Against the Grain
With local farms growing wheat, will New York revive its appetite for local grain?
Despite its pivotal role in helping humans create civilizations, wheat has had a tough go of it for the last few years.
In the United States, diet fads espousing carbohydrate- free or caveman-like eating regimes have inspired millions to say no to the bread basket and to quit pasta altogether. Now gluten, a protein found in wheat, has become public enemy number one to many who blame it for their digestive problems—and the market for gluten-free foods is seeing galloping growth. Meanwhile, some scientists are making dire predictions about how climate change will disrupt worldwide wheat production.
And yet amid all this wheat-related gloom and doom, a small group of true believers have been working diligently to reconfigure Americans’ relationship with wheat. Their goal is lofty: essentially, to transform a product we all grew up consuming from a uniform, mass-produced commodity to a vibrant, variable, artisanal foodstuff. To achieve this, they must break our reliance on the massive industrialized wheat fields of the Midwest, where standardized varieties of the grain are roller-milled, stripping it of its wheat germ and fibrous bran, then sifted and mixed to precise gluten levels to create the exact same flour again and again and again.
From the hills of New Mexico to the rugged climes of New England and the Hudson Valley, farmers are starting to plant fields with wheat, both new varieties and ancient grains. They are rebuilding milling infrastructure that has been lost for almost two centuries.
And bakers and chefs are rediscovering an ingredient they have long taken for granted, finding in it new depths of flavor and complexity. Much of this new, local wheat is organic, but this process isn’t happening strictly “organically.” It’s the collaboration of a nationwide network of food system advocates and food scientists who have joined forces with farmers, millers, bakers and chefs.
“There are some really engaged people who are interested in making regional grain production work,” says Amy Halloran, author of The New Bread Basket. “It’s such a great illustration of how change happens in agriculture. I like to think of it as this huge human muscle pushing forward, all these people working toward something.”
A HARD SELL
This movement is still niche, but it has seen some significant successes. In New York City, bakers at the Greenmarket now use 65,000 pounds of regional flour each month, and new products using local grains—including beer, spirits and pasta—have become fixtures in the market’s stalls.
But changing an agricultural system this deeply engrained is easier said than done, it turns out. There’s a reason that standardized flour became the norm—for one thing, it allows for the precisely calibrated recipes that food production plants, bakeries and restaurant kitchens rely upon. And for home cooks, it’s why your grandmother’s beloved pound cake recipe still works just as well today as it did in 1953—the flour on your shelf today is decidedly uniform and probably much the same as hers.
For farmers, convincing chefs and consumers of the superiority of a juicy, locally grown heirloom tomato over a pallid supermarket beefsteak shipped from Mexico doesn’t take much: The proof is right there, in the first luscious, sweet-tart bite. Not so with locally produced flours, which can add exciting new dimensions to your bread and baked goods, but also can be inconsistent and take some getting used to.
You can tell something different is going on the moment you open a bag of hard red winter fife wheat from Westport, New York. The brown-speckled white powder lacks the reassuring softness of a bag of supermarket flour, instead retaining a gritty, slightly oily texture between one’s fingers. And then there’s the smell—a musky, barnlike aroma that’s a little shocking compared with the odorlessness of shelf-stable standard flour.
And this flour is not shelf-stable, at least not indefinitely. That’s because it hasn’t been robbed of its germ and every last spec of its bran—the elements of a wheat kernel that bring nutty complexity to the taste—and the oils in those elements will go rancid if left too long at room temperature.
Also, to the frustration of professional bakers, this kind of local flour is variable. Unlike the standard flour we have become accustomed to—which has made baking in the West a kind of cult of precision, with recipes measured out to the gram—each batch comes out a little different, thanks to differences in the grain’s ability to absorb water and in its flavor. That can make life difficult in a large commercial bakery, where trial and error might involve hundreds of pounds of dough.
Then there’s the issue of gluten levels with bread flour. The soil and climate in the Great Plains is ideal for growing the high-gluten “hard” wheat that’s best for airy, lofty loaves of bread, and its superiority over the rest of the country led it to dominate the nation’s wheat supply over the last century. As wheat returns to the rainy, winter-battered fields of upstate New York and Massachusetts, farmers are bucking decades of conventional wisdom that told them growing wheat for bread here was an impossibility.
FILLING A GAP
These are the problems that June Russell first faced eight years ago, as Greenmarket’s new manager of farm inspections and strategic development. New York City’s Greenmarket, since its inception in 1976, has prided itself on being a producer-only market for farms within a half-day drive from New York City—meaning, in the strictest sense, that its vendors can sell only what they themselves grow, raise or prepare.
