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Wheat goes local
Demand for local food products is no longer limited to fruits, vegetables, and honey. Regional artisan bakers are teaming up with their area's farmers and millers to provide customers with locally produced breads.
While still a unique concept in the U.S., European countries, such as Italy, have always celebrated breads and pastas made from locally grown grains. They appreciate the distinctive flavors and freshness.
“With the emergence of the Foodie Culture, more consumers in the U.S. are demanding and paying a premium for flours that are regionally distinctive,” says Steve Voight, president and chief executive officer of King Arthur Flour, a 220-year-old flour milling company based in Norwich, Vermont.
The company's history dates back to a period when New England was the nation's breadbasket. After the Erie Canal was built, wheat shipped out of the Midwest grew from 14,000 bushels in 1826 to 8 million bushels in 1840. New England grain production could no longer compete with Midwestern wheat and declined accordingly.
With a strong commitment to its own history, King Arthur is now a leader in the movement to bring back local grain production.
“What we are seeing is that these grains grown in Maine and Vermont have qualities distinctly different from ones grown elsewhere,” says Voight.
Voight says distinguishing grains by region is not new. In many ways, it mirrors the French concept of terroir – a view held by winemakers that the soil and climate of a region bestow a unique flavor signature on the grapes grown and the wine produced in that region.
One artisan baker and innovator to incorporate this philosophy into his successful business model is Mike Dash, owner of Rolling Fire, a Seattle-based catering service specializing in authentically crafted wood-fired pizzas. After years of study, Dash concludes that locally grown grains, milled fresh to a pizzeria's specifications, are an essential element in building an extraordinary pizza.
“This is something we are now learning in the Northwest,” he says. “When we connect directly with local grain farmers, the obvious outcome is an improvement in what we have to work with.”
More than better taste
But quality, flavors, and freshness of the end product aren't the only reasons why locally produced wheat has become such a hot topic for bakers and millers, says Steve Jones, veteran wheat geneticist and director of Washington State University's Mount Vernon Research Station. He points out that in recent years, grain speculation has lead to major fluctuations and even outright wheat shortages in some parts of the U.S.
“In 2008, a bushel of wheat that normally would go for $4 to $8 (per bushel) rose to $25,” says Jones. “Some bakers went out of business because they couldn't afford the flour.”
In response, artisan bakers across the country are now working directly with local growers and millers to make sure their grain and flour supply keeps flowing.
In September 2011, the Mount Vernon Research Station, located north of Seattle, hosted the first annual Kneading Conference West, a three-day event that is a direct offshoot of a successful Kneading Conference started in Skowhegan, Maine, in 2007.
This is a national movement that has emerged through necessity, says Amber Lambke, one of the founders of the original Maine event.
“These conferences are a way to bring everyone who has a vested interest in the future of local wheat production together in one place,” she says.
Lambke's participation in the founding of the Kneading Conference is a direct result of her involvement in the conversion of an 1863 county jail in her adopted hometown of Skowhegan into a community-based grist mill for the purpose of grinding locally produced grain.
“We could see there was a need to share information between communities involved in similar projects,” says Lambke, noting that Skowhegan was an appropriate setting for a local wheat conference. It was the hub of an agricultural region in the 1830′s that produced enough grain to feed 100,000 people.
“The level of knowledge circulating at these events is remarkable,” says Lambke. “They are really a crash course on how to set up local grain networks.”
Two Oregon residents who have successfully forged a farm-to-bakery working relationship are David Mostue, comanager of Dunbar Farms of Medford, and Ben Casder, owner and operator of Sun Stone Artisan Bakery in Ashland.
Mostue's family has been farming the same 230 acres since his grandfather purchased the property in 1909. Originally a pear orchard, Mostue has expanded the family farm's production base well beyond fruit. He now farms 5 acres of wine grapes, 90 acres of hay, 30 acres of orchard fruits, 30 acres of grain, and 6 acres of row crops.
“It is relatively arid in our part of the state, so we have ideal growing conditions for wheat and legumes,” says Mostue.
The wheat is grown and milled on-farm, shipped to Casder's Sun Stone Artisan Bakery, crafted into bread, and then sold through local retail outlets.
“What really makes it work for Ben and I is that we share the same views on the importance of locally produced foods,” says Mostue. “It all makes it worth while when I can pick up a loaf at the local grocery and know that it is made from wheat grown and milled on our farm.”
● David Mostue | 541/326-1666
● Steve Voigt | 802/649-3881