Producer Feature: Belle Valley Ancient Grains
In 2015, Brian Stambaugh was looking for some type of value-added crop. His family farms 200 acres near Newell on the Belle Fourche Irrigation project. He needed to rotate some alfalfa ground into something else and was trying to decide which conventional grain to grow. He realized that with the lower commodity prices, he would not have a good return on investment. It was then he started looking into the ancient grains. Brian’s family, going back several generations, was involved with milling in South Dakota. It seemed appropriate that they grow some type of wheat.
There are advantages to being located on the Belle Fourche Irrigation project. Farms on this project have access to irrigation, which is a huge advantage in this west river area of low rainfall. Usually, they put 1/3 to 1/2 of the acres in the ancient grains, and the remainder in alfalfa hay for the local horse hay market.
After getting into ancient grains and deciding to go “chemical free,” it became a challenge to make it work. When they started milling the wheat and making bread, it became clear the flavor was a real plus! It was like having a garden tomato vs. a supermarket tomato. No comparison. Even the best store-bought bread does not compare. As things progressed, Brian became more aware of his family heritage in milling and agriculture in South Dakota, and it became a mission to make it work. It also became important to demonstrate that one could use very old seed stock and older equipment, and get a good return on investment while providing a healthy food source that is grown without modern chemicals.
In the future, Brian hopes to see the market develop for locally milled flour and to involve many more farmers in growing these wheat varieties within a few years. A hundred years ago, there were hundreds of local flour mills across the state. Now, all the wheat is shipped back east and comes back as white flour for the most part. He would like to change that for this area and perhaps it could become a model for other areas.
According to Brian, every step has been a challenge. He thought he would just grow the wheat and sell it in little bags. He learned that was naïve. It was a challenge just to find the seed. It was easy to grow however. It just worked! He did have some weeds, but not bad. In the summer of 2015 they had a storm with 100 mph winds and baseball sized hail. The wheat came through it fine. The hay shed where they planned to build grain bins was destroyed, so they had to build them in their farm shop. He bought a used 40 year old combine for $1000 and he had never run a combine. Thankfully, they just set everything according to the manual and it worked great. The next challenge was cleaning the wheat to food grade. Their first cleaner was inadequate and Brian had made a trip to Idaho to get a good seed cleaner. There was a big learning curve with that whole process. The older wheat such as emmer, einkorn and spelt has to be de-hulled so that takes some time. He found a used rice dehuller in Great Falls, MT that works fairly well. The current challenge is marketing. Having been involved with some start-ups, Brian realized that this too is a process. Many times during this two year process Linda would ask Brian about the next step, and he would say, “Well, I’m not sure, we will have to figure that out”!
When asked what advice he would give other people who might be interested in growing ancient grains, he said, “Go for it!” He feels that their product is special because it offers a unique flavor, it is locally grown and it is healthy. He has purchased whole wheat from local health food stores and made the bread and the taste does not compare to that from the old wheat. The family agrees. It seems that the market is people who want to know where their food comes from, largely local people, and those interested in healthy eating. Regional Hospital has purchased some of their product via The Food Hub in Spearfish. In fact, they have had a lot of interest in the product. He wants to get to the local Farmers Markets, but so far he’s too busy with summer farming.