Farmer, Miller, Baker: The Innovators Behind the Heritage Grain Movement

A farmer at Wheat Montana Farms inspects his heirloom wheat crop. Photo courtesy La Brea Bakery

by Scott Mowbray

The movement to source heritage grains for better bread is often a three-way dance, and it’s growing. 

Getting back to slow methods and few ingredients was the first principle of the real bread movement. But artisan bakers, perhaps because of their horrible hours, are restless folk and some have decided in recent years to source local flour—often milled from old grain varieties. They say these flours possess flavors and other qualities that were bred out of modern hybrid grains in the search for yield.

“When you look at Turkey Red, it tastes super good,” says baker Andy Clark of Louisville, Colorado, about his favorite wheat variety, which he gets from a Kansas farmer who has been growing it for decades. “That’s true of other varieties like Marquis, Red Fife, White Sonora, Rouge de Bordeaux. Turkey Red is pretty nutty and has a strong wheat flavor. Some people don’t like a strong wheat flavor, but for me it’s like Scotch, you either like it or you don’t.”

Photo courtesy La Brea Bakery

Buying local flour direct from a farmer, however, is a lot more complicated than, say, sourcing heirloom tomatoes is for an urban chef. Quantities are small and farmers are scarce. Even small-scale bakers need large year-round volumes of flour, for it is the main ingredient in bread. They also need consistency, which has been the hallmark of flours from big mills that buy grains in commodity quantities from 10,000-acre breadbasket farms. Buying local means plunging into the hard math of small-farm economics and exposing your bakery to the vagaries of weather, which from crop-to-crop can alter the performance characteristics of flour in dough and in the oven.

Randall George, one of the country’s pioneers in the farm-to-loaf movement, has been at it for more than 15 years with his Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, Vermont. The wet New England region is not an ideal location for growing wheat, and since Randall started cultivating relationships with local growers, one farmer has given up selling direct to the bakery in favor of packaging higher-value things like pancake mixes. Another had quality problems that limited how much Randall could safely use in his bread; those were resolved when the grower swapped in a wheat called Redeemer. Another farmer, in Quebec, moved in to ramp up supply and installed his own mill, and is now the backbone of Randall’s supply—illustrating that local, in border country, can also mean international. Along the way, a New England grain association sprang up to identify the best wheats and practices.

All good, but Mother Nature will have her say: 2016 was perhaps the best crop year ever, Randall says, but 2015 was abysmal, forcing him to look elsewhere for his flour.

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