Coming up in The Columbia Paper: "Of Flies, Canals, Dirt, Money and Wheat"
tuned for the second part in our series on local grains inspired by the
"Sowing the Future" event we participated in this fall. Conrad will
delve into the tangled tale of historic wheat production in the area.
Milling it Local: Background Exploration
Make-shift wheat milling at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market.
I didn't fully appreciate the important role of small-scale local
milling, processing, and storage facilities, until I started asking
around about local grain production. I kept hearing from farmers that
growing grain wasn't the big problem, it was finding the facilities they
would need to process, clean, mill, and store the grain for human
consumption. In other words, it was a problem of infrastructure. So I
started wondering - where CAN local small grains be processed and milled
today? Below is a first attempt at mapping the small grain processing
and milling facilities in the Northeast, derived from extensive internet
While this map may not be completely comprehensive, it does illustrate
how sparsely distributed these facilities are in the Northeast. This is
particularly true when one realizes that most of these locations are
farms or bakeries that process their own small grains or local small
grains for their own products, and not custom mills for use by other
farmers. As mentioned in the article to the right, there are currently
no such custom mills in all of New York State.
At the same time, there is a strong demand for local food of all kinds,
including grains. This is reflected in new rules for producers selling
at the Greenmarket in New York City, requiring that 15% of the flour
used in products be regionally sourced. Such regulations along with
recent regionally-focused grain conferences, heritage grain projects,
and other efforts are all aimed at fostering a regional grain movement.
One can sense the beginnings of such a movement in Columbia County,
even in spite of infrastructure challenges - just look at the anecdotes
in the article at right. Yet it is a small beginning; in the 2007
Census of Agriculture there were only 6 farms in the County growing
winter wheat for grain, and it is likely that most of this wheat was
used for animal feed, not human consumption. Again, lack of local
infrastructure is a clear hindrance.
When I think of what a regional grain movement might look like, I think
about the past. Below is a map of the locations of gristmills (custom
mills for grinding grain into flour) in Columbia County in the
This map depicts 45 gristmills, which is a little less than the 62 reported in 1822, in A Gazetteer of the State of New York
(Spafford 1824, p. 127). As you can see, it would have been fairly
convenient for nearly any Columbia County farmer to bring grain to the
mill for grinding into flour, and this is just what they did.
Engraving of a 19th century grain harvest by Alexander Anderson.
Writing in the late 1700s in Claverack, Alexander Coventry is always
mentioning bushels of grain being traded, sold, bought, and, yes,
brought to the gristmill. For example he writes in September of 1790,
"“Took 3 bushels of Mescelane [rye and wheat mixed together], and ½ bu.
Corn, and 2 oats to miln [sic] and got ground" (p. 483). Another time
in 1792, he writes of picking up flour and meal, presumably at a
gristmill where he had left grain: "“Went to the miln [sic], got 2
barrels of Indian meal: containing about 6 ½ bushels, 2 ½ bushels in
bags, and 4 ½ bushels of wheat in flour" (p. 658).
And of course, it's not just about infrastructure for grain. The map
below depicts the industrial landscape of Columbia County in the 1870s
and 1880s. In addition to gristmills, it shows the clustering of other
industries, such as blacksmiths and shoe makers, around village
centers. You'll need a magnifying glass to see this version, but the
industrial landscape map link below will take you to a larger version on
Industrial Landscape Map, ca 1880
What I like about exploring both history and other cultures or ways of
life, is that it can provide a new context for thinking about what might
seem like a perfectly normal situation around us. In this case, the
fact that we get our grain (and many other kinds of products) from
somewhere far away.
Alexander Anderson (1775-1870) Scrapbooks of wood engravings. New York Public Library Digital Catalogue. http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/dgexplore.cfm?col_id=221
Alexander Coventry Diary, 1785-1831, edited as a typescript by the New
York State Library in collaboration with the Albany Institute of History
The Industrial Landscape map is derived from lists and locations of
manufacturers we assembled from State and Federal census data, the Beers
atlas of 1873, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, county histories, and
Child's 1871 business gazetteer.
Spafford, Horatio. 1824. A Gazetteer of the State of New York.
Stilgoe, John. 1982. Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845
USDA Census of Agriculture, 2007. http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/