How farmers, millers, bakers and brewers are reinventing bread

How farmers, millers, bakers and brewers are reinventing bread

A bread basket
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A new generation of farmers and bakers is revising the recipe for our daily bread.

This is an excerpt from "The New Bread Basket: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf."

People will keep studying one another and drawing on their ingenuity to build sustainable farms and food systems. Alan Scott jump-started a new old-fashioned approach to bread with his oven plans, offering an alternative route to a food that had been industrialized. Other innovators are fiddling with ovens and mills, turning dairy tanks and silo bottoms into malt systems, scaling down equipment and deindustrializing processing. They are making tools to fit a future they are shaping.

While my tendency is to think that grains alone will save the day, grains are just a part of a complex farming picture and the changes happening as food production is relocalized. Nathan and Jessie Rogers wanted to be farmers, not grain farmers. Grains are a part of a diverse operation for them, one that includes animals and crop rotations. Farm health is also at the root of the many projects undertaken by the Dewavrin family over the last two decades. Grains are not an end for them, but part of their general pursuits. They are, in Loic’s words, "trying to find the best combination of operations in the field to respect the environment as much as possible."

Rogers Farmstead and Les Fermes Longpres are building their farms by collage, piecing together equipment, some of it used or antique, with handmade solutions, as most farmers do. Nathan Rogers built storage bins from plywood and found a used Osttiroler mill at a fraction of the cost of a new one. The Dewavrins scouted abandoned roller mills across the Atlantic to suit their needs and restored them, pairing the old machines with new sifters. Both farms are enabling bakers in Vermont to know who grows their wheat, and how that wheat is grown, with the same care they put into their loaves.

Regional grain projects don’t operate in isolation. They fit into the larger picture of sustainable agriculture. As farmers pursue more holistic methods, they are balancing ecological concerns with market realities. Farming is a gamble against seasons and soils and machines, so changing farming means changing the shape of the markets and nudging along production through purchases. Not my kind of enthusiastic retail purchases, but quantity purchasing by processors such as Valley Malt in Massachusetts, Grist & Toll in Los Angeles and the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, Maine.

Cover of the New Bread Basket book

Public works initiatives that mandate usage of regional grains also encourage production, prodding supply by creating demand. Greenmarket’s rule for bakers developed mills and got more grains in the ground, and New York State’s Farm to Brewery licensing is creating a market for malt. Entrepreneurs are starting small malthouses, and farmers and researchers are trying to find malting barley varieties suited to the region.

In Oregon, Hummingbird Wholesale fosters change by helping fund the kind of farming it wants to see and the kind of food it wants to sell. The distributor functions like the community and economic development partners involved in The Kneading Conference in Maine, and in the Skagit Valley in Washington. Washington State University’s Steve Jones has built The Bread Lab to support grain growing outside the wheat belt. Steve’s vision is so strong that reach of this work stretches across the country, drawing attention to the model, and support from national companies such as King Arthur Flour and Chipotle.

Mainstream grain customers are exploring non-commodity options. Bigger small breweries such as Sierra Nevada, Rogue and Peak Organic all find ways to use regionally grown and malted barley. Whole Foods sells local flour from Maine Grains, and uses the mill’s flour to bake local loaves distributed in and around Boston. Grist & Toll’s flour is used in some Whole Foods bakeries in California. King Arthur Flour has even launched a regional product: West Coast Artisan Flour. While the interest of such companies can leverage more grain production, does it threaten the success of grassroots, community- and farm-scale projects? And is the interest more than locavore posturing?

Because King Arthur is a small business, I’ve had many opportunities to pose my doubts and get some good answers. Not answers spoon-fed by corporate positioners, but from conversations with individuals. Baker Jeffrey Hamelman told me that King Arthur’s employee-ownership structure gave him entitlement to follow his instincts and join the Northern Grain Growers Association, where he could add a baker’s insight to the work of the group. Instructor Amber Eisler helped me see more clearly the commitment to educating home bakers and professionals.

