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Can Craft Spirits Save the Family Farm?

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  • Can Craft Spirits Save the Family Farm?

    The Walter family has farmed in the Midwest since the 19th century and since the 1930s they’ve been on a 2,000-acre farm 60 miles west of Chicago. They grow corn for the commodity market, mostly yellow dent, a starchy type of field corn that accounts for about 95 percent of all corn grown in the United States. It’s in demand for animal feed as well as to make ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup.
    It’s also subject to unpredictable price swings, which makes turning a profit very tough—especially on a farm of just 2,000 acres. That may seem large if you live in a city, but the Walters have some neighbors working 30,000-acre farms. So in the early 2010s, Jim and Jaimie Walter, the father and son who own the farm, teamed up with Nick Nagele, a fifth-generation farmer turned seed marketer, to look at ways to find revenue streams not dependent on commodity corn.
    Just as in the early 1800s when midwestern farmers converted grain to liquor to preserve excess crops and make them easier to ship to market, the Walters and Nagele decided to build a distillery. The trio called it Whiskey Acres and the facility opened in 2014, making bourbon and vodka with their yellow dent corn. Then they began to explore other crops that could feed their distillery and produce distinctive tasting spirits.

    Whiskey Acres now uses a variety of corn, including Glass Gem and Shaman Blue Popcorn, as well as a strain called Cock’s Prolific, a heritage varietal once grown by Thomas Jefferson. They’re also growing their own wheat, barley and rye to supply their stills. Rye, which they once grew only as a cover crop to add nutrients when tilled into the soil, is now used to make their bottled-in-bond rye whiskey, generating favorable notice and revenue.

    The distillery can attract as many as 600 visitors over a weekend, many coming from Chicago to tour the farm distillery and buy bottles to take home. “We’re quickly coming to the point where the distillery will gross more than the farm,” Nagele says.

    America’s agricultural system embraced centralization and factory farming starting in the 1970s, when U.S. agriculture secretary Earl Butz told farmers they needed to “get big or get out.” Since then, consolidation has continued unabated, with larger farms gobbling up smaller ones.

    Even supply lines have been centralized. In 1988, 50.5 percent of corn seed in the U.S. was sold by the four largest biotech companies; by 2015, that had grown to 85 percent. The price of corn seed increased 259 percent between 1995 and 2011, while the promised boost in yield per acre rose only one-tenth that, according to the statistics from the National Agricultural Statistics Service as analyzed by the Center for American Progress.

    The result is a farm system in which individual farms essentially become subcontractors to a multinational industry, which calls most of the shots. Farms that seek to break away from this system find a hard row to hoe. Federal policy and the trend toward factory farming essentially decrees that farmers should still get big or get out.

    Read More on The Daily Beast.
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