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Northern Neck farmers are growing for chips and brew

From left, Mason Brent and Bay’s Best Feed plant manager David Boarman fill barley bags for delivery. Photo by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

During the summer and early fall, roads in the Northern Neck are lined by miles and miles of corn fields. Nearly all of that corn is yellow “field corn” and won’t end up on anyone’s dinner plate.

However, a couple of Heathsville farmers, Mason Brent of Northern Neck Commodities Processing Inc. and Keith Harris of Harris Farms, are combining efforts to break into the white corn market.

Brent and the late Billy Dawson, owners of the commodities processing plant and Bay’s Best Feed in Claraville, began selling yellow corn for chips to S&K Industries when the Manassas Park-based company reached out to them eight years ago. The company, which produces chips, tortillas and other products for retail markets, wanted to partner with a Virginia-based company.

About four years ago, several of S&K’s customers starting selling strictly white corn and non-GMO chips. S&K asked Dawson for those products, but keeping the equipment clean enough to prevent “cross contamination” and growing non-GMO corn aren’t easy tasks, according to Brent. So Dawson declined.

Northern Neck Commodities continued to sell S&K yellow corn for chips that Brent says are sold to school districts and boutique-type shops. In fact, his plant took six tons to S&K just last week.

In the spring, Brent reconsidered S&K’s request for white corn.

“I reminded them they’d offered us the opportunity to grow white corn,” said Brent.

So he approached Harris, who has been farming in the Northern Neck for over 28 years. Harris agreed to try his hand at growing white corn and planted 29 acres.

Now, don’t get confused. Harris’ white corn isn’t the tender, sweet corn most folks serve for dinner. You don’t want to shuck an ear, boil it and slather it with butter.

“It’s still field corn,” he said. “And it’s going to taste like field corn.”

Some varieties of white “field” corn feature a harder than normal starch used in corn chips and tortillas.

“Growing white corn is fairly unique for this area,” said Brent.

But according to Harris, growing the white corn is not unlike growing a field of yellow corn. He’ll harvest in September.

“The thing we really have to be careful with is cross pollination,” he said. “One or two yellow kernels will definitely stain a chip.

“We just have to wait and see how it turns out and how it holds up.”

Barley business

What is taking off at Northern Neck Commodities is the barley business.

With more and more brew houses and breweries popping up across the state and country, the need for barley is rising. Brent and company are answering that call.

Plant manager David Boarman was busy packing bags of six-row barley a few weeks ago, preparing to ship some 22 tons to Asheville, N.C., to a malt house that supplies malt barley for larger brand beer makers.

“The market that’s really working for us is the beverage market,” said Brent.

He and Dawson initially partnered with whiskey maker Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, then started supplying KO Distillery in Manassas Park.

“They are buying grain like there’s no tomorrow,” said Brent.

Copper Fox also malts a lot of grain for craft beer makers and now has two tasting rooms, one in Sperryville and one in Williamsburg.

The Asheville malt house gets about 22 tons of barley from Northern Neck Commodities about every two weeks year round.

Northern Neck Commodities, which is co-owned by Dawson’s sister Karen Jett, buys all its crops from local farmers.

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