(That’s why you won’t find tangerines or olive oil or peanut butter at the Greenmarket—those crops can’t be cultivated in the Northeast.) The point is to nurture regional agriculture, and a part of Russell’s new job was to ensure that farmers were adhering to the rule. But there was a glaring gap in this rule: bread. Farmers in the region simply weren’t producing wheat for flour, but a food market with no bread, cookies, muffins or pretzels just seemed too incomplete. The organization’s regulations stated that bakers “must use grain grown and milled in region,” but allowed exceptions if that proved logistically impossible—which, for the most part, it was—so when it came to flour, the rule was largely ignored.
This bothered Russell—not to mention many of the market’s fresh produce farms who were bound by the market’s rules to sell only what they grew or raised. The Greenmarket’s director, Michael Hurwitz, suggested that Russell look into the disconnect, she recalls, a mission she was initially less than enthusiastic about. “I was like, ‘Bakers? What? Cider donuts? Who cares?’” she says with a laugh. “I was completely wrong, because it turned into a fascinating project.”
At the time, reestablishing the agriculture and infrastructure necessary to produce workable flour in America’s Northeast seemed a pipe dream. Growing the hard, higher-gluten wheat that’s generally used for bread was an uphill battle in the Northeastern states. Russell recognized that she couldn’t change this overnight, but she took heart from projects already underway and joined forces with a group of fellow dreamers who envisioned a future where the Northeast— America’s breadbasket back in the 18th and 19th centuries—could once again grow its own wheat.
FORGING A NEW PATH
Russell’s Regional Grains Project has developed partnerships and received grants from various universities and is now a thriving enterprise within Greenmarket. One of its early partners was the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of New York, and through NOFA Russell joined forces with another passionate advocate for the cause, Elizabeth Dyck, who was then running farmer research for the organization.
Dyck, who went on to found the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network, points out that she and Russell were actually joining a movement that was already underway in the region’s fields. Some farmers were experimenting with growing wheat for flour—many of them already producers of grain animal feed for the lucrative organic meat and dairy markets.
“There were some very prescient farmers who were doing this on their own,” she says. “And the research-slash-not-for-profit movement usually gloms on to what farmers out in front are doing.”
As they geared up for what was to become an all-consuming almost decade-long (so far) mission, Russell and Dyck were spurred on by a talk they found, given in 1994 by the late, great food writer and advocate for American traditional foodways Karen Hess. In it, Hess makes the case that the soft white wheat grown on America’s East Coast had been—and could once again be—used to bake delicious bread.
As her starting point in the talk, Hess recounted a bread recipe from 1824, published by Mary Randolph in a book called The Virginia House-wife. The recipe calls for flour, water, salt and yeast, and is, compared with today’s precisely calibrated baking recipes, notably casual and approximate in its directions. (Actually, the recipe somewhat resembles the baker Jim Lahey’s Internet-famous no-knead bread recipe, with its wet dough, low yeast and long rise time.) Hess notes that the recipe was made with pre-industrialized flour and not accelerated with fast-acting yeast or loaded with sugar or added fats. But her main point in the talk is the wheat itself—the loaf was made with lowland Virginia soft wheat, flying in the face of today’s received wisdom that only hard, high-gluten wheat can make good bread. It was a point that struck a chord for Russell, she says. “[Hess] proudly proclaims that this is a hearth loaf made from soft wheat flour. And this is what we grow here.”
It was an aha moment for Dyck, too, she recalls. “We’ve been suckered down this long, increasingly narrow chute that you’ve got to have wheat that’s 14 percent protein and it’s got to be grown in Montana or Kansas or you can’t bake good bread with it,” she says. “Hess’s article really opened my eyes to the sky’s the limit. Wheat is really a worldwide crop; grain is a worldwide crop. We can do this in the Northeast.”
Rediscovering the grains that once thrived in the Northeast—as well as identifying other ancient and rare grains that could take well to the region’s soil and climate—has been a major preoccupation for Dyck. Over the last few years, in collaboration with Russell and Greenmarket, she has helped organize testing sessions for soft and hard wheats, ancient grains such as emmer and einkorn, and exotic varieties such as warthog, a wheat strain that’s grown in Canada but hardly in the U.S.
These testing sessions serve two purposes, Dyck explains: They’re an opportunity to introduce “movers, shakers and innovators” in the food world to these grains and win them over to the cause. And the rigorous process of “sensory analysis,” which consists of a sensory evaluation to measure the human response to things like texture, taste and smell in relation to food, undertaken at the tastings provides data that scientists are analyzing to determine which grains are likely to be most valuable and popular.
