There are a LOT of perks and cornerstones that revolve around grain production and the associated industries, but the only reliable way to get access to grain is the Small Farm. This can be frustrating because actually picking the Small Farm from blueprints is often an unsatisfying choice.
Grain by itself is useless until refined, so picking Small Farm in the early game means committing yourself to grabbing at least 2 more related blueprints before you even know if you're going to have access to fertile soil, to say nothing of how it's in competition with building material producing facilities at this stage. Picking it in the late game can be next to useless (unless you've been praying for it) as you won't get many production cycles out of it before the game wraps up. Selecting it from blueprints is just compounded risk upon risk for an industry tree the game puts so much emphasis on.
Making it an essential blueprint would likely be a mistake that would lead to complacent, homogeneous runs, so I would suggest one of the following:
- Shows up more often as a reward for early game orders.
- Blueprint is more likely to be sold by farming related traders the first time they arrive.
- Purchasable as an (expensive) embark bonus or shows up as a random embark bonus (good idea for certain camp types too).
- A "Makeshift Farm" essential building that can produce only grain at a (*) level.
Mostly I just don't want to roll my eyes at the screen anymore when my yearly cornerstone offering is Reinforced Tools, Moldy Grain, Leftover Crops and Grain Specialization.
Mushrooms being able to make flour, and the new cornerstone that adds mushrooms to all "farm type" buildings really opened up a bunch of non-grain options for me.
Applying the grain perks to FLOUR instead of grain would solve a lot of these issues as it would allow you to grow roots or mushrooms, which are more versatile. But I feel like the grain perks are intended to push you into picking grain as a food, even when it's not useable, adding a risk element to your food production.
I find it hard to get any baking type of products in any game. and welcome the idea of having a way to get grain easier.
I also have the same feelings about having it as an essential BP as the OP has, and also agree with having a 'makeshift farm' would solve that problem
Picking up the small farm early for me means my people are eating the vegetables. The grain often ends up getting used for packs of crops or making ale. Better access to flour and bakeries, etc. would be good as well.