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New Crop, Healthier Soils at Logan County Farm
Kentucky Ag Connection - 10/23/2020

An idea that started with the curiosity of an enterprising south-central Kentucky farmer is showing promise as another crop for Kentucky small grain producers, as well as a reliable source of Kentucky-grown cereal rye for bourbon distillers, bakers and millers.

In a state long recognized for its progressive farmers, the Halcomb family of Walnut Grove Farms in Logan County are known as some of the most innovative. In 2009, the late Don Halcomb began experimenting with cereal rye as a cover crop on his grain fields. Like some Kentucky farmers, the Halcombs chose to plant rye as a cover crop, because it produces an elaborate root system that reduces soil erosion and keeps nutrients on the farm. In 2012, Halcomb started wondering what would happen if he allowed the crop to produce grain.

"My dad was a fifth-generation farmer, and my brother John and I are sixth-generation farmers in Schochoh," said Sam Halcomb, Don Halcomb's son. "We know that every generation has to modify their operation and business plan to survive. We have to be open and look for new ideas. Cereal rye seems promising, if we can figure out the agronomics and marketing."

Don Halcomb first shared his idea of producing cereal rye for grain with University of Kentucky wheat breeder David Van Sanford. Having worked on numerous research projects together for more than 30 years, the two were longtime collaborators and friends. Halcomb also started talking to craft distilleries and sold a small amount of rye to some of them between 2012 and 2014.

"Don and I talked casually about rye for a few years, and then in 2015, he planted a few strips of KWS hybrid rye on the same farm where we had the wheat and barley variety trials," said Van Sanford, a professor in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. "We harvested part of the strips and estimated the yield, and then he took the grain down to the Walnut Grove shop to evaluate the quality."

The Halcomb family was pleased with the yield, the quality and the crop's potential. They were not the only ones.

The Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association was becoming involved as more farmers were showing interest in growing the crop. More UK specialists were coming on board too, including Chad Lee, director of the UK Grain and Forage Center for Excellence. Lee began to take on a leading role studying the crop's agronomics.

"This project is exciting, because we could potentially develop a new crop for Kentucky farmers and improve the health of our soils at the same time," he said.

Barbara Hurt, executive director of DendriFund, was ecstatic at what she saw when she was invited to attend a UK rye field day at Walnut Grove Farms in 2015. DendridFund is a foundation started by Brown-Forman and the Brown family, sixth-generation owners of Brown-Forman. The foundation works to inspire joint action to improve the natural, social and economic environment for future generations.

"I got really excited, because the idea of bringing commercial rye back to Kentucky incorporated all three aspects of how DendriFund defines sustainability," she said. "Without a way to financially support the adoption of environmentally beneficial practices, it is hard to sustain these practices beyond initial trials. The Halcombs cracked the code of improving long-term soil health and water quality without sacrificing short-term requirements for sustainably living off the land."

Before Prohibition, Kentucky producers regularly grew rye, but after that, rye production moved to colder climates.

"Currently, distilleries are sourcing their rye from Canada and Europe," Hurt said. "If we can get a local source, these distilleries can reduce their transportation costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and further support the local economy."

In 2017, DendriFund sponsored Don Halcomb, fellow Kentucky farmer Bob Wade Jr. and Chad Lee to visit Germany and Poland to learn more about modern rye production and meet Ela Szuleta, a student studying rye genetics in Poland. They returned with six varieties and six management styles to start experimenting with small plots. Szuleta is now a UK graduate student pursuing her doctorate under Van Sanford and Tim Phillips, UK grass and rye breeder. DendriFund is funding her graduate work.

The Halcombs grew more rye in 2016 and 2017. Van Sanford first included rye in his UK small plot research trials in 2018. In 2019, things really ramped up.

"We got serious about planting rye plots with the 2019 crop, when we planted a trial involving different rye cultivars including hybrids on three different planting dates," Van Sanford said. "We repeated the study in 2020."

In 2019, DendriFund secured grants for four, geographically dispersed Kentucky farm families to produce 25 acres of rye, expanding the project to farm-scale trials with UK. They used varieties and practices that were showing promise in CAFE research. Woodford Reserve Distillery purchased the rye in September, after three of the four farms passed their quality standards. The money the farmers received from the sale went back into the fund to help the program become self-sustaining and involve more producers.

More information on the Kentucky Commercial Rye Cover Crop Initiative is available by contacting Franklin at sfranklin@farmland.org or 502-272-0726.


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