Learning and Growing

A visit to Anson Mills

Chef Alex Young thinks a lot about Zingerman’s Cornman Farms, the farm next to his house in Dexter where we raise much of the food served at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse. He thinks about sustainable and organic farming practices. He thinks about growing heirloom vegetable varietals and saving seeds to improve the quality of the yield. He thinks about the future of the farm, and what that will look like for his son, Ethan. And he thinks about grain.

In the past year, Chef Alex has welcomed a long list of special visitors to the Roadhouse kitchens for the much-lauded special dinners. Most share his enthusiasm for high-quality ingredients, traditional foodways, and, of course, a full-flavored meal. But two visitors in particular reflected Alex’s commitment to a higher ideal when it comes to growing food for our tables: Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer, author, and creator of the Holzer Permaculture farming method; and Gary Nabhan, a founder of the modern seed-saving movement, author, and holder of the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center. Clearly, it’s not just about a nice meal made from high-quality food; it’s about the big picture.

Alex at RH

Chef Alex Young

Earlier this spring, Alex and son Ethan took a trip down to South Carolina to visit one of the sages of the sustainable farming movement, Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts. The mill has long been touted as the epicenter of an heirloom grains revival, and Roberts its chief evangelist. Alex has been using Anson Mills grains for over 12 years, and thinking a lot about grain these past few years. He has a vision of Cornman Farms heirloom varietals used to create delicious breads at Zingerman’s Bakehouse. He wants to grow enough to feed the animal herds at the farm. And he dreams of producing enough to sell to Glenn Roberts and Anson Mills. So they went to the source, and traveled to South Carolina to meet Glenn at the fabled mill for a tour and a conversation.

The mill still does things in much the same manner as it was done a hundred years ago. Glenn takes in grain from all over the region (and the country!) from farmers who grow his heirloom, or “land-raised” grains, as the seed men say. The farmers agree to grow the grain using sustainable, traditional, organic methods. In return, Glenn guarantees a certain per-bushel per yield and price and for their harvest – no matter what kind of year they’ve had. In particularly bad seasons, this has been a lifesaver for some of the growers. It’s an incentive – a kind of subsidy – which helps balance out the costlier, more labor-intensive growing criteria that Glenn insists upon. The result is very good grain, and a dedicated and loyal community of farmers all over the country.

On the morning of the Young’s visit, the mill was busy allocating various land-raised grains to their network of growers. The allocation process is fairly intensive, and involves a complicated set of metrics. These figures take into account such diverse elements as the system of crop rotation a farmer uses, and the geographic location of the farm, among many others. These allocation criteria are often crucial to the heirloom’s ultimate survival, and therefore taken very seriously.

Glenn then walked Alex and Ethan through the milling process. The grain is offloaded and sucked up through a complex drying machine which aerates the grain. The grain is “live,” which means that it’s a whole grain, and still contains the active germ, source of the grain’s vitamins, proteins, minerals, and healthy fats. It’s important that the grain’s temperature not be raised, as it can cause the seed to germinate or spoil. After the grain has been aerated, it’s ground and simultaneously blasted with CO2 to freeze it. The cooled grain is ground as close to its harvest time as possible, and kept frozen all through the packaging and shipping process. This helps preserve the grain’s nutritional value and robust flavor, the very reasons people seek it.

Alex and Ethan spent several hours talking with Glenn about the growing process, types of seeds and grains, and what might work best in Michigan, then moved on to visit a nearby 800-acre farm that sells to Anson Mills.

The farm was an impressive operation, with a huge drive-in barn dedicated to grain processing. The trucks come to the barn from the grain elevator, and the cargo is pumped to the top of a sorting tower roughly 15 feet tall. The tower uses gravity and a series of screens with sized openings to separate chaff from grain. The chaff goes back out to the field as compost, while the separated seeds go into a huge walk-in cooler filled with stacked pallets, each containing heirloom varietals awaiting shipment to the mill.

One of the farming practices that really caught Alex’s eye is Glenn’s use of polycropping, or polyculture, to help build and sustain his field soil. Simply put, polycropping is the cultivation of multiple crops in the same field. As plants use different micronutrients from the soil, they also create different micronutrients, thereby enhancing the soil with a greater overall nutrient density. Thus, polycropping is a sustainable, organic way in which a conscientious farmer can improve the fertility of his land without the use of chemical fertilizers. The result is healthier, stronger plants with more flavor in the crops themselves.

Alex will use this season to build the nutrient value of the soil through polycropping with several “cover crops.” A cover crop is a beneficial plant used to prevent soil erosion, build up the soil, and eventually act as “green manure” for planting season. Alex plans to use Abruzzi rye, dwarf sunflower, wild flax, native legumes, and dutch white clover. These cover crops will help restore the land, which has not been organically farmed for decades. It’s a rebuilding year, and these plants will grow, nourish, and ultimately provide fertile, organic matter for the soil.

After the farm tour, Alex and Ethan headed over to St. James Island, part of the Sea Islands archipelago, and home to the Clemson University Coastal Research and Education Center. While there, they were introduced to Dr. Brian K. Ward, a research specialist who focuses on crop rotations that benefit soils, grains, and vegetables. The research center applies modern science to help further the benefits of traditional agriculture, and provide more information about the building blocks that make up crops. Alex and Ethan were shown a robot that splices grafts to tomato plants, watched as scientists freeze-dried a slice of broccoli then analyzed its nutritional makeup, and were introduced to composter that utilizes bovine enzymes to break down plant waste into liquid fertilizer.

Then they were treated to a demonstration of a flame-weeder, a propane system that shoots a small, directed flame at the roots of weed plants, but fast and precise enough not to burn the crops themselves. Next up was a “roller-crimper” which is used to flatten, and crimp (or break) the cover crops into a fertile biomass prior to planting. The contraption looks like a big steamroller drum faced with 3-inch zig-zagged pieces of steel. The farm would then use a “vacuum drill” to punch through the green manure and plant seeds in the protected and nourished soil. The advantages to using this process are the fertilizing aspect, increased water retention for the soil, and weed-suppression. Both Clemson and Michigan State University are woking to adapt this method for widespread use. Alex and Ethan came away from their day of tours and education with heads full of ideas for Cornman Farms.

But the time had come to push work aside and enjoy the evening repast. There are numerous oyster beds surrounding St. James Island, and as the sun dipped low over the tidal flats along the coast, the Youngs found themselves seated in a small shack awaiting the arrival of the day’s catch. The boats came in, and delivered their bounty. Bushels of sea-fresh oysters were pressure-washed on a wide slab, then put into enormous pots to steam-cook. In a little while, the steamed oysters are spread over another wide slab to cool a bit, then scooped up with a flat gravel shovel (truth!), and delivered to the table. Clearly, they don’t stand on formality here.

Alex and Ethan feasted on oysters that had been in the water an hour before, thinking about what they’d seen and how it would work at Cornman farms. The ideas are laudable, a wonderful vision of a self-sustaining farm, and by extension a community that nourishes the people, the economy, and the future. Ethan says he wants Cornman to grow to rival that 800-acre farm they visited – but with the cutting edge research of the Clemson Coastal Center. “I’ve got big plans,” he says.
And Alex smiles.