As a fourth-generation farmer, Michael Swanson had experience growing crops like wheat, sugar beets and barley, but he knew nothing about distilling the harvest into alcohol. But Swanson and his wife, Cheri Reese, didn’t let a lack of knowledge stop them from pursuing a dream to start a craft distillery.
The couple left their jobs in Minneapolis—Reese owned a PR firm and Swanson worked in marketing for a Fortune 500 company—and relocated to their 1,500-acre family farm in Hallock, Minn., just south of the Canadian border, to start Far North Spirits.
In 2013, the distillery released its first bottles of gin handcrafted from grains grown on the farm. The entire process, from growing the grains to milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling and bottling, is done onsite. In addition to crafting gin, Far North Spirits makes rum from sugarcane grown in Louisiana and rye whiskey that will be released next year from heirloom corn and rye grown and harvested on the farm.
The grain-to-glass concept is so popular that Far North Spirits plans to expand its reach. Its spirits are currently available in California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and North Dakota, with plans to reach Connecticut in the near future. Swanson and Reese also open their doors to guests, offering tastings and tours of the farm and the distillery.
“There is a strong foodie and craft-brewing culture in Minneapolis, and the craft-spirits movement has exploded nationwide,” Reese says. “There is a huge market for it.”
The number of craft distilleries is on the rise. There are 570 craft distilleries across the nation—up from 68 in 2004—and 12 percent are farm distilleries growing their own fruits and grains to produce artisanal spirits, according to the American Distilling Institute. “It’s part of the renaissance of the local food movement,” notes institute president Bill Owens. “The demand is going to continue to grow.”
Using local, seasonal ingredients has a positive impact on the taste of spirits like rum and gin, which helps drive the farm-to-bottle movement.
While some distillers grow their own raw materials, including heirloom and organic crops, others partner with farmers to source local crops that reflect the flavors of the region. “Managing the farm and the distillery is a good thing because we want to have as much control over the final product as possible,” Reese explains.
On his 80-acre farm in St. Augustine, Fla., Francisco Arroyo grows USDA Certified Organic vegetables like sweet corn, jalapeno peppers and tomatoes for a 300-member CSA and allocates a portion of the fields at KYV Farm to grow crops under contract for wholesale accounts. Until St. Augustine Distillery approached him about growing heirloom sugarcane for premium rum production, Arroyo hadn’t considered planting his fields with commodity crops.
“Small farmers like me can’t make much money off of commodity crops like sugarcane,” he explains. “But this is a good relationship because there are no brokers or distributors, and I don’t have to take the chance of selling it on the open market; I charge a fair price and [the distillery] signs a contract to buy the whole crop.”
KYV Farm contracted with the distiller to plant 3 acres of heirloom sugarcane in 2013. The experiment was so successful that production increased to 7 acres in 2014. It’s a relationship Arroyo believes benefits both the farm and the distiller. “They know they could get [sugarcane] cheaper elsewhere in Florida, but for the distillery, it’s not about the sugarcane, it’s about the story,” he says.
A commitment to purchasing local products and incorporating the farm-to-bottle message in their marketing drives a lot of craft distillers’ sourcing decisions. Working with local farmers also helps improve the flavor of the spirits, which is the main reason Scott Blackwell sought out regional growers when he started High Wire Distilling in 2013. “We felt like the local angle would only get us so far,” he says. “In order to really set ourselves apart, we needed a unique grain-forward -flavor that comes from getting the best raw ingredients.”
Blackwell, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has extensive knowledge about artisanal grains but the baker-turned-distiller thought he would be resigned to using GMO crops from commercial growers when he started making rum, vodka and gin. “This area is so agriculturally rich, but I didn’t understand the landscape of who was out there and might be willing to work with us,” he explains.
Word spread that the distillery was looking to partner with local farmers, and Blackwell, who co-owns High Wire Distilling with his wife, Ann Marshall, started getting calls from growers eager to develop partnerships. Instead of buying grains from large commercial growers in the Midwest, the corn and sugarcane used in spirits like vodka and rum are grown on small farms in the South; a Mennonite farm in Tennessee grows sorghum for the Quarter-Acre Sorghum Whiskey, and, in 2014, the distillery barreled its first batch of rhum agricole, a spirit made with fresh sugarcane juice from a crop grown in South Carolina.
“Small farms aren’t growing row crops because the farmers can’t afford the equipment,” Blackwell says. “The farmers around here are looking for folks who can use their agricultural skills. It wasn’t hard to talk them into growing for us.”