Meeting bakers’ interests through education was part of the flour company’s job, whether people were curious about gluten-free baking, croissants or using local flour. Building an education center at King Arthur’s headquarters in Norwich, Vermont, was part of that focus. Donating flour and instructors, first to The Kneading Conference and now to The Bread Lab, is simply an extension of it.

This is an old company with roots in Boston and a legacy of quality. King Arthur began importing European flour in 1790 to meet bakers’ needs for first-rate ingredients. Almost 200 years later, when I started buying my own flour, that reputation for quality led me to this brand. I only quit using it as I discovered local options. While the company is not trying to personally lure me back, King Arthur is trying to meet customer desires for grain of known origin without compromising on its goal of steadily delivering quality.

The company’s first regionally identified flour was developed for commercial bakers who wanted a product with a geographic link to their bakery. Initially, all the wheat came from California, but the sourcing territory widened because drought limited the crop. King Arthur is investigating another line in Kansas, where it could release a family flour product and identify farms and farmers on the label. (Family flour is an industry term, delineating home bakers and the products geared to them.) There is interest in regional production in New York, too, as I learned from Brad Heald, King Arthur’s director of mill relations.

"I would love to hitch our wagon to a regional variety that tastes good and is consistent year on year," said Brad. Most of his job is less dreamy and more realistic, focused on details of tracking actual grain supplies rather than possible stocks. Working with mills to meet projected usage, he initiates flour specifications and contracts.

Sourcing within a region is not just farm-to-table allure, but a search with simple motives. King Arthur sticks to American grain for its flours. When a continued drought in the southern Plains in 2014 limited the supply of organic bread wheat, King Arthur told its commercial bakery customers that there would be no more organic bread flour until the next American harvest. Other flour companies turned to Argentinian-grown organic wheats in the early spring.

Expenses are coming into play with grain sourcing, too. As trucking materials across the nation has become more costly, the quest for regional grains is grounded in simple economics. The Northeast may not meet the company’s needs, but any percentage will be helpful.

Toward that end, Brad has been following research at Cornell and soft wheat production in New York State. While pastry wheat remains 99 percent of what is grown, he’s seeing incremental changes in New York state. The need for bread wheat in the region has hard wheat varieties on farmers’ radar, and researchers’, too. Just above New York in Ontario, the Canadian government began funding hard wheat research at the University of Guelph. Previously, research had focused on soft wheats, so the addition is rather telling.

Of all these practical steps toward regional grain production, the most hopeful I see is the reappearance of small mills and malthouses. The machines may function out of public sight, but local flour and craft malt can introduce people to processes that largely have disappeared. That’s how it worked for me. The first bite of that cookie from Wild Hive broadcast the fact that something was different.

Mills and malthouses are platforms that let bakers and brewers announce new ingredients. Elmore Mountain Bread didn’t scream and shout, "Hey, we’re milling!" They are rock-star bakers, but they are not a band, standing in front of a crowd with a microphone, saying, "Check out our new flour; this stuff is the bomb!" In my kitchen or teaching cooking classes, I get an audience rather often, but the pancakes I make are more powerful allies for local grains than I am.

When I go on about fresh flour, people can tell that I’m engaged in an idea, but the pancakes help convey what I’m saying. One second I look like a nut wielding a spatula. The next, my words mean something because people are eating pancakes made from organic stone-ground whole-grain flour. I still seem like a nut, but my topic makes sense.

In writing, there is a commandment: Show, don’t tell. Fresh flour shows what I have told in this book. I’ve described the magicians who are pulling rabbits from thin air. Farmers, millers, bakers, brewers and maltsters are drawing attention to ingredients that have become anonymous. Flour and malt did a vanishing act.

I’ve peeled back the velvet curtain, told you what it takes to make these things. Showed you the grains all-stars who are doing some heavy lifting. You have met them, and now you need to meet their work. Find some bread and beer made with off-grid grains. Make some pancakes at your very own griddle. Your tongue can show you why all of this matters. I swear.

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