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Wheat goes local

05/03/2012 @ 10:09am

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.

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