Local Hero Profile: Four Star Farms
By Jenny Miller Sechler, CISA Volunteer
Published in CISA’s February 2014 E-newsletter (Sign up here!)
Anyone who talks to Liz L’Etoile of Four Star Farms will come away from the conversation thinking about grains the way most people think about fine wine. “We are hoping to get folks to use flour in more specific ways,” says L’Etoile. Four Star certainly provides a lot of grains for people to choose from. The L’Etoile family has been growing hops, barley, wheat, spelt, rye, triticale, and corn for corn meal on their farm in Northfield for 5 years. They have developed an appreciation for each grain, as well as an understanding of how weather conditions and climate impact the end product in their customers’ kitchens. It helps that between five of them, they boast degrees in fields as diverse as engineering, food science, and social work, and experience in everything from building submarines to working in hospitals. The L’Etoile family’s warmth, enthusiasm and inventiveness have made all the difference in their role as forerunners in Massachusetts’ grain farming revival.
Four Star Farm was founded partially on a dare. While Bonnie and Eugene (Gene) L’Etoile began turf farming in 1977, their work in agriculture remained part time as Gene worked as an engineer in advanced underwater combat systems and Bonnie taught at the University of Rhode Island. Bonnie’s family had been farming in Rhode Island for generations, and both Bonnie and Gene felt drawn to continuing that tradition full time. Still, Bonnie had some conditions. If Gene could find a big enough continuous piece of property that was flat, had no stones, was near a river but not so low that it would flood, she would leave their home in Rhode Island. “Bonnie was thinking, ‘Oh, he’ll never find it!’” laughs Liz, as she tells the story. But with his father-in-law’s help, Gene located a former dairy farm in Northfield, Massachusetts that fit Bonnie’s conditions in every way. In 1986, Bonnie, Gene, and their two boys, Nate and Jacob, settled down on the farm and expanded their turf business. Now, all four L’Etoile’s continue to live on the farm, along with Jacob and Nathan’s families, and all family members are actively involved in different aspects of agriculture.
The turf business boomed for many years, and it paid for the two boys to go to college. But about five years ago, as the turf business started to diminish, the L’Etoile family knew that something had to change significantly in order to keep Four Star thriving. Always looking for new opportunities, the L’Etoile’s found one in the resurgence of local agriculture. “There was a burgeoning local food movement, but there was a gap. Growing grain was a lost art.” In a move in keeping with the family’s desire to take on a challenge, they decided to step into the gap and revive the art of growing grain.
The question is, how do you start growing grains in a part of the country where there is no infrastructure to support it? “When this was the bread basket for the country, there was a mill in every county,” notes Liz. “The infrastructure went away with the westward expansion. Now mills in Massachusetts are hard to come by.” In fact, Four Star filled their first orders with a counter top mill the family bought Bonnie for Mother’s Day. But the many skills of the L’Etoile family have helped them overcome these hurdles step by step. They eventually purchased a larger mill from a company in North Carolina, and good relationships with another farmer has allowed them to work out a deal to share a combine. More importantly, when they find their systems aren’t quite working right for the farm’s needs, they have the ingenuity and education to tweak them. Explains Liz, “We can put pen to paper and design something and then build it. That’s been a saving grace.”
The family’s attention to detail is most evident in the quality of their product. After their first harvest, they sent some barley to a lab for analysis. “We wanted it to have good protein, to taste good, and have no diseases and no toxins,” explains Liz. Once they started producing grains that met their standards, the L’Etoiles hired a baker to try out recipes so they could learn the characteristics of each grain. As Liz explains, unlike large flour companies, Four Star does not sell “all-purpose flour,” which is commonly produced by milling many different grains together. “There’s controversy in this approach,” says Liz. “You’re not getting the grain in their purest forms, and some people think it can cause health problems.” This is why Four Star doesn’t mix grains and teaches people, through their website and suggested recipes, how to use particular grains for particular purposes. The L’Etoiles friendly, educational approach to the use of grains has been crucial for Four Star’s growth as a business. “People see whole wheat flour and say, ‘I want to eat that because I know it’s healthy but I’ve never used this before. What if I don’t like it?’” Recipes such as Gingery Cream Cheese and Molasses Bread and Cranberry Wheat Berry Salad, both of which can be found on Four Star’s website, almost guarantee that customers will be satisfied with their first foray into Four Star products.
Being part of the grain revival in New England comes with challenges for sure. Besides the lack of infrastructure, Liz counts New England weather as a reliable nemesis, as weather conditions can change texture, taste, and performance of the product. The family’s ongoing work with bakeries and laboratories has taught them how to compensate for fluctuations in the grain’s moisture tolerance, which impacts the texture of dough, or for starch damage. The learning curve, as Liz describes it, is steep. But the family loves working together. “Working with your family members means being around people you like a lot and being honest about what’s working and what’s not. It gives you an opportunity to be genuine. We all support each other.” For Liz, the former social worker and hospital employee, “The worst day at the farm is better than the best days at the hospital. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m really proud of the work we do.”
To find locations that sell Four Star Farm grain you can visit their website.