Thursday, August 16, 2018

Kosher harvest

Chris McGann

Every summer, when green wheat fields have turned to gold, the search begins. In the small town of Monroe, about 50 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, Rabbi Jacob Tyrnauer begins lining up the farms to make sure he can find soft white wheat in just the right condition to make Jewish matzah for his congregation.

Matzah is unleavened bread Jews eat during Passover to commemorate the time the Israelites fled Egypt, leaving in such haste, they had no time to allow their bread to rise.

Many years, Tyrnauer, or Rabbi Jacob as he calls himself, finds the wheat he needs in the places like Woodburn, Indiana. But this year, apparently because of wet weather, his quest took him farther, all the way to Eastern Washington.

New York rabbi Jacob Tyrnauer and his sons
 inspect wheat in Eastern Washington.
“We had a problem here this year, we could not cut the wheat before it sprouted,” he explained.

In order to meet the requirements and restrictions of kosher law, the wheat - and matzah milled from the wheat - must not be allowed to ferment before baking. Fermentation is the result of the natural microbial enzymatic activity caused by exposing grain starch to water. In the case of kosher wheat, if even a small portion of the crop is sprouted, it is rendered chametz or fermented and not suitable for matzah.

With harvest season upon him, the 71-year-old Orthodox rabbi needed to find enough clean dry wheat to mill for his 6,000-member congregation in Monroe and Brooklyn.

That’s when Tyrnauer reached out to WSDA for help and Laura Raymond stepped in.

Raymond leads WSDA’s Regional Markets Program, which aims to strengthen the economic vitality of small and direct marketing farms and increase availability of healthy, locally grown Washington foods.

Although the program does not act as a representative for any individual seller, Raymond provided a list of grain producers who sell directly to consumers and serve niche markets such as local bakers and craft brewers.

“Wheat is not typically sold direct to the consumer,” Raymond said. “But as consumer interest in farm to table connections continues to grow, we are seeing that demand from the market expand into grain. An increasing number of producers are interested in opportunities to sell grain directly. Our program helps support growers to build and connect with those markets.”

The clientele for the Regional Markets Small Farm and Direct Marketing program is often smaller scale with unique needs. Raymond said it makes the work more interesting. In the case of this kosher wheat request, she answered several of the rabbi's questions about Washington’s cropland to make sure all aspects of production met the kosher standard.

“On one occasion I had to confirm that the area is not considered a desert, which apparently is a concern,” Raymond said. “This is a fascinating process and I am learning a lot.”

With Raymond’s help, Tyrnauer connected with Shepherd's Grain, a Northwest grain growers’ group that espouses sustainable farming practices and cultivates direct connections between farmers and consumers. The 35 growers in the group package grain with tracking numbers so buyers can trace products back to the individual farms where they were grown.

Shepherd’s Grain Business Development Manager Tim McElroy helped find the right farm.

“They have a lot of requirements, but Rabbi Jacob was a pleasure to work with,” McElroy said. “We enjoyed doing business from someone across the country and finding new markets for our wheat.”
McElroy said the whole thing happened fast.

“He wanted to see the moisture levels on the wheat. We got it and when we gave it to him, he came right out,” McElroy said.
Rabbi Jacob and his sons discuss
 the wheat harvest.
Within a few weeks of contacting WSDA, the New York rabbi was in the Palouse rolling down wheat field rows in the cab of a combine. Kosher rules require the rabbi to cut the wheat.

“I was sitting in the combine. Every time he went to lower the knife arm, I pulled the lever,” Tyrnauer said. “I have to pray while we are cutting. The prayer is, ‘I’m cutting it for matzah.”

In addition to inspecting the grain and engaging the cutter bar, a rabbi must also make sure the machinery is properly cleaned and supervise the entire process from harvest to baking.

In the end, the work paid off. Tyrnauer bought five truckloads – 3,500 bushels – of wheat to send back to New York.

“(WSDA) took care of me,” said Rabbi Jacob. “(Raymond) was very nice and very good.  And Tim, too! The main thing is we have wheat! That means you did very well.”

Visit WSDA's Regional Markets webpage or our Small Farm Direct Marketing page for more information.