Grains & Grit: Organic Grain Farmers Tom & Mary Klein

By / Photography By Rachel Joy Barehl | November 30, 2017
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It’s a blue-grey Ohio day and Tom and Mary Klein are readying for our visit to their certified, organic grain farm in Carey, Ohio. Mary emailed me the night before to tell me she’d have lunch ready for us; homemade chicken soup, salad and pumpkin cake, to be precise, all made with ingredients from the farm. As we drive up, their old dog Max greets us with a bark then a wag and Tom makes fun of how overdressed we are in anticipation of a winter that hasn’t yet arrived.

Familial. Our time with Tom and Mary became warmly domestic as they welcomed us into their life.

Lo and behold, gathering around grain is in our blood. Early humans adapted grain into their diets as far back as 10,000 B.C. Yet it wasn’t until the Stone Age when man started to grind down wheat to make flour, and soon learned how to grow food instead of hunt and gather for it. Less time moving meant more time communing. Grain farming led to a life of dwell instead of a life of roam.

Tom and Mary exhibit a rootedness that is rare these days, both in theory and practice. They believe “organic farming is a cause.” Tom’s grandfather bought the farm in 1926, and Tom grew up there and started growing organically in 1996. Met with much speculation and mockery by other farmers in his community for going certified organic, Tom persevered. By day, he was an industrial arts teacher. By morning and night, a farmer through and through. Mary worked as a teacher as well while tending to the family, cooking, preserving and farming.

Today, Tom and Mary have three sons, all engineers, and grow landrace (heirloom) crops, including Wapsie Valley corn for Athens-based Shagbark Seed & Mill and their corn meal, polenta and grits. Tom and Mary also grow Red Fife wheat, Einkorn wheat, spelt and sweet clover. Without these well-tended and well-loved grains, Shagbark would not have the certified organic crops needed to produce their well-known Ohio-grown products.

As you visit with Tom and Mary here within these pages, we hope you get a sense of just how determined and vibrant these grains they grow really are, and, by extension, how vibrant and determined Tom and Mary have become in stewarding a better environment by way of grain for the next generation.

Look for part two of this story in 2018 as we go behind the scenes to see how the grain is processed from Tom and Mary’s farm into Shagbark's line of Ohio-grown certified organic products.

Photo 1: “One of the biggest keys to organic farming is that it’s educational,” says Tom.
Photo 2: “It’s fun,” says Tom when we talk about farming organically.
Photo 3: As we looked at the Einkorn wheat grown by Tom and Mary, Tom hand-husked a kernel for me to taste the seed inside.
Photo 1: Red Fife wheat stored for the winter.
Photo 2: Hybrid corn at rest for the season, blowing in the blue-grey Ohio day. Harvested on November 4, the corn will be marketed. The stalks will be worked into the ground and a cover crop of wheat will be incorporated.
Photo 3: Tom shares a spelt seed that is still rooting into the soil with me. “It looks pregnant,” I say. “I’ve never heard it described that way,” he chuckles.
Photo 4: “That’s what I like to see in the wintertime…covered in green,” says Tom, as he looks out over one of his fields newly planted with seed.

“Nature will heal herself,” says Tom.

Photo 1: The family farm record from 1945, an antiquity much admired by our chief operating officer, Steve Berk.
Photo 2: Mary and Tom insist on showing me one of their treasures from their time spent in Malaysia while in the Peace Corps. The parasol, made by the village children, was used by Mary during the hot, sunny days. “They all knew how to make these,” she says.
Photo 3: Wapsie Valley corn drying for seed, the same corn Shagbark uses for their products. “We know that Tom and Mary are going to grow these particular crops that we’re interested in,” says Shagbark co-owner Michelle Ajamian. “This year we also got a sample of Einkorn from them, and they also grow the Red Fife wheat that we now offer, so we make Red Fife wheat basic flour, and then chefs can order all different kinds of custom siftings depending on what they’re planning to do with it, and we do the same with our spelt flour. Our relationships with farmers: We find out what they’re growing and how much, and we try to market it as much as we can.”
Photo 4: Tom shows us his solar panels, installed in 2012. When Tom’s granddaughter saw them she said, “It’s really nice Grandpa put mirrors out for the cows to see themselves.”
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