As consumer interest (and purchases) in locally grown food intensifies, farmers in the Northeast are taking a serious look at what they can grow to satisfy this need. For the most part their focus has been on expanding fruit and vegetable options with "niche" items like Belgian endive and arugula. But now some farmers are turning their attention to growing items like barley and wheat and offer it to local breweries and producers of local flour. (GW)
SQUINTING in the afternoon sun, Alton Earnhart strolled across his farm here in the Hudson Valley one day last month with Don Lewis, a baker and miller. Rows of wheat swayed to the horizon.
A farmer and a miller surveying fields of russet wheat would not have been an unusual sight here on a late-summer day 200 years ago. Gristmills once dotted the banks of streams and rivers throughout New York, mapping out settlement just as subway stations today chart New York City’s migratory patterns.
Today, nearly all of the nation’s wheat is grown on vast fields and milled in factories in the Midwest. Over the past few years, though, farmers and millers like Mr. Earnhart and Mr. Lewis have begun restoring wheat fields and reviving flour mills around the country.
In New Mexico, a cooperative of Native American and Latino farmers produce a boutique local flour. In Western Massachusetts, a baking couple has persuaded their customers to plant front-lawn wheat patches. In Vermont, a farmer whose homegrown wheat flour was a curiosity when he began growing it in the 1970s now can’t keep up with demand. And in Pennsylvania, a venerable pastry flour brand from the 1800s has been resurrected, made with local organic wheat.
Similar movements have started around the globe, including in Japan, where some udon noodle makers are using local wheat instead of the Australian wheat they had relied upon, and in Israel, where a group of Jewish and Arab farmers are trying to grow native varieties of wheat to supplant the American wheat that dominates the market there.
In New York, a consortium of farmers and bakers called Northeast Organic Wheat is challenging the assumption that the state’s soil and climate make high-quality wheat impossible. “That’s what I heard that frustrated me 10 years ago, you can’t grow it here,” said Mr. Earnhart. “That’s like saying to me, go do it.”
Advocates of local foods have bemoaned the state of mass-produced flour, even from higher-end brands. Midwestern wheat has been bred for uniformity and yield instead of flavor or nutrition, they say, and processed for shelf stability. But avoiding commercial flour has been a challenge.
Against a backdrop of concerns over food and transportation costs and with demand for local food growing, small wheat farmers see an opportunity.
Since 1977, Jack and Anne Lazor have grown wheat and milled flour at their dairy farm in Westfield, Vt. Until three or four years ago, customers showed no interest in the flour, Mr. Lazor said. Last winter, his flour sold out in January.
“It sure is amazing,” he said. “Thirty years later, all of a sudden I feel vindicated. We definitely went down the right road.”
It might take a while to appreciate high-quality, small-batch flours after a lifetime of eating food made with mass-produced flour. Their musky fragrances are often more pronounced, and variations in taste and texture bring a new range of complexity to baked goods, making supermarket flour seem one dimensional by comparison.
“Fresh-ground grains taste entirely different from the flour you buy at the grocery store,” said Mary-Howell Martens, who sells organic feed and seed in Penn Yan, N.Y., and grinds her own flour at home. “Everyone knows that a January tomato that comes from Mexico tastes different than an August tomato taken straight from the vine. It’s the same with grains.”
In New York, Northeast Organic Wheat is holding workshops on threshing, cleaning and milling wheat, and exploring marketing alternatives such as baker-farmer partnerships and farm-share groups, where members pick up a weekly allotment of grains to grind into flour themselves using a small mill. They are also experimenting with older grains grown here when New York was the region’s breadbasket, as well as ancient wheat varieties.
This region is supposedly too rainy for hard red spring wheat, the high-gluten wheat planted in the spring and harvested in the early fall. But some are growing it anyway because it is good for making bread. Others are sticking with the soft white winter wheat, low-gluten grain that’s planted in the fall and harvested in early summer that was traditionally grown here and is generally used for pastry and cake flour.
Mr. Lewis called his first encounter with soft local flour eight years ago a revelation. He was picking up some organic feed for his hens from Mr. Earnhart’s farm, Lightning Tree, when he came upon a barrel of flour that Mr. Earnhart had made with a small mill.
“I stuck my hand in it and I said, oh boy,” Mr. Lewis recalled. “It felt different, it smelled different, it tasted different. It was intriguing.”
Mr. Lewis bought a second-hand milling machine and began grinding Mr. Earnhart’s wheat. From his bakery at Wild Hive Farm, Mr. Lewis now sells bagged flour as well as breads, cookies, scones, biscuits and pastries, all made from local grains.
Creating a market for local wheat takes more than just planting seeds.
Cheryl Maffei and Jonathan Stevens, who own Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Mass., have persuaded 100 of their customers to grow plots of wheat in their yards. A year ago, when they started seeking local wheat, Ms. Maffei said, their attitude was a tad naïve.
