Farmers growing corn for Maryland craft distillers
MOUNT AIRY, Md. — Chris Weaver was already growing corn to feed his cattle on the 400 plus acres that encompass his Hickory Hollow Farm.
Then, in 2016, he began harvesting and processing some of that corn for a couple of new customers — Sagamore Spirits in Baltimore and MISCellaenous Distillery in nearby downtown Mount Airy.
Although the amount he processes for the distillers currently totals less than 5 percent of his corn harvest, with the burgeoning craft spirit industry, Weaver said he sees opportunities in expanding this synergistic relationship. Indeed, since he began working with the two distillers the amount of corn he has processed for them has increased from year to year.
Weaver said he prides himself on growing corn that “maximizes his yield and gives me the heaviest test weight possible. Anything less than 56 pounds,” Weaver said, “is costing me money.”
Those goals in turn work to the benefit of his distiller customers. “If the test weight is heavier then the starch content is higher and it makes Dan’s product more desirable,” Weaver said.
To put out such a product, however, “you have to be on top of your agronomic game,” he added, a sentiment echoed by other agricultural experts about growing for the craft beverage industry.
“This is not a weekend farming thing,” said Bryan Butler, a University of Maryland Extension agent in Carroll County, during a discussion in December about growing hops and barley for farm brewing, two more crops at the center of Maryland’s growing craft beverage industry.
Citing the challenges of 2018’s wet weather, Butler said, “The take home from this is if you want to do it, you better love it.”
Weaver reiterated that thought. “It’s a really labor intensive venture. I walk the fields every four to five days looking for disease and other issues that will affect the harvest and adjust as necessary.”
Those adjustments, however, are not done on a wholesale basis.
For instance, “if I have to re-spray, I only re-spray those sections that need it,” Weaver said.
Additionally, topmost on Weaver’s mind always is that a portion of his crop is used for human consumption.
“I only use the highest grade food grade products. I found a kosher food grade fertilizer,” he said. “But, I’m not going out and oversupplying the fields if they don’t need it. Again, I walk those fields.”
Weaver’s zealous quality control efforts also ensure that Dan McNeill, one of MISCellaneous Distillery’s co-owners, receives a consistent grain product for his various whiskey products.
According to Weaver, this is essential to a distilled product because, as McNeill once explained to him, “corn inconsistencies can really taint your bourbon.”
McNeill pointed out yet another positive of sourcing his grain in Carroll County:
“It’s about reducing that impact on the overall environment,” he said. “We’re not trucking in corn from the Midwest when you have all this corn growing in our backyard.”
Weaver later added that working with the distillers “increases my sustainability because even though I save a lot grain for the feed lot, I’m getting some of it — the mash used to distill the alcohol — back as a byproduct to also feed my cows.
“Rather than taking it to a grain elevator and dropping it off and not seeing where it goes from there,” continued Weaver, “you’re seeing what you’re doing with the crops you’re growing.
“It gives me the ability to see my grain go to a different product and really watch the full spectrum of the fruits of my labor.”
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