Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Nebraska, has been a vocal advocate for the organic food movement since the 1970s, if not earlier. Crucially, when Dave Vetter rejoined his father on the family farm 30+ years ago, he had a vision that is just as fresh and cutting edge and vital now as it was back then: we need more mills to process organic grains.
It makes sense that Vetter got there before the rest of us: Marquette is a small town in Hall County, which is corn-behemoth Nebraska’s hot spot for high quality, high yield corn production. Low and snug in the Platte River’s historic flood plain, Hall County was gifted deep, rich soils; a high water table; and one of few navigable rivers in Nebraska, making it able to get products to distant markets even before the railroads cut through the Plains.
Commodity farmers here rotate between corn and soy, with the adventurous few dipping into oats or wheat for a year here and there. Unlike vegetable crops, which can go directly from the grower to the consumer, with perhaps a brief detour through a co-op or farmer’s market, commodity crops generally have to be processed somehow before humans can eat them.
The majority of the grains grown here get processed by the cattle that have swarmed the state (thanks to the drought, Texas has handed Nebraska the title to being the biggest beef production state in the US, and now slaughterhouses, feedlots, and CAFOs threaten the state’s water supplies every bit as much as the Keystone XL pipeline would.) But even that which is targeted for direct human consumption needs to be sifted, cleaned, and perhaps rolled flat or milled into flour. If you want your organic grains to become organic flours, they have to go through an organic mill. This is where the Grain Place steps in.
The local food movement has focused on getting more people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which has meant setting up farmer’s markets and working with the produce departments at local co-ops and, increasingly, supermarket groceries. Local eggs have joined this parade, and increasingly local meats, often grass-finished with no grains at all, have too. But where are the local flours? What about the local rice for the stir-fry? The local barley for the soup?
I don’t mean to imply that Grain Place Foods is focused on local foods- they’re not. With too few informed customers in their own backyard, they survived their early years exporting to Europe. They still buy and sell nationally, making private label pet-bird foods and tasty flavored popcorns. They do, however, highlight the clear next step in the maturation of the local foods movement: processing. Even without grains, the bulk of what we grow cannot be stored long enough to make it through a winter without some sort of preservation effort, be it drying, freezing, canning, smoking, pickling, or what have you. We need to improve our processing capacities, locally and regionally, if we are to truly develop resilient food systems.