Big Woods Brewery in Nashville, Ind., landscaper Amy Gras’ sustainable agriculture operation is a model for collaborations between home gardeners and homebrewers, between landscapers and farmers with breweries. Gras’ experiences with gardening and biology paired with Big Woods Brewery, founded by Tim O’Bryan, Ed Ryan and Jeff McCabe, to create a sustainable relationship. The solid waste left over from the brewing process is referred to as “spent grain.” Gras had a hunch these spent grains could serve as an alternative to conventional agriculture’s reliance on chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides — applications that have proven harmful to humans and ineffective for essential soil regeneration. Gras’ original approach to sustainable agriculture developed via the use of effective microorganisms (EM). “EM is about directing microbial activity towards health and growth,” Gras explains. “Sustainable agriculture has a living vital soil at its core. Bacteria often get a bad rap because some are harmful. EM introduces us to the real allies, [referred to as] beneficials, as a form of composting that speeds up the process of decomposing vegetable and animal scraps while eliminating unpleasant odors during the process.” One agent for acceleration is Bokashi, “basically a medium on which the EM can eat and live. It is widely used in urban composting as it ferments the kitchen waste instead of aerobically composting,” Gras says. Gras was researching how to mix up a batch of Bokashi at the same time McCabe, one of her landscaping clients, was opening Big Woods as a brewpub and production brewery. “The recipes I was finding called for rice bran [as one of the ingredients] so I figured spent grains would be a perfect medium for making Bokashi. I arranged with Jeff to get his grains from brewing. His only stipulation was to get them regularly.” Gras set up her Bokashi composting operation in her greenhouse. “The first few batches went well and I was pretty excited. But when I ran out of space and tubs while the grains kept coming I dumped the mash around my garden and began seeing some interesting things. First, the fresh grains would completely kill any grass or weeds in a matter of days. Then the worm population would explode.” Gras noticed the soil structure under the spent grain changed dramatically. “I haven’t tilled my own garden in three years,” she says. “Often I don’t even use a shovel to plant; I just reach in with my hand, pull back the soil and plop in the plant. The grains are hot and sugary when they are fresh so they will burn whatever they are put on. When my garden paths become too weedy, I throw down spent grains, let them do their work and when they are done (a few days to a week) I scrape the decomposed weeds up on the beds as mulch around plants I have growing.” When McCabe’s apple trees were totally stunted because the soil had been stripped to hard clay, Gras put spent grains around the trees that didn’t die. Gras reports, “Within a year every tree fruited and all put on significant growth. I have used grains at people’s homes where none of their plants would grow because when you scratched back the mulch, all you found was impenetrable clay that would be like concrete in the dry summer and rot plants in the damp winters. We put down grains and then mulch on top of that and the following summer instead of a pickaxe to dig a hole, I could use a shovel. “I’ve also combined spent grains as a potting mix with old composted sawdust from a local mill. This definitely is a bi-product with multiple applications agriculturally speaking,” Gras says, who is “retiring” to be a full-time mom. Gras, whose background includes biology and social anthropology, believes sugars in spent grains feed local microorganisms in the soil, causing a huge spike in bacteria and microorganism populations. This changes the tilth of the soil so that is contains proper structure and nutrients to grow healthier crops with stronger root system. Gras wants her positive experiences to entice landscapers, gardeners and farmers to develop partnerships with Indiana’s craft brewers to utilize spent grains in concert with Kyusei Nature Farming. Gras’ friends JoAnne and John Himebaugh are already utilizing spent grains from Big Woods Brewery with their Brown County-based nursery and landscaping company, Mother Herb. To learn more call 812-325-4947, email firstname.lastname@example.org. “People interested in grains can look to their local microbreweries for what is feasible,” invites Gras. “The responses from brewers will probably be as varied as their beers; isn’t that what makes local so great?” Learn more about Kyusei Nature Farming from An Earth Saving Revolution by Teruo Higa.
Just the facts about Big Woods Brewery:
- Located in Nashville, Ind., at 60 Molly’s Lane.
- Five locally-brewed beers on tap at a time.
- Vegan and vegetarian meals offered.
- Many dishes feature seasonal vegetables as well as local produce and meats.
- Founded in July of 2009 by Tim O’Bryan, Ed Ryan and Jeff McCabe.