Rabbit Hill Farms turn to malt for diversity
NEW BRUNSWICK — Family farms passed through generations are a romantic notion that often can’t become a profitable reality, but Hilary Barile of Rabbit Hill Farms told a group at the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference on Jan. 28, there are ways to make it work.
Rabbit Hill Farm, in Shiloh Borough, Cumberland County, grew potatoes on between 250 and 300 acres for many years.
“I loved finding something in the marketplace that I grew,” Barile said. But the returns were shrinking every year.
So the family chose to join the malting barley movement.
Barile, who worked for the state Department of Agriculture developing conservation plans, came back to the family farm full-time in 2010 because she wanted to get back into production. She worked with her father, brother and other family members on the transition and planted the first malting barley in 2015.
It wasn’t easy to convince the older generation to make the change after so many years of potato production, she noted, but the farm is now much more successful.
Of course the transition was much more than just planting a different crop. Because the crop is not feed barley, an entire malting system needed to be purchased and set up.
Barile started learning as much as she could about barley. She found a lack of availability of the necessary genetically selected seeds. Fortunately, the farm’s infrastructure was such that the family didn’t have to start from scratch, they had a barn with concrete floors and coolers, a forklift, loading dock, belts and augers and tools and welding equipement, but they did have to engineer a malthouse. And they still need more storage, especially small tanks, she said.
Some of the equipment was hard to find in 2015, she said, but today it is much easier to buy. She started with a dairy tank, “I didn’t know if this would work, so I started with the cheapest option,” she said.
The farm has since upgraded with steep tanks and a seed cleaner from the early 20th Century which can still be repaired. They grow several varieties of spring and winter grains. Winter grains tend to handle the wet/dry cycle better, she noted. She is always looking for more varieties and will be introducing an heirloom variety. Barile noted some seeds can be saved, others are patented.
Barile is the maltster, she said her father does the “farmer” work. She uses a floor malting method, on a sealed floor, which can do two ton batches twice a week. She malts barley, wheat, rye, spelt and oats. Each grain must steep one to two days to raise kernel moisture, with two to three steep periods and air rest in between. A fan is used to extract carbon dioxide in a four to six day low temperature germination, at about 55 degrees. A kiln is used to remove moisture and create shelf stability.
Calling malting an interaction between technology and human action, Barile notes the entire process takes eight days.
She studied at the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage in Oneonta, N.Y., to increase her education in the process.
While she is very happy with Rabbit Hill Farm’s choice, she noted malt grains aren’t for everyone. “We chose malt because it’s what our land was suited for,” she said. “and had equipment and it fit our level of management.” She consulted Extension agriculture agents and did plenty of research.
She noted malting fits the Farm to Table movement but “it isn’t a fad like chickens.”
Rabbit Hill still grows commodity grains and sod, she said, so is not dependent on one crop.