A few years ago, Dan Sternbach received a tablespoon of ancient grains from a friend and planted them in West Tisbury. Over the years, as he experimented with varieties of rye, wheat and other traditional grains, that tablespoon became a pound of grains, and he was soon cultivating a small field. Eventually he teamed up with Mermaid Farm in Chilmark to plant the only commercial grain crop on Martha's Vineyard.

Records going back to early 1700s mention production of hay, rye, and wheat on Martha's Vineyard. — Maria Thibodeau

On a windy day last week, Mr. Sternbach and his dog Elvis, a scruffy black terrier, stood at the edge of a vast field near the head of Town Cove in West Tisbury. Stubbly rows of rye, wheat and Emmer (an ancient ancestor of wheat) stretched out in three shades of green, surrounded by tall oaks and pines. Mr. Sternbach, along with Mermaid Farm proprietor Allen Healy, who leases the land, planted the field last fall and plan to harvest in July.

“This might be suffering a little bit because it doesn’t have as much nitrogen as it probably would love to have,” Mr. Sternbach said, brushing his foot over the darker rye. But the field has only been treated with lime, and aside from chasing out the occasional flock of geese, which feed on the new growth, it’s now just a matter of waiting for the plants to grow. “That’s the beauty of grain,” Mr. Sternbach said. “You just plant it.”

Like many others around the world, Mr. Sternbach has realized the importance of understanding where food comes from and having a hand in the process. His exploration of agriculture began around 2000 and quickly led to grain. “It’s really the basis of producing food in communities, and it always was traditional everywhere,” he said.

Now in its second year, the grain project in West Tisbury is still unnamed, and is far from yielding a profit, but it represents a growing interest in traditional grain on the Vineyard, where rye, oats and barley were once widely cultivated.

Records going back at least to the early 1700s mention the production of corn, hay, rye and wheat on the Island, and the first grist mills here were likely built soon after the Island was settled in the 1600s. By the early 1800s, windmills and watermills were grinding grain in Edgartown, Tisbury and Chilmark. According to an 1850 census, a total of 126 Island farms were producing rye, oats or barley, with oats having the highest yield.

Glenn Roberts, a seasonal Chilmark resident and owner of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C., which specializes in heirloom grains, pointed out that a 19th-century mill at Crocker’s Pond in North Tisbury is still standing, and that with some work it could be revived. “It’s a testament to the amount of locally grown grain,” he said. “That’s a big mill.”

Dan Sternbach started with a tablespoon of seeds and now spearheads the grain project in West Tisbury. — Maria Thibodeau

Mr. Roberts has supplied some of the seed for the West Tisbury project, along with a stone mill that Mr. Sternbach uses to create flour for market. He also helped launch a grain-growing program at Island Grown Schools in 2013 that has spurred new interest in the area. Island students now grow a variety of grains, including turkey red winter wheat and two varieties of ancient corn that the Wampanoag tribe cultivated in the region. Students plant, harvest, grind and eat the crops, learning about the history of each grain along the way.

“There are stories behind all these seeds,” said program leader Noli Taylor, who helped launch Island Grown Schools in 2007. “Every hand that gets passed the seed is part of this long, ongoing story of how the plant has grown and changed over time.”

“I think there is a lot of interest and excitement about grains in the community, either growing or buying,” Ms. Taylor added. “And I think it’s a big potential market for growers that isn’t being fully taken advantage of yet.”

Red Fife, a traditional wheat that Mr. Sternbach is growing in West Tisbury, is thought to have originated in Turkey before crossing several continents and ending up in Canada, where it was cultivated by David Fife and became a cornerstone of the milling industry. It was eventually overshadowed by higher-yielding varieties, but has remained in cultivation.

Northern rye is “kind of a mongrel,” Mr. Roberts said, since it has been cultivated so widely and for so long. But with its high cold and drought tolerance and other qualities, it has avoided much of the genetic manipulation seen by its less hardy cousins, especially wheat, which has always been harder to grow. Mr. Sternbach’s rye seeds come from a co-op in Maine.

Grain growing on Martha’s Vineyard isn’t easy, he said. As with all farming, it’s something of a juggling act, with land, seeds and machinery all in the air at once. “To get this going again, we need the infrastructure,” he said, noting a shortage of field-cultivation machinery in the region. “That’s one of the hurdles.”

Grain is available for purchase at Mermaid Farm. — Maria Thibodeau

The wet New England climate is another hurdle, since the grain can’t be safely stored until it is cooled and aerated. From there, milling and marketing require specialized machinery that is also in short supply. He noted the possibility for government subsidies, although he believed his operation was likely too small and too experimental to apply. He did receive a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society for storage purposes. But from the beginning he knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride.

“What inspired me was wanting to feed myself good food and have a hand in it,” he said. He still prefers the difficulties of small-scale production on the Vineyard over industrial practices that he says threaten people’s health and the environment. “We’ve become incredibly divorced from where the food comes from, and what it means to grow or what it means to eat a lot of meat, or what it means to eat a lot of soy,” he said.

“Farming at its worst is an extractive industry,” he added. “It’s just like mining.”

One goal of the project is to provide a net benefit to the land in West Tisbury. To keep up with scale, Mr. Sternbach recently bought an old-fashioned combine to harvest the grain, clearing at least one major hurdle. The process will take off the grain but leave the straw in the ground, where its nutrients can return to the soil.

Many farms, including some on the Vineyard, use rye as a cover crop in the winter since it is so hardy and versatile, but few, if any, take those crops to grain.

The eight-inch stone mill can grind up to 80 pounds an hour, which could amount to a about a half ton per week. Mr. Sternbach has begun thinking about an upgrade, but is committed to the stone-grinding process, which preserves the entire kernel, including the volatile oils that hold most of the flavor and nutrition. Modern methods separate the oil and bran from the endosperm, creating a more shelf-stable product that can travel farther. But many prefer the traditional method.

West Tisbury project reflects growing interest in traditional grain on the Vineyard. — Maria Thibodeau

“With a stone mill, it goes in and the whole kernel gets all smushed together,” Mr. Sternbach said. “The main thing is the oil gets emulsified right into the endosperm.”

But flavor and nutrition come at a price, especially for bakers who prefer a more consistent product. As with wine, each harvest is a little different, so bakers who buy ancient grains would need to adjust every year. “It’s more work but it’s more interesting,” Mr. Sternbach said. “Your thought process has to encompass a bigger area. It’s not just a bag of flour that shows up on the back of the truck at the back door of the bakery.”

So far, Mr. Sternbach has been selling his grain only at Mermaid Farm, and to some local bakers. It goes for $6.50 for a two-pound bag, or $15 for five pounds at the farm stand.

Perhaps especially on an island, producing ancient grains implies a new level of collaboration among farmers, bakers, consumers and others. For now, Mr. Sternbach has to bring his harvested Emmer to the Pioneer Valley to be dehulled, for example, since the required equipment doesn’t yet exist on the Vineyard. The same was true for the oats he grew last year. Looking ahead, he encouraged others to get involved and share their skills.

“The more people that would be doing it, the more opportunity there would be to share equipment and knowledge,” he said. “It’s kind of interesting to wear all the hats, but it’s also a little bit overwhelming.”

Video by Sophia Tewa