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

Photo courtesy Izzio Artisan Bakery

The Izzio story highlights a key point—mills, as much as bakeries, can be crucial to building the supply of specialty flours in America. Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour are the leaders in serving consumers. On the bakery side, one key player is Central Milling of Utah, which has relationships with farmers in most of the country’s grain-growing regions and emphasizes organic and heirloom varieties. Nicky Giusto, a baker who now markets for the company, describes Central Milling as a sort of matchmaker to the baking world. “What are the factors that turn a baker on?” Nicky says. “What flavor profiles, what performance factors, what pigments—which can affect the color of the dough, the color of the crumb? As a miller, we then go and find varieties of wheat that deliver. Then we go find farms that will grow those varieties to their fullest potential—farms that have a piece of land whose ecosystem will support those varieties.”

Central Milling, he says, is big enough to ensure the farmer a solid relationship over a long time—something few bakeries smaller than La Brea could undertake—but nimble enough to serve the artisan niche.

At this point it’s clear that farm-to-loaf is as much an ideal as a definition. A supply of heirloom grains from a mill may not be traceable to one farm. Nor is a grain from a small farm necessarily heirloom. The authenticity of artisan bread rests with the baker, not governed by any sort of regulation.

The trend recalls the craft beer phenomenon: small brewers, exploiting flavor niches, proliferated and began to eat into the profits of large breweries, who then bought the craft breweries and scaled them nationally. Consider the case of Ardent Mills. Ardent is a 2014 joint production of agriculture giants Cargill, ConAgra Foods, and a third partner. It has a specialty grains division, selling teff, sorghum, and whole wheat that’s grown to certified organic standards. Andy Clark says that not long ago a rep from Ardent offered to drop off a few sample bags of flours.

Small, even to the big guys, is beautiful. 

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