INCENTIVES AND PENALTIES
At Greenmarket, Russell employed a carrot-and-stick approach. The stick, for bakers, was a rule instituted in 2010 (and rigorously enforced, unlike the previous rule) that 15 percent of all flour used in products on sale must be locally grown.
“You introduce an idea, and everybody screams,” Russell says. “There was so much pushback [from bakers], almost hostility. It was, ‘The Northeast can’t produce good bread wheat, and it’ll be too expensive— the customer will never pay for this.’”
For farmers, however, the rule was intended to dangle a carrot— ensuring them a market among bakers for any wheat they could grow. But the market shoppers’ reaction was discouragingly slow. As early as 2008, Greenmarket began to hold meetings and education sessions for bakers, millers and growers, partly to help each group learn how to produce and work with this new, mysterious and rather finicky product, and partly to establish the business relationships that could make the 15 percent rule work.
“The expectations were high, to say the least,” Russell says. But when one miller, the cooperatively owned Farmer Ground Flour from Trumansburg, New York, came to a meeting in 2009, the result was underwhelming. “They were thinking, ‘Great! All these Greenmarket bakers are going to buy from us,’” Russell recounts. “Only one baker bought from them. Then it was like, ‘What’s the problem? What’s going on here?’”
There were several problems, it turned out: Price, first of all. Locally grown and milled flour was dramatically more expensive than the commodity product, in some cases 20 to 40 percent more expensive, and bakers were convinced that their customers wouldn’t swallow the price difference. Access to sufficient quantities, and the lack of distribution and milling infrastructure, also worried many bakers.
Beyond that, getting commercial bakers to accept that their primary ingredient was going from being a stable, consistent, known quantity to a shifting, mysterious entity that they had to relearn how to work with was a hard sell—no matter how delicious the results could be.
“Bakeries, and all businesses, when they get to a certain scale, are just in production, and they have their efficiencies down,” Russell explains. “And putting a different ingredient into that cycle is difficult. Research and development takes time. “
A MULTI-PRONGED APPROACH
It was clear that more intervention was needed to make the market for local wheat viable. Russell and her co-conspirators identified a set of goals and got to work. Rebuilding a regional infrastructure was one of the first orders of business. Making flour is a complex process, involving cleaning the grain to remove foreign objects; “tempering” it with water and time; breaking and grinding it in a roller or stone mill; sifting it to separate the endosperm (the “white” part of the grain) from the germ and bran, then sometimes adding a portion of that bran and germ back; and mixing the flour to the desired gluten level.
Back when New York was the region’s breadbasket, gristmills were spread throughout the Hudson Valley, but production had begun to move west by the early 19th century. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made transporting wheat from western New York and the Ohio Valley dramatically cheaper and easier in the 1830s, eventually putting those mills out of work and decimating New York’s wheat farming. With the loss of that infrastructure and machinery came the loss of milling knowledge, Russell says. “There’s a big difference between someone who’s cracking grain—anyone can run a grain between two stones—and someone who understands milling,” she says. “There’s a real skill involved.”
And for farmers that Russell and the Greenmarket coaxed into joining the mission, growing wheat for flour wasn’t as simple as planting and harvesting the latest kale that consumers craved. Even before the question of finding a miller, they had to learn how to grow and harvest wheat, then how to clean and store it. “A lot of the equipment was coming out of dusty old barns where grain cleaners were stuffed in the back,” Russell says.
As the region’s wheat infrastructure and knowledge grew, the scale began to allow millers to offer a more consistent product, with predictable gluten levels and other characteristics. And communication— between farmers and millers, millers and bakers—started to be a part of the process, Russell says. Just as dairies at farmers markets will describe the changing nature of their cream based on weather or cattle diet, millers will now offer a preview of what a new season’s wheat looks like, to give bakers an inkling of how it might behave in a dough. It’s a new way of understanding flour—one that has not been taught in baking schools built on the premise of commodity wheat.
At workshops the Greenmarket holds, attention is paid to this particular paradigm shift for bakers. The baker Stefan Senders of Wide Awake Bakery in Trumansburg, New York, convinces bakers to let go of the notion that recipes should be followed to the gram. Instead, Dyck explains, “He pounds away at the idea that you get flour, and instead of assuming that your recipe that you’ve used for the last 20 years works, you look at the flour and you start working with it and adapt it. That is so important.”
