Unless you’re a dairy farmer, you may not realize how cows, beer and giant pumpkins are all connected.
But for one weekend every year, Krainick Dairy in Enumclaw gets to see this particular circle-of-life complete itself during the annual Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off with Washington-based Elysian Breweries.
Krainick Dairy, now run by Leann and Mike Krainick, has been a staple on the Plateau since Mike’s grandfather opened up the dairy in 1912.
What is special about Krainick Dairy, and many other farms on this side of the mountain, are their partnerships with large and small breweries — these farms use spent grain from the breweries to feed their livestock.
“Farmers have been using spent grain to feed their cows for over a century,” Leann said. “In this area, it started way back before the 1900s when the Olympia Rainier breweries were very prominent in our area.”
Despite its name, spent grain remains a nutritional part of a cow’s balanced diet. The protein in the grain is especially important to the milk producing process, and the leftover yeast acts as a probiotic to help digestion, Leann said.
Krainick Dairy has been using spent grain as feed since the 1950s, but when the Rainier breweries went under in 2000, it became harder to get.
“From the early 1900s to early 2007, there was a family in the Tumwater area that was acting as the middle-man hauler between the big breweries and the farmers in the area,” Leann said. “In early 2000, those two breweries closed down, and in 2007, we called him and asked, ‘do you have any spent grain available?’ because corn was becoming very expensive, since ethanol was starting to become popular, and he said since Rainier in Olympia closed down, it’s not feasible for me to be the middle man anymore.”
So instead, he sold the Krainicks his trucks and trailer so they can haul spent grain on their own, which is how the farm’s relationship with Elysian and 14 other breweries got started.
In total, the Krainicks feed their 1,100 milking cows between 2 to 3 million pounds of spent grain a month.
“If we weren’t there to pick up the grain, or another farmer, they’d have to put it in a landfill,” Leann said.
Using local spent grain also reduces the Krainick’s carbon footprint.
“All of our breweries are within 35 miles of our farm… If we were to buy barley on the market, the closest proximity barley would be in Idaho,” Leann said.
Elysian Brewmaster John Waldman agreed, and added that it makes more economical sense as well.
“Relying on a municipal service to haul away that much waste would seriously strain resources, cost a fortune, and be a complete waste. Spent grain has plenty of protein and nutrition left. Cows love spent grain. It’s an easy match,” he said. “Having grown from a small brewery, a lot of our practices are rooted in those formative days and every little bit counts as far as financials go. Same goes for resources. Brewing, and its supporting agricultural industries (barley and hop growing and malting) are very resource intensive. Minimizing that footprint is essential.”
And the spent grain, it seems, helps make a pretty good fertilizer.
At first, the farmers were more or less just using their fertilizer in place of bedding in their cows’ stalls, saving them close to $25,000 a month in costs.
But one day, Enumclaw-resident Robin Halbert needed some fertilizer to use for his new giant pumpkin patch.
“He put it on his pumpkin patch, and took his giant pumpkin to the 2012 Washington State Fair,” Leann said. “And it weighed 1,246 pounds. He not only won at the fair that year, but he broke the fair record in front of all the old-timers… that was when we knew we had something special.”
Leann said it’s the texture, rather than the nutrients, in Scarecrow’s Pride that makes it so effective.
“It keeps the soil loose, like a sponge, and it retains water. So when you water normal ground, it’ll either run off because it’s too hard, or it will absorb too quickly,” she said. “Our product acts as a sponge, so it keeps the water available to the plant so it can uptake the water when it needs it… for giant pumpkins, water is key. When they’re at their peak growing season, late August to early September, they will gain 50 to 60 pounds a day. You can actually put your ear up next to the pumpkin and hear it. It sounds like someone cracking their knuckles.”
It was Holland’s success that caught the eye of Elysian, Washington’s largest brewer.
“One of the highlights of each beer festival is they have a pumpkin that they fill with beer and they have a big celebration with a band and they tap the great pumpkin and everybody gets a sample of the beer,” Leann said. “And when you have 1,000 people, a pumpkin that weighs about 80 pounds doesn’t hold much beer. And one of the disappointments was not everyone got to sample the beer. It wasn’t long before, Elysian said, ‘We’ve got to fill one of these giant pumpkins with beer.’”
Elysian and Krainick originally partnered with Enumclaw’s Rockridge Cidery for some weigh-offs in 2013, but after two years, branched off to hold the Great Pumpkin Weigh Off in Georgetown, Seattle, where Elysian calls home.
Growers from all over, many who use Scarecrow’s Pride fertilizer, bring their largest pumpkins to compete for prize money — $2,000 was the first prize pot this year — and Elysian takes the winning pumpkin back to Seattle to fill with beer for the festival.
After the festival is over, Elysian puts the pumpkin’s remains into their spent grain trailer to be fed to Leann’s cows “and create this funny little loop,” Walden said.
This year, multiple Plateau growers competed for both prize money and bragging rights in Seattle.
The winner of the weigh-off was Joel Holland, whose pumpkins have been the heaviest for the last three years. His pumpkin this year weighed 1,790 pounds – not a personal best for Holland – but a new record for the Great Pumpkin Weigh Off.