Monday, May 25, 2009

Burgeoning Regional Wheat Initiatives

            North Carolina is not alone in its effort to create a regional bread wheat economy. Burgeoning regional grain initiatives have sprouted up (pun most certainly intended) all over the United States and Canada. A combination of factors have contributed to this resurgence in regional grain growing-- crop failures in the Great Plains states, increasing global food demands, volatile fuel prices, and the shift from grain to corn production for ethanol--all of which have affected the price of grain, which in turn has affected both the price of feed for livestock, and the price of flour, that most essential ingredient for the baker. Another factor contributing to these burgeoning grain initiatives is an upsurge in demand for local.  Whereas in the past, the centralization of large-scale food production meant food security, this was based on the premise of cheap fuel.  Today, local, smaller-scale food production equates to  food security and sustainability, and consumers are demanding local.

            So what does this look like nationwide? If the demand exists, what about the supply?  And then there is the business of the consumer—the consumer wants local, but is the consumer willing to buy local bread that may perhaps not look or taste the same as the bread one is use to? The country's largest outdoor farmers market program, Greenmarket in New York, with 46 locations across five boroughs has set a 15 % minimum of local grain for its baker vendors to sell at its market. Although the bread does not need to be made with local flour per se, the bread and other baked goods must contain at least 15% local grains. Setting minimums like this not only puts all bakers on a level playing field, it also serves to educate the consumer as to what local grain really means.

In the Bay Area, Eduardo Morell of Morell’s Breads, has one loaf made completely with local wheat. On the back of his packaging, along with his other breads, he has listed one bread called simply, “Local Loaf.” This bread may change its appearance—from pan to hearth—or perhaps its texture from lofty to dense, depending on the variety of wheat that is available locally.  Eduardo sells his bread at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market where his Local Loaf has conjured a devoted following.  Not only does he have a market for this bread, but this baker has found that his customers are interested in what local looks and tastes like in terms of bread. Eduardo’s wheat is grown by Full Belly Farm, located in Capay Valley, northwest of Sacramento. The wheat is both cleaned and milled on-farm. 

But lets rewind a bit-- before the bread can hit the market, one first must consider the grain, as it all begins, first and foremost with the grain or seed-- that is, finding varieties of wheat and other grains that will grow well. In 1991, Monica Spiller of Whole Grain Connections in Los Altos, CA,  began trialing old varieties-- landrace and heritage wheat-- focusing on what wheat grew historically in California . Using organic growing practices, she noticed the advantages of the older varieties whose height shades out weeds, and deep root structure sequesters nutrients from the soil. She saw this as especially advantageous to the organic grower. Sonora wheat was one of her winning varieties, as she found this wheat also contains a natural resistance to stripe rust. This is what Morell’s Local Loaf is made with at present. It is a softer wheat with lower protein, and so Eduardo bakes it in a pan. 

Three thousand miles east, in North Hampton, Massachusetts, Hungry Ghost Bakery gets 100 of its customers to grow plots of wheat in their backyards in order to figure out what wheat will grow well in their area. Initially, this bakery approached local farmers to grow for them, but the farmers did not know what varieties of wheat would grow well in their area, hence the trial plots in customers yards... Northeast Organic Wheat (NOW), a consortium of farmers and bakers in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, and Maine led by permiculture activist Eli Rigosa and funded by a Northeast SARE grant is working to identify varieties of wheat, both heritage and modern, that grow well in the Northeast, and perform in the bakery.  NOW is looking at yield, disease resistance, and quality, specifically within organic systems.  (On a side note, and something I will go into in later posts-- Eli sent down 18 varieties of wheat for trialing here in NC. I passed the seed on to local organic grower, Anne Gaines of Gaining Ground Farm, who planted trial plots in Leicester and Swannanoa. We are in the process of counting plants and wheat heads.)

 What about the infrastructure to process this grain, once it is grown? Remember the loss of the regional mill? This too is experiencing a resurgence. The town of Skowhegan, Maine recently took bids for their old jailhouse located in the center of town. Built in 1887, the jailhouse was no longer serving the town's needs. With an asking price of $200k for the 14,000 square-foot building, the town took bids for the most interesting idea. The winning bid went to Amber Lambke who proposed  a grist mill, wood-fired oven bakery, and restaurant. Not only did Lambke win the bid, but the town approved the sale of the jailhouse at the reduced price of $65k. According to Maine Organic Farm and Garden Association (MOFGA), there are 4,600 certified organic acres within a 30-mile radius of Skowhegan. Lambke will not only be processing grain into flour at her micro-mill, but the facility will be equipped for grain cleaning and grain storage. Lambke is one of the key organizers of the Kneadering Conference in Skowhegan, which on July 30th and 31 will have its third annual conference, bringing together farmers, breeders, oven designers and builders, and bakers to learn from one another, bake, and eat local bread 

 An  innovative approach to ensuring a market for grain has been the emergence of Grain Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects. In Canada, Matt Lowe of West Kootenany EcoSociety reached out to farmers within a 75 mile radius. He found 3 interested growers and then he recruited 180 shareholders who each paid $100 for 100 pounds of grain, and one bakery that bought 20 shares. The grain was transported via sail boat on Kootenay Lake, the quickest, least environmentally impacting route. Shareholders paid half the money upfront, in order to share in the farmer's risk. In 2009 this grain CSA expanded to 600 shares. 2009 shareholders pay $125 for 20# of Hard Spring Wheat, 20# of Hard Winter Wheat, 20# of Spelt, 20# of Khorasan Wheat (aka Kamut), and 20# of Oats. For an additional $50-- 20#s of Little Green Lentils and 20# of Red Fife Wheat.

So this is somewhat of a brief overview of what I have observed thus far nationwide. And this is just an overview, because there is more-- there's Thom Leonard with his Turkey Red wheat in Kansas, and there's Pioneer Valley Grain Project's grain CSA in Massachusetts, and there's Daisy Flour in Pennsylania, and there's Westwind Milling Company in Genesee County, Michigan and there's Anson Mills in Columbia, SC, and there's also what I do not yet know about, or have forgotten to mention, and I have not even begun to really speak about the the growers, who are the true pioneers in this movement, but the point is-- this is a MOVEMENT and it is taking shape in many different and innovative forms.
Here in North Carolina, we have our own exciting work underway. 

Next post-- North Carolina Wheat Initiative.