Organic Broadcaster

Distillery partners with farmers to grow heirloom grains for spirits

By Chuck Anderas

Patrick McHugh grows organic, specialty rye, wheat, and corn for La Crosse Distillery. Photo by La Crosse Distillery

La Crosse Distilling, a craft distillery founded in 2018, operates a tasting room and restaurant just down the road from the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Their certified organic spirits are made from local or regional organic grain (and potatoes) that they contract with farmers to grow.

“There really is a future for farmers in distillery grains, and no one has really shone a light on that yet,” said La Crosse Distilling co-owner Nick Weber. He and his business partner, Chad Staehly, decided to buy local, organic grain for their spirits from the very beginning.

“It’s about restoring the land,” Weber said. “We really wanted to bring back open-pollinated heirloom grains, and it just so happens that they have deeper flavor profiles that are better for aged spirits.”

They have spent the last few years developing relationships with growers in the area and testing out new open-pollinated varieties of barley, corn, rye, and wheat. For one of their spirits, they tried about 100 different varieties of corn before they found just the right one—an heirloom red corn that will remain nameless due to the immense amount of work that went into identifying it. When one of their local growers had a crop failure of that variety due to a hailstorm, they were only able to locate one other grower, in Ohio, who had it.

Each variety that one of their farmers grows is most likely a new variety to that farmer. “It’s been a learning curve for both [the farmers and us], but it’s been awesome,” Weber said.
La Crosse-area farmer Patrick McHugh, who has been growing grain for the distillery from its launch, said that to grow open-pollinated heirloom varieties, you need “patience with learning how to take care of a specialty crop that doesn’t generally have as much vigor as newer varieties do.”

As the owners grow their distillery business, they are expanding the amount of acreage they contract each year. Their first year, they had 50 to 80 acres under contract, and nearly 400 this past year.

“We’ve enjoyed buying directly from the farmers,” Staehly said. He and Weber have a goal to offer farmers above-market pricing eventually, just as their friends do at Kickapoo Coffee in Viroqua. Because of the challenges of growing food-grade heirloom grain, McHugh estimated “it will take a minimum of three years before we make a profit off it.” Yet, seeing the optimistic direction the group is heading, McHugh is ready to grow more and more acres of specialty grain for the distillery in the years to come.

Patrick McHugh grows Abruzzi rye for La Crosse Distillery. Photo by La Crosse Distillery

Pricing open-pollinated, heirloom, organic grain is a unique challenge for the farmers selling their grain direct to the distillery. I reached out to some agricultural economists for insight into the economic difference for farmers selling specialty grains versus on the commodity market, and it is an unsurprisingly understudied area. There are not weekly price reports on organic on-farm stone-ground heritage red fife whole wheat flour, for example. But, because there is so much value in the heirloom varieties, and because value is added to the grain by extensive cleaning, the crop clearly should be priced higher than your typical feed-grade organic grain sold to the local co-op.

Halee and John Wepking of Meadlowlark Organics in Ridgeway, Wisconsin, also contract to grow grain for the distillery. While they know their production costs, it is still “really difficult to determine what your grain is actually worth,” explained John Wepking. The Wepkings approach price-setting with buyers less as a negotiation and more as a conversation to find a price that is fair and mutually beneficial to both parties.

McHugh said that he reached out to the few other distilling companies around the country that work with open-pollinated hybrid grains to see what a fair price might be. “I’m not afraid to ask questions,” he added. “I gave [La Crosse Distilling] an estimate of prices—quite a range” in their negotiation. He said that he priced it out by the pound “because people not in agriculture aren’t used to bushels.” McHugh encouraged other farmers to “document and keep track of the details—particularly your labor. Put a fair labor rate on what your time is.”

Food-grade distilling grains have a high standard of cleanliness. The farmers that grow for La Crosse Distilling have different ways of achieving this standard based on the rest of their marketing strategies and relationships. McHugh said that he had to buy a seed cleaner/separator to separate the seed according to test weight. “If there is any disease, I’m able to segregate with air volume of the higher quality seed.” He said he has only had to remove about 1-2% of the crop so far.

The Wepkings have also invested in grain cleaning equipment that helps them achieve their desired consistency of product. The Wepkings both come from high-end restaurant and bakery backgrounds, and that experience helps them see their product from the buyer’s point of view. To visualize the level of cleanliness needed, the Wepkings said that grain sold to a distillery or bakery needs to leave the farm clean enough that it is “ready to go into a bulk bin at a co-op, ready to eat.”

To be food-grade, grain has to have less than one part per million of deoxynivalenol (DON), commonly referred to as vomitoxin, and be free of straw and weed seeds. John Wepking said that their wheat may have “1.6 DON off the combine” but after cleaning can be brought down to below one ppm. Above one ppm and the grain must be sold as feed-grade for a significantly lower price. Investing in grain cleaning equipment has allowed them to “capture the value” of their grain. The Wepkings also said they can only grow food-grade small grains on the parts of their farm that are wind-swept, well-drained ridgetops. In their area, the higher moisture levels of lower fields make growing food-grade small grains nearly impossible.

Because the distillery lacks on-site storage space, the grain must be delivered in small quantities spread out over the course of the year. Because of their distilling process, they also need the grain delivered in 50-pound bags. This means that the farmers that sell to them have to focus on post-harvest handling, including bagging and storage strategies that will maintain the quality of their grain over several months.

McHugh delivers truckloads of grain to nearby seed company Foundation Direct Seeds, and they put his crop into 50-pound bags as required by the distillery. Some of these bags are stored at Foundation Direct while the rest is stored at his farm.

The Wepkings have invested in a bagging line and grain bins on their farm. They said post-harvest handling is one of the biggest differences between growing feed- and food-grade grain. For food-grade grain, you have to clean the grain bin really well before you store anything, and then “you have to pay a lot more attention” to insect control and moisture levels as the year goes on. Because a farmer selling direct makes many smaller deliveries rather than a few trips to the elevator, you have to keep the grain in good condition for up to nine months.

McHugh said post-harvest handling is where labor costs can cut into profitability. “You have to get the seed out of the bin, clean it properly, then into another storage bin, then bagged from there, and stored again,” he explained. “The amount of time handling the grain until you get it in a finished product is new to me. I haven’t cleaned seed in my entire life. Once you start getting the tricks figured out, then you can start figuring out your efficiencies. You don’t want to be a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. You have to be a master of all your trades as a farmer.”

As La Crosse Distilling continues to grow, they will look to partner with more farmers and plan to buy more from the farmers they already work with. They see their goals as a company as mutually beneficial to the farmers who grow crops for their spirits. They want to be leaders in their industry, buying quality grain at a competitive price while helping small family farms stay profitable. The owners of La Crosse Distilling have a deep respect for farmers and are committed to leaving this world “better than we found it,” Weber explained.

Chuck Anderas is MOSES Organic Specialist. Reach him through the Organic Answer Line: 888-90-MOSES.


From the January| February 2020 Issue


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