On a blazing August afternoon, baker-turned-miller and grain expert Don Lewis stands outside a drying tunnel at Hudson Valley Seed Company’s farm in Kerhonkson, New York. Observing the shafts of golden brown heirloom and ancient cereal grains inside the tunnel—the survivors of his two dozen test plots—he shares what led to his life’s work.
Lewis’ parents were chicken farmers outside of Middletown, New York in the 1950s, raising thousands of birds for meat and eggs. Lewis recalls his mother’s warnings. “‘Don’t be a farmer,’” she’d tell him. “‘Try to help the farmer. Buy their crop so that they can sell it. Then you do whatever with that.’”
Lewis took her dictum to heart, and for more than 20 years, he’s been on a mission to develop a robust market for regional grains in the Hudson Valley. He now runs Wild Hive Community Grain Project in Clinton Corners, New York, a milling operation that uses traditional stone grinding equipment to process small batches of organic and heritage spelt, rye, and other whole grains produced on local farms. He sells the resulting grains at area restaurants, bakeries, and specialty stores across the Hudson Valley and, since the pandemic, to retail customers through his website.
Lewis’ journey began in 1982, when he began raising bees as a commercial beekeeper, helping to pollinate orchards in the Hudson Valley. In addition to selling his honey at farmers’ markets in New York City, he used it to produce baked goods in a commercial kitchen. Then, in 2008, he opened Wild Hive Bakery and Café.
Around the same time, he was introduced to locally grown, freshly milled flour and was immediately enraptured by its range of distinctive flavors and superior nutrition compared to conventional flour. Worried his children and the ensuing generations wouldn’t have access to the fresh food he had growing up, Lewis began milling and baking for the bakery and café using locally grown flour. Seeing its potential, he closed the bakery and café in 2012 to mill full-time.
But Lewis is not simply a miller. He also has a progressive vision to broaden and diversify the food system by introducing unique grain varieties and adapting them to present-day climate conditions. Since 2016, he has partnered with the Hudson Valley Seed Company, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, and Cornell’s Small Grains Genetic Research Program, testing near-forgotten ancient and heirloom grains. He’s looking for older genetics from all over the world that possess what he calls “very good qualities for growing in the Northeast, and for post-harvest production, milling, cooking, and eating.”
Lewis views resurrecting and adapting these older grains as a natural outgrowth of his goal to develop a network of local grain production. Without fostering biodiversity, the current system of growing grains, he asserts, “is not really good for our agricultural system nor our health.”
Reviving the Hudson Valley Grain Economy
The Hudson Valley was once considered the breadbasket of Colonial America, but as the country expanded westward, so did its amber waves of grain. The area’s grain economy collapsed as a result of deficient farming practices and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which revolutionized transportation, dramatically decreasing costs. Agricultural practices, including milling, became centralized and industrialized, eventually leading to monoculture in farming.
Lewis hopes that by providing residents access to a diversity of fresh food, he can help empower the region to flourish economically, socially, and culturally and is encouraged that the model he built connecting grower, miller, baker, and distributor has influenced others across the country to develop their own. While large companies and big mills dominate the grain industry, a patchwork of efforts similar to his have sprung up, including some in Maine and South Carolina.
“The wisdom is that these [grains] have good, unique qualities that need to be preserved. It’s a story, a history, a culture, a quality.”
Educating consumers and farmers to create demand is a big—and often challenging—part of Lewis’s job. He spent years distributing local bread samples, as he believed people could only understand it by eating it. Once he selects a grain, he persuades farmers to risk growing something new, hoping they will be enthusiastic about the results. After a successful grow-out, he also convinces bakers to use his flour, which is expensive.
Lately, Lewis has seen regionally grown heritage grains gain traction with consumers, who are increasingly interested in healthy eating and the origins of their food. Business has tripled in the past five years, though this summer’s slow time was especially slow and an early-pandemic sales jump of 25 percent to retail customers has not been sustained.
Still, he believes in his mission, and despite the recent slump, this past spring he added two mills to double Wild Hive’s capacity and to improve the quality of the flour.
It takes an average of four years to successfully plant, acclimate, grow out, and bring a new grain variety to market. Since 2016, when Lewis began working with Hudson Valley Seed Company to grow seed test plots, he and the company’s head farmer Steven Crist have tested approximately 30 varieties.
During the growing season, Lewis visits the plots four or five times to see how the wheat is standing, take progress notes, and consult with Crist, who’s responsible for sowing, monitoring, and harvesting it. Lewis also keeps test and grow out plots at a few nearby farms and Hudson Valley Farm Hub.
Lewis tends towards European, Eastern European, and Mediterranean varieties because the genetics are unchanged, unlike North American wheat, which has been commercially bred for mechanization and increased yield. He doesn’t want to set aside the plants’ natural qualities. “I want to be able to eat and enjoy them and their uniqueness,” he says.
Lewis says only about six varieties, including a French Rouge De Bordeaux wheat, have successfully launched. He planned to release a German einkorn variety and Estonian high-protein rye this year, but rain destroyed the crops’ quality, underscoring further obstacles to his work.