“We’ve been seeing an uptick in business since the war started.” That’s what Larry Mahmarian, co-founder of River Valley Community Grains, told me in a phone call when asked about the war in Ukraine’s effect on wheat availability. “The effects right now are similar to what we saw two years ago at the start of the pandemic.”
When the pandemic started to close down businesses and pinch the supply chain, people took to the internet to search for local providers of basic staples that were then hard to get. Some farms had people flooding them for butchered meats. Others saw their milk sales grow as local markets started to carry it. In the case of flour and grains, people found River Valley, and sales jumped.
Mahmarian, whose background is in business and finance, along with Mike Hozer and Len Bussanich, founded River Valley Community Grains in 2016 to be a local grain hub for the northwest portion of the state. The aim was to “relieve the traditional burden on the farmers”, says Mahmarian. Their mission statement provides some insight as to how they relieve that burden: “The mission of River Valley Community Grains is to use a collaborative approach to grain production with the hope of encouraging farmers to use regenerative agricultural methods and to help meet the growing demand for nutrient dense grains, local flour, ‘real bread’ and healthy cereals in our region. Our hope is that the farmer, miller, and baker will engage in conversation on how to create healthful, delicious flours and food, while holding a shared vision of restoring the soils, waters, and health of our communities.” The relationships came, as more and more farmers, millers, and bakers signed on, but it was the pandemic that brought River Valley notoriety among the general public.
Remember that baking habit you picked up during lockdown? Well, you weren’t alone, not by a long shot. Stuck inside and with more time on their hands, people turned to baking, not as much to occupy them, but more so to act as a tonic to the stress of the times. That gives you some idea as to why business picked up for River Valley two years ago. Those customers found such a quality product that they stuck with it. Now, with the world thrown into disarray of a different kind, but one in which wheat is a primary victim, people turn once again to River Valley.
In the end, my conversation with Mr. Mahmarian turned out to be very reassuring. For all the talk of our “broken food system”, there exist equal arguments that our food system is just fine. The proof is in cooperatives like River Valley. They continue to grow, showing just how robust our backup plan is. They now have four mills and an oat roller located in a kitchen incubator in Long Valley which is set up to help food entrepreneurs develop products. There are plenty more projects on the horizon, as well as new relationships with farmers willing to switch their crops to wheat. There is even occasional talk of how to break into beer and spirits production. “This is only the start.”, says Mahmarian. Indeed….
You can find River Valley Community Grains online. Their products include Warthog winter wheat flour, Danko rye flour, Warthog winter wheat berries, raw rolled oats, oat groats, einkorn flour, einkorn berries, and spelt berries. Their Red Barn Kitchen Incubator is located in Long Valley just off Old Route 24, but is by appointment only. Visit the two website links for contact information, recipes, and a list of partnered farms.