“We thought, we’re bakers, and we want our flour to be local, more local than North Dakota, and all we have to do is ask the farmers to grow it and we’ll buy it,” she recalled.
When she spoke to farmers, though, she found that nobody knew which varieties of wheat would thrive in the area, and the cleaning, milling and storage facilities needed for flour production didn’t exist locally. Ms. Maffei and Mr. Stevens began working with nearby colleges to identify wheat varieties to test, Ms. Maffei said. The customer plots, which were harvested last month, were trial runs and raised consciousness about the wheat. Already, Ms. Maffei said, the three patches they planted at the bakery have brought in curious customers. “They’ve never even seen wheat growing,” she marveled.
But there is a long road ahead. The closest miller who can produce the flour they need is in Quebec. “With our infrastructure here, we also lost the knowledge of wheat and milling and storing,” she said. “So we’re rebuilding it as we go.”
In New York, those who have ventured into wheat farming for flour have been mostly producers of animal feed for the lucrative organic meat market. The state’s wheat supply is small and the weather is unpredictable. Setting up the cleaning, milling, sifting and storage facilities required for a small-scale mill like Wild Hive’s costs at least $30,000, Mr. Lewis said.
And the resulting flour can be finicky, bakers and home cooks have found. Mass-produced flour is tested and often blended for consistent, precise gluten levels. Small-batch flour can vary from season to season, farm to farm and even field to field, with different gluten content, flavor or levels of water absorption. Bakers used to uniform results have trouble adjusting.
Supermarket flour is roller-milled and sifted to remove as much bran and germ as possible, making it shelf-stable for months or years. Most of the local flours are stone-ground, and even the white flours retain some wheat germ and can go rancid within weeks if not frozen, because the oils of the wheat germ oxidize.
Members of the local wheat movement want to shift Americans’ attitudes toward bread. Bakers must learn to adapt their recipes to the qualities of the flour, they say, as people did before mass-produced flour. And consumers used to buying the same loaf every day must adjust their expectations and learn to tolerate some variation.
That is easier said than done, said Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread in Manhattan, who has tried to use small-batch regional flour in her bakery but found it too inconsistent in quality and supply. She likes the principle of a baker responding to the quirks and nuances of flour, she said, but expecting her entire staff to do so on the fly is impractical. And if something goes wrong, a botched batch could mean 400 pounds of dough in the trash.
“Our wholesale customers are restaurants and stores,” Ms. Scherber said. “If you send a flat-looking loaf of bread, they’ll say, we don’t like it.”
Also, the soft wheat flours grown in the Northeast have low gluten and won’t produce the moist, springy crumb that Americans prize in bread.
“It is perfectly fine for building very dense, very grainy Germanic breads,” said Matt Funiciello, the owner of Rock Hill Bakehouse in Moreau, N.Y. The key, said Mr. Funiciello, is to embrace the difference.
“Don’t expect this bread to be similar to what you’ve had before,” he said. “If you open your mind and your palate to it, you’ll realize that, hey, flour tastes like something. Wheat has a flavor that’s unique.”
June Russell, the farm inspections coordinator for Greenmarket, hopes variability might eventually become a selling point for bread, as it has for other foods.
“Our cheese-makers at market will talk about their differences season to season,” Ms. Russell said. “They’ll say, Our milk is really rich right now because the cows are eating this or that. You’ll never hear a baker talk like that, and that’s because everyone is basically getting their flour from the same big system.” She is working with Northeast Organic Wheat, organizing information sessions and questionnaires about their bakers’ needs.
Organizers in New York look to older local wheat movements for inspiration. In New Mexico, for example, the Sangre de Cristo Cooperative, a collective of small-scale wheat growers, produces flour for local bakeries and co-ops.
Craig Mapel, an official with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, helped start the wheat project in 1994 in the mountains north of Albuquerque. He said wheat had not been grown in the area for 50 years. Farmers in the program now plant more than 400 acres with wheat, Mr. Mapel said, and sell 250,000 to 350,000 pounds of flour a year.
“There have certainly been bumps in the road,” he said. But, he added, “it worked, because they’re still there.”
In 2002, McGeary Organics, a grain merchant, bought a mill built in the 1740s in Annville, Pa., and resurrected the venerable Pennsylvania pastry flour known as Daisy Flour, milling local soft wheat.
“In the 1800s, if you were a self-respecting housewife in Lancaster, Pa., you couldn’t operate unless you had Daisy Flour in your cupboard,” said David Poorbaugh, the company’s president. “We’re all romantics, and that’s part of the reason that we do this. I think we’re lucky if we break even with this old mill.”
Mr. Earnhart, the farmer, hopes local wheat will catch on, but he’s also apprehensive. Greater demand might bring calls for more standardization, he said. He doesn’t want to end up on the same path as large-scale wheat producers.
“The idea that we have to get it so sophisticated that everything is perfect kind of defeats what I think made this unique when we started out,” he said. “One of the things that we have to decide is how far we want to go.”