That’s what Keith Cohen, owner of Orwasher’s Bakery on the Upper East Side, did with a loaf, the now justifiably famous “ultimate whole wheat,” which he developed using New York State flour from hard red winter wheat. The loaf, when it first went on sale in 2009 at the Greenmarket’s Cayuga Pure Organics’ stand, was a game changer.
“That was huge,” Russell recalls. “That got press.” The round twopound boule smelled and tasted— strongly and unabashedly—of whole wheat, and managed to be dense and nutty without being dry or heavy. It cost $8, and regularly sold out at the Greenmarket—shattering expectations of what a customer would pay for something as basic as bread.
To be sure, some customers will still balk at that price for bread, but the Orwasher’s loaf was a first step, and it’s a path that other specialized foods have followed. Organic free-range farm eggs, for example—customers now don’t bat an eye at spending $6 or $7 for a dozen, where once $5 seemed a stretch, Russell points out.
AN ONGOING STRUGGLE
If at the beginning of this campaign, the challenge was educating bakers and consumers about the value of regionally produced, skillfully processed wheat flour, the picture looks very different today. Compared to the Midwest’s wheat industry, the Northeast’s is still infinitesimal, but demand for Northeastern wheat far outstrips supply, Dyck says—and that’s both a blessing and a curse. “I think we have the consumer’s attention, and more to the point, the consumer is actually driving this,” she says. “But it’s not in the bag. Five years from now, this could be a total failure.”
Supplies of the grains that have done best in the Northeast are still slim, and our region’s harsh, unpredictable climate has led to a “stuttering” market, Dyck says. Ramping up production of rare and ancient varieties of wheat is a slow, painstaking process, she explains, and while it’s easy enough to entice chefs and bakers with the latest “it” wheat variety, building up enough seed for it to be planted in sufficient quantities can sometimes take several seasonal cycles of harvesting. Migliorelli Farm in Red Hook has been successfully growing wheat for four seasons and is partnering with Cornell University on small-scale variety yield trials, and Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County is now incorporating grain into their crop rotations.
Meanwhile, Lightning Tree Farm in Dutchess County is known as one of the more advanced and largest grain-growing operations in the Hudson Valley, boasting a diverse crop of both food-grade grains and grain for livestock. The farm has also had a long, collaborative relationship with farmer Don Lewis of Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners, who began milling his own grain in 2002 and in 2009 launched the Wild Hive Community Grain Project, which uses an Amish-style stone-burr mill and granite grinding stones to provide whole-grain flour to those hungry for a taste of local wheat and grain.
Dyck frequently gets calls from bakers seeking einkorn, for example, an ancient wheat that is gaining a devoted following, but it will be some time before it can be produced at scale in the Northeast. “I just hope people are interested enough that they’ll give us a year or two to build up our supply,” she says. “If you keep telling people, ‘next year, next year,’ then people think, ‘well, OK, I’ll just get it elsewhere.’”
Another possible pitfall, Dyck says, is going too far down the path of largescale production, and ending up cutting the same corners on quality as the commodity wheat industry.
“This whole thing is based on non-commodity markets,” she says. “If we ever forget that and start trying to sell Northeast wheat as commodity grain, then the whole thing falls apart. We have to add value, because otherwise the farmers in the Midwest can beat us six ways to Sunday.”
Still, Dyck says, she’s far from pessimistic. She continues to work with farmers, millers and scientists to grow still more delicious grains in the Northeast, and she finds herself constantly surprised and impressed by the innovations she sees in fields, in mills and coming out of ovens.
One of next programs she hopes to take on involves trying to make connections between some unlikely possible allies: the innovators who flock to online forums such as farmhack.org, and the Amish and Mennonite farmers who are doing what she calls “absolutely fantastic” work revolutionizing the process of dehulling and rolling grains—completely off the grid. “I just think there could be a really fruitful collaboration between these two groups,” she says, animating at the thought.
This kind of problem-solving—and the human communication necessary to rebuild the complex infrastructure for wheat production— is actually a part of the point of the movement, Halloran says. She sees it as about more than just what’s on our dinner table but also what brings us together as a society.
If it was the cultivation and processing of grains that first inspired humans to come together and create organized civilizations in Mesopotamia, she reasons, perhaps it can bring us together in today’s fragmented society again.
“All these people coming together to share the knowledge is an echo of all the way back to people coming together in agriculture in the Fertile Crescent,” she explains. “It does really feel like with this re-localization of labor and the reestablishment of connections around wheat and other grains and bread, a certain kind of civilization is happening again; a certain kind of communion and community is happening again.”
The question, as she sees it, is this: “Can we mend these connections between each other that have been very fractured?”