GROTON -- If a local farmer has his way, Groton may once more be known as the breadbox of Massachusetts. Or at least the place where increasing numbers of home-grown micro-breweries acquire the grains they need to prosper and keep everyone's whistles wet!
"I'm trying to diversify the farm," said John Smigelski. He's decided to dedicate a large portion of the 200 acres of farmland he manages in Groton to what are called "small grain" crops.
"I used to grow pumpkins for commercial wholesale and was struggling to get what we needed. People didn't want to pay so we stopped doing it. I then looked at growing hops about a year ago and visited a facility out in Hadley, Mass., that works with source grains grown locally instead of from the midwest. The brewing and distilling industry is going gangbusters right now and people want to buy local, that's all."
What Smigelski decided to do was to get into "small grains," wheat, oats and barley as opposed to vegetables and corn.
"Small grains require no special treatment," said Smigelski. "The biggest expense will be the purchase of a combine and construction of some sort of storage and drying facility."
According to Smigelski, the Nashoba Valley was once a hotbed of small grains such as hops in the nineteenth century but plant diseases and development gradually forced production westward.
But despite having successfully planted his first crop of winter wheat last year, reintroducing small grains to Groton will not be an easy task for Smigelski.
Growing wheat, barley or oats profitably is like putting together a puzzle with a number of pieces including choosing what varieties of grains to grow, their proper fertilization, identifying and eliminating yield-robbing diseases and pests, and last but not least, good weed control.
For that, Smigelski said the farmer is aided by the fact that the plants supply their own form of weed control.
"Winter grains produce natural herbicide that chokes off weeds," said Smigelski.
Small grains are cereals such as wheat, oats, barley, rye and rice, distinguished by small kernels or sometimes a small plant. This, as opposed to corn that has bigger kernels or sorghum that has a large plant but small kernels or soybean that has a small plant and large seeds.
For now, Smigelski has dedicated 40 acres to the cultivation of barley and winter wheat and will consider more depending on the demands of the market.
"By restricting small grains to only 40 acres, it gives us the ability to rotate fields out of hay," said Smigelski.
No stranger to all the considerations that must be taken into account by the smart grower, Smigelski has had plenty of experience in farming.
"I've been a farmer my whole life," Smigelski said. "I started when I got out of agricultural school in 1978. I got a BS in dairy husbandry from the Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture."
From college, Smigelski returned to the Ayer farm where he worked in high school and together with the owner's son, took over its operations. Later, the two parted ways, splitting the farmland between them.
Smigelski began to look around for more land.
"I had the opportunity to take over the Gunderson property near the Groton School and just kept bidding on more parcels after that," said Smigelski.
Headquartered off Mill Street, Smigelski's farming operations are actually spread all over town on land that he either owns or leases. Most of the 200 acres he cultivates are used to grow hay for which he does not lack in customers.
"I sell the hay direct to people in the area who own goats, sheep and horses," said Smigelski.
As for switching from hay to small grains, Smigelski feels it should not expose him to much risk. There's an active local brewing and distilling industry and even small flour mills that could grow in importance as a nascent sustainability movement picks up momentum.
In addition, the stalks of grain plants can be sold as bedding for animals.
"I already have some buyers lined up," said Smigelski. "Barley is pretty much a done deal and now I'm trying to find buyers for winter wheat."
If Smigelski's scheme is successful, others might follow suit. If that happens, Groton might even regain its lost reputation as a regional source for the staff of life.