Stephanie and Felicia Ohnmacht grew up on a 3,000-acre grain farm near Burlington, Colorado, and now work to convince small craft distilleries that buying direct from individual farmers will offer them a more consistent product while resulting in spirits with a story.
They call their three-year-old venture Whiskey Sisters Supply Company.
"We create that connection for distilleries so they can tell their customers they are working directly with farmers," Felicia said. "Once a year we invite them out to our farm, and they eat with us around the table in our big farmhouse. It's fun for them, and it's fun for the farmers. We just want these businesses to grow and to support them along the way."
The Ohnmachts will be among the featured presenters at the upcoming annual "Grain School" at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, scheduled January 18-20.
The unique event brings together people involved in all aspects of the grain supply chain, from farmers and agronomists to bakers, millers, brewers, chefs and home bakers, for three days of learning, sharing and celebrating the farm-to-table process.
"We've expanded our curriculum and hands-on workshops and will explore heritage grains in diverse production systems as well as creative on-farm vertical integration," said Nanna Meyer, an associate professor of health sciences and founder of the school, now in its fourth year.
This year's speakers and instructors include scientists from the Land Institute in Kansas, the Bread Lab at the University of Washington, the USDA National Resource Conservation Service and Oregon State University as well as end-users like millers, bakers and beverage makers who will provide hands-on instruction on everything from pasta and tortilla making to malting and brewing.
The school includes a public forum on Saturday, January 19, from 5:30 to 10 p.m. in Berger Hall, which is free and open to the public.
"For me, being there is about educating people that there is a difference when it comes to the grain they buy," Stephanie Ohnmachts said. "Part of the education piece is making sure the person making these products has a better understanding of why it's important to consider what grain they buy and how they use it. That's what brings it all full circle."
After leaving the farm to attend college at CU-Boulder, the Ohnmachts were working in other fields when a chance conversation with a craft distiller convinced them there was a need to connect artisanal craft beverage makers with regional grain sources. Having grown up on a farm, they had ties with Colorado grain farmers that could furnish Colorado-sourced grain.
Popular craft spirit ingredients include millet, oats, corn, rye and wheat. The Ohnmachts work with a limited staff and the farmers themselves to get the grains harvested, stored, cleaned and milled in the Burlington area and then packaged in 50 pound bags, palletized and delivered with their own truck.
The system insures that distilleries receive their grain within a day or two of when it was milled.
The sisters also make sure the grain is cleaned to very high specifications and grown from year to year in a consistent manner. They currently source from a handful of different farms and sell to around 15 clients, including small town businesses like Sand Creek Distillery, a veteran-owned business in Hugo.
"These distilleries are looking for grain, but they're not buying a lot in any one month," Stephanie said.
Each of their distillery customers buy anywhere from 500 pounds up to 10,000 pounds monthly, which translates to between 10 and 150 bushels each.
"It's helping out our family farm for sure, but it hasn't shifted the business model completely," Felicia said. "A lot of the grain from our farm is still marketed through conventional methods, such as the co-op or the feedlot."
"One of the farmers we work with put in a circle of oats, and we took maybe an eighth of that," Stephanie added. "After we take a small portion, the farmer still needs to find a market for the rest of it."
Most of what they handle so far consists of conventional crops like wheat, corn, rye and barley.
"Some people are trying to differentiate themselves with heritage grains, but not that many of our clients really know how to do that yet," Felicia explained. "We're trying to influence them to go more in that direction, but it will take time."
One of the challenges is the need to do more testing to become familiar with how to use unique grains, she said.
"It's not automatic that just because it's a heritage grain it's going to work for how they want to use it," she explained. "So if farmers plant it, there's the risk of not knowing how well it work. And you have to get enough of it raised to do test batches and find out if something is going to be a good variety for that or a no-go."
Heritage grains often produce lower yields, which adds another risk factor to the mix, she added.
They believe focusing on specialty grains requires a mindset shift among all involved, including producers, business owners and consumers, who have to be willing to pay more for the opportunity to enjoy a niche product.
Aubriel Jones, who is currently transitioning out of a membership coordinator role with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union to take a job with the department of agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University, is helping with coordination of Grain School and will participate on a panel with the Ohnmachts sisters during the public forum.
"I think a lot of producers in Eastern Colorado are starting to explore alternative grains, with commodity prices stagnant or decreasing. I think they are definitely looking for options," she said.
Grain School, even just the free forum, could give producers new contacts and new ideas about how to diversify, she said.
"Economics isn't the main focus, but we do have a lot of companies coming in who will talk about what products they are looking for and how the buying and and selling process works. I'm promoting it to our members because I feel like it could be beneficial to anyone since it covers such a wide variety of topics," she said.
Supplying specialty markets is not entirely new nor is it limited to small farms, she pointed out.
"Last year I was in a discussion group with some people who were backyard gardeners but others who were growing 1,200 acres of ancient grains at a time, so this is something that applies to all production systems, regardless of size," she said.
Jones grew up on an 1,800-acre organic grain farm northeast of Chappell, Neb., which went through good years and bad but always ended up finding markets for specialty grains like amaranth.
Their customers over the years have included Arrowhead Mills, Kellogg's Kashi brand, Bay State Milling and Ardent Mills in Colorado, and Heartland Mills in Kansas.
Farmers sometimes underestimate the versatility and popularity of commodity grain alternatives, especially among artisan businesses and home bakers, she said.
"Grain School really does an amazing job of connecting people to the food they eat and telling the story of how it all comes together," she said.