One day in 2016, Ruth Perretti was out in Marksboro—a tiny hamlet in Warren County’s Frelinghuysen Township, where she lives with her husband Eric Kaplan—when she met the founders of a new business called River Valley Community Grains (RVCG). They knew Perretti had hired a farmer to grow crops on some of her land and asked if she would be interested in trying organic grains. They would advise her on the growing process and find buyers for the end product.
The founders of RVCG—Mike Hozer, Len Bussanich and Larry Mahmarian, childhood friends from Bergen and Hudson counties who had fallen in love with the area’s natural beauty—began their business out of concern about the decades of heavy pesticide use by farmers growing corn and soy for livestock feed for big agricultural corporations. Growing heirloom grains naturally, without the use of chemicals, they explained to Perretti, would reduce the amount of toxins in the soil and watershed, and provide a crop increasingly in demand by small artisan bakers.
Perretti was all in. The Montclair native had spent idyllic childhood summers in Marksboro riding horses and swimming in the Paulinskill River bordering her family’s property (now hers), which spills into the Musconetcong and then into the Delaware. She later inherited the family home. “The water in northwestern New Jersey is some of the purest anywhere,” she says.
In 2017, she planted her first acre of wheat, joining other local farmers switching from feed crops to organic grains.
RVCG provides these farmers with the guidance, tools and resources they need to make the switch—procuring the right heirloom seeds for the soil and conditions, managing pests and weeds without chemicals, threshing and harvesting, cleaning, storing, testing and milling the grain and, finally, finding markets for the flour.
Their artisanal flour and rolled oats are used by local bakeries, pizzerias and granola makers and sold in farmers markets and natural supermarkets throughout the state. RVCG flour is used by Montclair’s Le French Dad Boulangerie, Bloomfield’s Jed’s Bread, Brooklyn’s Otway Bakery, and Frenchette Bakery and Mel Bakery in Manhattan. Chilton Mill Brewing in Long Valley even uses it to make a Belgian wheat beer.
Naturally, RVCG flour was also used in the pies at Ruthie’s Bar-B-Q & Pizza in Montclair until Perretti and Kaplan closed the beloved restaurant this summer so she could focus on the grain initative in Marksboro.
In May, RVCG took a big leap forward with the opening of a home base, Marksboro Mills, in a former farm-machine repair shop. Perretti purchased the property and supervised the renovation, which she hopes will cement Marksboro’s status as a grain hub—the center of an agricultural revolution that will restore small grain farming to an area that, from the late 1700s through the early 1900s, was the bread basket of the region.
“The small farms in this area were decimated by big ag in the ’80s, which gave seeds and chemicals to farmers, dictated what they could grow, and shipped it all to China,” says Perretti. “The small farms had no choice. This grain initiative is so important because it provides a different economic alternative.”
Marksboro Mills will give farmers a place to sell their products. And, in its demonstration kitchen, students, the public and nonprofits will be able to learn about ancient grains and small-scale grain processing and baking.
As its name implies, the mill’s primary function is a place where RVCG can mill its clients’ grain. Since 2019, they’ve been grinding it by hand on tabletop mills in a commercial kitchen in Long Valley, which they could use only one evening a week. Says Bussanich, “To say Marksboro Mills is a game changer is an understatement.”
The cavernous space also has room to host meetings and demonstrations with nonprofit partners like the Food Shed Alliance and Montclair Community Farms; eventually, it could host special events.
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Growing grain, especially without the use of pesticides and fertilizers, is not for the faint of heart. The weather, which is getting more severe due to climate change, is a constant threat. In July 2021, for example, just as they were getting ready to harvest five acres of spring wheat on Ruthie’s farm, the rain “came down in buckets and did not stop,” says Bussanich. The better part of the harvest, cultivated for nearly a year, was lost due to the rainfall and excessive summer heat.
With the rain come weeds. To prevent weeds and fertilize crops, cover crops of buckwheat, red clover, oats, peas or mustard must be planted.
The “storage piece” has also been challenging, Bussanich says. The grain’s moisture content must stay at 12 percent or below to prevent the growth of the vomitoxin-causing fusarium fungus. They recently acquired a grain hopper that can store many thousands of pounds of grain, as well as the machinery necessary to move the grain into the bins.
For the founders of RVCG, the challenges are well worth it. With a strong demand for artisanal grains, their business is thriving. Farmers get more per pound for heirloom grains than for feed crops, along with the benefits to the local economy. Even with the extra costs associated with organic grains, including fees to RVCG for their services and time transitioning fields to chemical-free soil, many are finding it worthwhile to make the switch.
Bussanich, who worked for the outdoor store Campmor, and Mahmarian, who worked in corporate relocation, both now work full time for RVCG, and are astounded by its rapid growth. “If you had told me when we started I’d be in a position to commit to this full time, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Bussanich says.
The idea for RVCG was kindled when the three friends joined a group trying to restore the soil and water of the Musconetcong River Valley, run by Sister Miriam MacGillis, who founded Genesis Farms in Blairstown, one of the country’s first community-supported organic farms.
To float the idea of a grain initiative, the three friends and MacGillis hosted a meeting of about 50 locals in February 2016. Agronomist Elizabeth Dyck, who had led grain enterprises in other states, shared stories of successful, small-scale grain enterprises she’d helped jumpstart.
Connecting with Dyck, who did soil testing and advised early adopters how to grow without chemicals, was “critical,” says Bussanich. They’d reached out after reading about her role in the Northeast’s grain renaissance in the book The New Bread Basket, by Amy Halloran.
“Elizabeth told us about this area’s rich history of grain growing,” says Bussanich. “We figured, if it’s been done before, it can be done again.”
Steve Gambino of Villa Milagro Vineyards in Warren County was the first to take the leap, transitioning a field of soybeans into spring wheat and producing a bumper crop of 10,000 pounds. He donated 500 pounds to RVCG, which they had stone-ground into flour by an Amish miller in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was baked into samples given to local bakers and donated to Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford for a flour-baking class. The results were delicious and promising, and the business was launched.
At this point, the flour produced through RVCG is not certified organic, even though no pesticides are used and only natural fertilizers applied that would pass organic muster. Certification would require farmers to wait three years before planting organic seeds and not allow them to use any equipment they also use on non-organic fields. “Certification is a real hindrance to growers, especially small farmers,” says Perretti. “They can’t switch to organic if it means they’ll lose money; we have to give them a bridge into this.”
So far, the RVCG model has been working. The biggest problem now is that demand for their flour is outstripping supply. “We need more growers to really bring all the benefits to this process,” says Bussanich, “to bring the environmental benefits, and to bring a product that’s healthier and better and stays in the community.”
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