Bendistillery, a distiller in Bend, Ore., started making handcrafted spirits in 1996. Founder Jim Bendis recalls -farmers expressing shock that a local distiller wanted to source local grains. “The initial response was, ‘What?!’” he recalls. “Over the years, we’ve become bigger and bigger customers, and the farmers love us.”
Distilling The Fields
In 2009, Bendistillery transitioned to a farm distillery and started growing rye and barley on its own 24-acre farm. Adding farming to the business model helped Bendis realize the realities of producing a grain-to-glass product. “We’re out on a limb trying to grow grains in an area that grows sagebrush,” Bendis says. “It’s way more expensive for us to farm it ourselves than it would be to buy it from another farm.”
It’s not just the costs of equipment, seeds and irrigation that need to be factored into adding a farm to an established distillery; there are labor costs, too. Bendistillery hired a farm manager and employs farmhands to help with the crops—roles that were never part of the original business plan.
Even though the distillery is working toward growing a greater percentage of the grains used in handcrafted spirits, such as Crater Lake Estate Gin and Crater Lake Pepper Vodka, Bendis knows their ability to meet the product demands of a million-bottle production run per year depends on relationships with growers: Bendistillery continues working with farmers to hand-pick wild juniper berries and grow crops like peppers and hazelnuts to infuse their spirits.
Since the farm distillery is still in its infancy, Bendis is also talking to local farmers about growing grains in the event of a crop failure on the farm. “Farming is a rough business, and if I’d looked at it from a business perspective, I never would have done it,” Bendis admits. “For us, farming is more about pride and making the best product.”
Growing their own grains for Far North Spirits is also a point of pride for Swanson and Reese. In fact, their farming background made the couple a lot more comfortable with sowing seeds and harvesting crops than creating craft spirits. “We look at the risk more in terms of the finished product and sales than crops,” Reese says.
Even experienced farmers have challenges growing crops for distilling. Last summer, Swanson and Reese worried about what would happen to their production plans if the farmhands couldn’t get the corn off in time. To ensure ongoing availability of grains, the couple plant and harvest 140 acres of grains—far more than the distillery needs for annual production—which also helps protect them in seasons with poor yields. Reese recalls that her father-in-law was skeptical about using a portion of the family farm to grow grains for distilling. “He thought we were crazy because we’d never made alcohol before and had no idea whether [our plan] would work,” she says. “He was convinced when we showed him that the return on bottled alcohol is much better than the return for grain on the commodities market.”
Plan To Production
In the first two years after Far North Spirits began production on offerings like Solveig Gin and Roknar Minnesota Rye Whiskey from grains grown on their family farm, the farm-to-bottle movement took off and countless aspiring distillers approached Swanson and Reese about following in their footsteps. In fact, Reese believes that some craft distillers might be envious of farm distillers who grow their own crops and offer tastings and tours of their farm-to-bottle operations. “More distillers are interested in taking a local, authentic, small-batch approach to distilling,” she says.
Reese is quick to point out that craft distillers are eager to cooperate with each other. The couple is active in the Minnesota Distillers’ Guild and love sharing their knowledge about growing grains for alcohol production. In addition to growing grains for Far North Spirits, the farm also sells local, non-GMO grains to other craft distilleries. “We’ve talked to other Minnesota farmers who are interested in getting involved in the trend, and we have orders coming in from other Minnesota distilleries for our grains,” Reese says. “The distillers are thrilled to have someone like [Swanson] who understands grains and distilling growing crops for them, and we are happy to help expand the industry.”
Blackwell has no plans to turn High Wire Distilling into a farm distillery. Instead, he’s working to expand his partnerships with farmers and experiment with local ingredients, such as Carolina gold rice and James Island Red heirloom corn, which according to Blackwell, has never been legally distilled to produce unique flavors. The bold experimentation is paying off: High Wire Distilling produces 3,500 cases of spirits per year and distribution is expanding from South Carolina into Georgia, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York where retailers can ship the products nationally. Despite the growing demand, Blackwell is still excited when farmers who learn about his commitment to local ingredients call the distillery to talk about collaboration. “These farmers are doing back flips because we want to work with them on niche crops,” Blackwell says. “These relationships are extremely important to our success.”
The burgeoning farm-to-bottle movement is a boon for small-scale farmers and distillers alike, providing new opportunities to create partnerships while producing products that satisfy the demand for craft spirits. Let’s raise a glass to celebrate the newest innovation in the local food movement—cheers!
This article originally ran in the September/October 2014 issue of Hobby Farms.