Surprisingly, Randall says the marketing romance of the farm-to-loaf story has not been as “profound” as he thought it would be. Why bother, then? The answer lies in the ecology of local. He is excited to restore the virtuous circle of baker, farmer, and miller; to provide farmers with a market for what can be an ecologically important rotation crop; and to feel part of a movement to restore soil quality and prevent runoff into the region’s critical water source, Lake Champlain.
Plus, he says, the bread tastes better.
“In those early years, I was quoted saying we’d never have an all-Vermont bread. Now, we do. Then I thought we’d never see our local usage go beyond 50 percent. Today, we’re at 95 percent,” says Randall.
Red Hen buys many tons of local flour each year, but that’s penny stakes compared to California’s La Brea Bakery, which took the farm-to-loaf idea national with its Reserve breads in 2016.
As it turned out, there wasn’t enough local flour for La Brea to buy: The drought had long forced California farmers away from wheat to higher-value crops. So the bakery turned to a large family-owned farm called Wheat Montana Farms, which had thousands of acres under cultivation and whose owner was willing to try a variety called Fortuna.
Fortuna highlights the challenge of even defining what an heirloom wheat variety is: It was developed in 1966 in North Dakota. Its ancestors were old varieties and it shares with old wheat a tall profile, dry-weather hardiness, and lower yield, meaning it’s trickier to harvest and costlier by the pound. La Brea’s supplier emphasizes soil preservation methods and natural fertilization.
La Brea leans hard on that story on its labels, calling loaves “single origin” and even citing the vintage of the flour. A loaf priced at $8 needs to stand out, after all. But what excites La Brea’s senior vice president of culinary research and innovation, Jonathan Davis, is the flavor.
“In a side-by-side comparison, I was blown away: so much more complex. It’s quite striking. We looked at flavor and also performance—the Fortuna flour still has to perform through our long fermentation,” says Jonathan.
The La Brea Reserve line features three loaves, and Jonathan says the bakery plans to expand Fortuna into more products even while experimenting with other grains in other states. That will strengthen the bakery’s own ecology: “We are trying to bring diversity into our wheat supply.”