When George Allen and Danny Cowan followed their hearts, sweethearts that is, to Efland, little did they dream they’d end up farming 80 acres of hard red wheat, spelt, rye, corn and other hard-to-source grains for small commercial bakers across the Piedmont. The two men, now in their 30s, had met at Oberlin College in Ohio. Both had studied and practiced sustainable farming then moved here in 2011. While neither man is coupled any longer with his Carolina sweetheart, they both fell in love with the rolling hills, deep agricultural traditions and rapidly expanding locally-grown and rediscovered regional food culture.
Both apprenticed with Ken Dawson of Maple Springs Farm, a renowned practitioner of small-scale intensive organic farming. George, now 33, then struck out on his own growing vegetables on a small plot in western Orange for his own Community Supported Agriculture venture or CSA where he’d get subscribers to commit financially for a year or season’s worth of produce he’d provide weekly. Cowan, 35, went to work first at Rob Segovia-Welch’s Chicken Bridge bakery, where he learned the art of wood-fired baking. Then moving on to briefly open Three Bellows, his own small bread bakery in Pittsboro but closing that after a year so he could, “Get some sleep’.
He and Allen realized that a big gap in the burgeoning local food system was the availability of nutritious, high-calorie foods that we get from grains and legumes. There were by that point in 2012, plenty of vegetable growers, increasing numbers of free-range meat raisers and purveyors of baked goods, but locally grown and stone milled whole grain flour was not available. They were ready to give grain a chance.
Only a few years before, Jennifer Lapidus and David Bauer, both immigrants to the Asheville area had realized the same dilemma as local commercial baking of artisanal breads really took off. They went in search of heritage grains like red turkey wheat, brought here by Ukrainian immigrants in the 1800s, flint corn varieties like Orange Cateto adapted to Appalachia from its South American roots, and flavorful dent corn like the aptly named Bloody Butcher from mountain farms in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Painstakingly experimenting, growing and milling these along with modern grains bred for our climate at N.C. State University like NuEast Hard Winter Wheat and Sungold Spelt, Lapidus and Bauer have become experts at growing, milling and providing these grains to small bakeries and home bakers across Appalachia. As Bauer explains it, over time the selection of the best plants yields seed that is more adapted to each micro climate. It’s a slow process. Both he and Lapidus have continued to champion this trend, publishing books, lecturing and mentoring. Allen and Cowan got seed and knowledge from them.
In 2014, Abraham Parker of Box Turtle Bakery in Carrboro gave Allen and Cowan their first red fife wheat seed, the two grew a promising quarter acre for Abraham’s use on Allen’s land off Bradshaw Quarry Road in southwestern Orange. Just before harvest, the crop failed because of untimely heavy rain, the bane of a farmer’s existence. Undeterred the pair sought advice from local grain farmers Kenny and Aaron Kirk, who had been raising conventional commodity grain for years, just a few miles away off Orange Grove Road. They also learned from organic farming elder Murray Cohen of Chatham and gleaned advice and encouragement from bakeries and millwrights, one of whom ultimately provided them with their own stone grinding mill where previously they’d had to outsource grain cleaning and milling.
Going all-in, after five years of renting land, Allen bought 40 acres in Efland, down an almost mile-long gravel road. That land, long used for pasture and conventional farming along with its woodlands is now the home of Red Tail Grains (redtailgrains.com). There you will find a fully integrated growing, grain cleaning, milling and packaging operation, still in the early stages of major growth. Allen lives in a modest camper on-site. With his auto mechanic’s skills he maintains Red Tail’s equipment including tractors, a combine, grain cleaner and stone grinding mill. He’s even built replacement parts for their old wooden grain cleaner. Cowen, while also hands-on, is in charge of product development and sales.
They’re now building a grain freezer to keep the whole grains they produce from getting insect damage or going rancid due to the high natural oil content of the grains. Those naturally occurring fats and proteins in grains are typically ground and bleached away in conventional flour, which then has to be enriched to add back vitamin content.
The pair has also leased fields nearby and in the Eli Whitney area of Alamance County to provide enough grain to meet the expanding demand. Standing quietly alone out in the woods at Red Tail you’ll find Allen’s mule, Leroy, whom he’s gradually training. Leroy, like Allen, is quiet and pensive. Out in one fallow pasture is a small flock of noisy chocolate brown turkeys and a variety of chickens confined to a mobile pen or ‘chicken tractor’, where they provide some natural fertilizer and a few dozen eggs weekly for Allen, his crew and neighbors. Seth Millard, a beef cattle farmer and one of the pairs’ many ag-partners, periodically brings his herd of Long Horn-Corriente cross cattle to Red Tail’s land to graze and further fertilize their pasture.
While the farm is not certified organic, they use no pesticide sprays or commercial fertilizer, relying instead on locally produced commercial compost from Brooks in Goldston , cover crops and careful management to reduce disease and improve yields. One five-acre field is now planted in a mix of rye and clover that will be
flattened into the soil at the end of the winter growing season to kill the plants on site. In the spring, grain will be planted directly in the mass of green manure.
This technique is following the latest trend of no-till farming, not plowing means the soil structure is not disrupted and no ready home for weed seeds is created by tilling. While conventional no-till farmers typically use a combination of ‘Round-up ready’ genetically modified seed and herbicides, organic, no-till farming is still in its infancy and being nurtured by innovators and experimenters like Allen and Cowan. At Red Tail they’re trying various techniques to increase yield and attempting to time their planting just right. As David Bauer says, “Growing grain like this is hard.”
Both men readily admit to their various experiments, failures and successes as they close in on their first decade of this venture. Their web site features informative and entertainingly written historical discourse on some of the seven grains they’re now growing along with Crowder peas, but there’s a longer list of ‘crops previously grown’ and a sneak peek at ‘future plans’ for exotic-sounding grains like “Black Nile Barley” and “Blue Bearded Durum”.
Any given Saturday you’ll find Red Tail Grains at the Carrboro, Durham, and Winston-Salem farmer’s markets, retailing their grits, polenta, flours and even pancake and hot cereal mix. Enthusiastic local customers are drawn by the colors and flavors, intrigued by the handsome display of large glass jars lining shelves fronting their market stand.
Red Tail Grain’s packaged goods are on the shelves of local small retailers like Root Cellar in Chapel Hill and The Saxapahaw General store. Local bakers who also sell at the market pick up their Red Tail Grains, milled the previous Wednesday and individuals can also order ground-to-order flour at the same time. At the Carrboro Market, Rob Segovia-Welch of Chicken Bridge Bakery rhapsodizes about how his breads are enhanced by the slivered texture of Red Tails’ freshly stone-ground ground corn flour compared to typical corn flour.
Allen and Cowan’s quest to create this important link in the local food system uncovers some of the large knowledge gaps that they’re actively trying to fill while trading knowledge with others in the southeast in a complex, intertwined agricultural information ecosystem. They admit that they’re not striving to make what is commonly known as commodity grain: thousands of tons of high-yield, conventionally grown and industrially milled products that are brokered and shipped around the world. Instead, they’re creating high protein, flavorful flours and grains for a region that’s finding its way towards a more sustainable, robust local food system that can be scaled up to meet future demands.
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