We were joined in Portland at the Craft Malt Conference by Thor and Rachel Oechsner who received the Soles of Malt Award. It was an honor having them there with us to learn, and to partake in our annual ‘Malt Me Mama’ song during the awards ceremony. Afterwards, Thor told us more about the farm in Newfield, New York, how they got started growing malting barley, and who and what inspires them in the craft malt community.
Tell us about your origin story.
We started at our farm in Newfield in 1993 with a half acre of vegetables. I owned a VW/Audi repair shop in Ithaca and was wanting to just do some farming on the side at first. I had gone to Cornell University for agriculture and had been working on farms since I was 15 years old. I did not grow up on a farm; my dad was a 6th-grade public school history teacher. My uncle had a dairy farm in Pennsylvania where I spent a few weeks every summer and that got me interested in being a farmer. We now farm about 1000 acres total with 700 in crops and 300 in hay. We are certified organic and grow wheat (spring and winter), rye, corn, buckwheat, red clover, grass hay, and various cover crops. We are also part owners of a flour mill (Farmer Ground Flour) and bakery (Wide Awake Bakery).
How did you get started growing grain for and working with craft maltsters?
I will have to blame Andrea and Christian Stanley of Valley Malt for that one—we met at a grain conference when they were just starting up. They came to a workshop I was doing on growing food-grade grain—and Andrea decided I was going to be “her” grower and called me relentlessly until I agreed to work with them on malting grains. This earned her the affectionate nickname from me of “Stalker Babe”. I have to thank her for her persistent calling and cajoling, as they have become two of my biggest customers and best friends.
What contribution have you made to the craft malting community that is the most meaningful to you?
Well, in terms of contributions—maybe making a lot (maybe all) of the early mistakes in terms of growing malting grain and food-grade grains in general. I have always tried to take those mistakes and pass on this information to other growers and maltsters—I do go out and speak quite a bit and host a lot of farm tours for anyone who is interested. I always make time for this. I feel like I’ve been able to help a lot of folks out over the years get into this and have tried to act as a small “grain hub” to connect growers to markets in the malting realm. This has been super satisfying.
How did you feel when you found out you were selected as the 2023 Soles of Malt Recipient?
How did I feel??? OMG—this was just incredible! I was honestly amazed and humbled to be chosen for this. I have never won an award for what I do as a farmer—so it was a big deal. My work as a farmer seems pretty solitary sometimes, so it’s nice to be seen and recognized. Going to the Craft Malt Conference and meeting Twila was awesome—it was great to learn all about her and how the award came to be. Well… the award itself—the malting shovel—perfect! I will say getting to play accordion in the Malty Maltster Band with Twila was a highlight. The whole thing was a serious hoot.
Who are some of the people who have inspired you or helped you to get to where you are as a farmer today?
Oh man, so many people have helped and inspired me. Too many to list really. In terms of malting and food-grade grains—NYC Greenmarkets, and June Russel in particular, have been tireless advocates for farmers and helped make connections that really helped get our farm up and running. Gotta shout out to Jimmy Carbone—that guy is priceless and has been an amazing inspiration to me on many levels. Going to his radio shows was always the best. I have had a lot of farming mentors, mostly the old-timer locals who took me under their wing and got me out of jams, and gave advice, but folks nobody would have heard of. I have to mention John Demaria, whose farm and slaughterhouse I worked on as a teenager. He taught me about the concept of adding value to your farm through processing. This was invaluable. In terms of malting grain, I would need to thank the great people at Cornell Small Grains Breeding Program: Mark Sorrels, David Benscher, and the crew at the Love Lab. Smart, awesome people, all of them. Also a nod to Mark Ochs of Ochs Consulting for this help in troubleshooting agronomic problems and being an enthusiastic champion of malting grains—and beer! And last, but not least—my pals at Valley Malt for cheering me on and learning this trade with me the hard way. They have been steadfast partners in this project from the get-go and without them—not sure I would be where I am today as a farmer.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge the craft malting industry faces?
Well, I can only speak as a farmer in the Northeast, but from my angle, it’s finding good producers that want to grow high-quality malting grain and, in particular, barley. It’s risky and it requires an attention to detail not all farmers want to get into.
How do you personally promote craft malt?
I promote the industry by doing and being an example to see. I spend a lot of time talking to other farmers about the how and what of getting into and being successful at growing craft malting grains. I visit with the customers I work with and go to events that promote locally malted beer and spirits. I also drink a lot of craft beer—does that count?
What’s your favorite small grain to grow and why?
Oh—maybe Danko rye— it is so fun to grow, does well in our area and on our marginal soils; it’s beautiful and great for the soil. It allows us to do some no-till farming in an organic system as well. I also just love the look of the berries—the blue-green of them is wonderful. Plus, it makes killer beer and really adds a wonderful flavor.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to say thank you to all the people who are out there making this craft malt movement happen. It’s a lot of hard work and isn’t easy to get into. It honestly makes a big difference to me at the farm level knowing we are all working towards the same goal—great beer, local economies, and successful family farms—all good stuff in my book.