Producer Feature: Belle Valley Ancient Grains
In 2002 Brian and Linda Stambaugh purchased 200 acres on the Belle Fourche River of western South Dakota, just a few miles from the dairy farm where Brian grew up. With their three daughters, they are the fifth and sixth generation involved with grain, milling or agriculture in South Dakota.
Belle Valley Ancient Grains, near Newell, provides whole grain and fresh milled flour, primarily ancient or heirloom varieties for those who would like to know where their food comes from. None of their products are GMO.
A family history of milling grain and farming in South Dakota began with great-great-grandparents Anders and Anna Quarnberg in the 1800’s when they came to Dakota Territory from Sweden. Belle Valley Ancient Grains is proud to continue this heritage and in particular, to return to varieties of grain and methods that are a century or more old.
Great-grandparents Hans and Minnie Quarnberg continued the business, founding Tri-State Milling in 1913. In 1889, there were over 300 flour milling companies in South Dakota, but by the 1960’s only one― Tri-State. Today, Tri-State operates as Dakota Mill and Grain but no longer mills flour. Today virtually all of the wheat from South Dakota is shipped out of state for milling.
Belle Valley, would like to reverse that trend with a goal of growing, milling and using wheat in western South Dakota on a local basis.
The farm achieved certified organic status in Nov. 2018. All of their grains are chemical free, having used zero pesticides in their 19 years of farming. No herbicides are ever used for weed control. Instead, they implement crop rotation to help to control weeds, and those that do appear are eliminated in the combining and cleaning process.
No nitrogen fertilizer is used either – again rotation to alfalfa, beans or lentils provides natural nitrogen. None of these are new techniques, but were methods used 100 years ago prior to herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.
Belle Valley’s primary crop was hay in the first years, in rotation with corn and other grain, however in 2015 they began a journey with ancient grains. From locating seed to determining if it will grow to production challenges and the weather, the business is rewarding yet challenging.
“The first summer I recall watching as local farmers tended conventional wheat crops with fertilizer and herbicides while I did nothing but watch and hope that it would grow. Indeed it did grow,” Stambaugh said.
A storm with 100 mph winds and grapefruit sized hail in June, 2015 did not seem to bother the wheat too much. It did flatten it, as is the concern with ancient grains. Modern wheat is hybridized to grow short, and not get flattened by the wind. Ancient wheat can grow three to five feet tall and often does get flattened by the wind. However, by going slowly, the swather was able to pick up the downed wheat with little problem.
“Since we do not use herbicides, there may be weeds. Green weeds do not get along with a conventional ‘straight cut’ combine. The answer was to look to ways of farming in the pre-chemical days,” Stambaugh said.
The swather cuts the crop and lays it down. The green weeds, which would plug a combine, then dry down in a few days, and then the combine works just fine on the dried material. Their around 50-year-old John Deere model 6601 pull-type combine compliments the ancient grain theme. It does an amazing job of cleaning the wheat from weeds, and the Clipper 29D precision grain cleaner (about 70 years old), and Oliver gravity table do the rest. A John Deere grain drill from the 1950s rounds out the theme of antiquity in crops, methods and equipment.
In the farm equipment Strambaugh has come to appreciate time tested machines with quality engineering rather than speed of harvest and fancy electronics.
“In the products of harvest I have come to appreciate quality over quantity. Sometimes there is an inverse relationship between dollars spent and acres harvested vs final quality and flavor,” Stambaugh said.
Looking for grain or flour? Belle Valley products are available direct from the farm or from a number of niche grocery and health food stores. They offer inexpensive shipping within South Dakota, even for bulk shipments, and even free shipping over $35 on their Etsy site. They also just finished developing an online store on their website. They are currently working to expand to bakeries and restaurants across the U.S.
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