Amber Waves of Local Grain as More Farmers Offer Healthy, Sustainable, Tasty Options
Don’t you just love the aroma of artisan bread, fresh and warm from the bakery or your home oven. Makes you want to eat it right away, by itself or with some local creamery butter.
And increasingly, that artisan bread is made from healthful, sustainably produced grain from our own Illinois farms. While conventionally grown crops still dominate much of the Illinois farm landscape, a growing segment of our state’s producers have gone back to the future, cultivating heirloom and ancient grain varieties that are absolutely delicious to eat!
Thanks to these pioneers of the local grain renaissance, consumers across Illinois have increasing access to whole grains, flours, breads and other baked goods that are better for people, better for the planet, and much more pleasing to the palate.
Some of these cutting-edge grain farmers have achieved a rather high profile.
Other Illinois farmers also are in the vanguard of the good grain movement and deserve accolades. The following article features two of them: Brian Severson of Brian Severson Farms and Andrea (Andy) Hazzard of Hazzard Free Farm.
Brian Severson Farms
Brian Severson Farms, located in Dwight in east-central Illinois, started selling organic grain in 2007 after many years of family conventional farming. Brian and his family built a solid business in organics through e-commerce and strategic in-person sales at busy farmers markets such as Chicago’s Green City Market.
Then COVID hit. As many people, stuck at home, turned to baking to fill up time, commercial supermarket brands went into scarce supply — and local “good grain” producers such as Brian Severson seized the opportunity. “Demand went crazy during COVID,” Severson said. “Everybody wanted a local source of wheat or flour. Now we’re still trying to figure out what normal is. It has backed off since COVID, but it’s higher than it was pre-COVID.”
Severson’s family has deep roots in the rich black soil of eastern Illinois. He said his family has raised grain in Illinois since the 1800s, and as late as the World War II era, his grandfather grew with what today are known as organic practices because that’s what farmers did.
He became increasingly uncomfortable with conventional production and began experimenting in the 1990s with going back to the future with his growing practices. “It’s sort of became fun to go back and farm the way Grandpa used to and use his machinery and you find out why he did the things he did,” Severson said.
His first certified organic product in 2007 was sweet corn. Organic oats, wheat, popcorn, peas, soybeans and buckwheat soon followed. His timing in building a customer base was fortunate: At the time his organic grains first hit the market, interest in better-for-people, better-for-the-planet food was rapidly rising.
No matter what the other positive attributes of organic grain are in terms of better nutrition and sustainability, taste matters. To Severson, that’s a clincher in terms of winning new customers who grew up with bland store breads. “We’ve been trying to go back and find the old varieties that were raised 150, 200 years ago. They taste great and that’s the difference, that’s what we can show a customer through sampling,” he said.
He added, “And those varieties are designed to be raised organically. You can’t raise a lot of them conventionally. It’s a nice niche.”
Brian Severson Farms’ products can be purchased year-round at his online store. Chicago shoppers can purchase these products at Brian Severson Farms’ popular stand at Green City Market.
Hazzard Free Farm
Andrea Hazzard’s family has been farming land in north-central Illinois, just west of Rockford, since 1847. “I always wanted to be on the farm,” Hazzard said. “I kind of had to blaze my own path and continue to do so.”
Hazzard, known as Andy, launched Hazzard Free Farm, located in Pecatonica, in 2007. There she joined the vanguard reviving “good grain,” seeking out heirloom varieties, utilizing sustainable growing practices, and never, ever using GMO seeds.
She is an active member of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, which described itself as “a network of farmers, millers, maltsters, bakers, chefs, food manufacturers, brewers, distillers, researchers and advocates working together to create a regenerative grainshed in the Upper Midwest.”
Hazzard currently grows two types of wheat: Marquis, a hard red spring heirloom variety grown in Illinois in the early 1900’s, and a soft red winter wheat. She grows oats and purple barley, and several varieties of corn including popcorn, white corn, yellow corn, Floriani Flint, Bloody Butcher (with its bright red kernels), and Glass Gem.
She is now in the process of starting a small-scale seed company. “I’ve always saved my own seed, and then I started to get into doing special selections and stuff. Getting ready to try to launch something in that arena is pretty exciting,” she said.
The rise of thriving craft beer and spirits industries in our region have provided new markets for many small local producers. Hazzard noted that her farm has a new relationship with Barnstormer, a Rockford distillery that plans to produce a blend of six of her grains. She noted that Artisan Grain Collaborative has a Brewing and Distilling Working Group that fosters such relationships.
Hazzard Free Farm’s flours, meals and grains can be purchased year-round at its online store.
Where You Can Buy Flour from Local Grains
Common Ground Grocery, Bloomington
Hewn Bread, Evanston
Janie’s Mill Retail Shop, Ashkum
Local Foods, Chicago
Sous Chef, Peoria
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