A platform that creates jobs, revenue, and a strong regional identity. Companies that were founded before 2011, like Philadelphia Distilling (2005), Dad’s Hat Rye (2010) have had success not only locally, regionally but internationally as well. It doesn’t take much to imagine a strong Pennsylvania generating products for a world stage. We’ve done it before, we’re doing it again.

winter rye in late November