Local Grains Gain Ground

Thanks to NOFA and farmers, local grains are making a comeback.

There’s something simple and comforting about a bag of flour. Plunging one’s fingers into its cool, dry softness is a nostalgic pleasure, and one that is always reassuringly consistent.

That’s because pretty much every bag of flour is exactly the same—all-purpose, indistinguishable, interchangeable—and has been for a century. Across the country, it’s the same nondescript flour we powdered our kitchen counters with as children in those first attempts at making cookies. The same we whisk into Sunday morning pancake batters, bake into blueberry muffins and knead into pizza doughs. And, for many of us, it’s that same battered paper bag that’s been sitting on the shelf for a year.

But these days, educated eaters are losing their appetites for anonymous commodities; clued-in cooks prefer specialty specimens over consistency and shelf stability. Which is why some local-food advocates are arguing that it’s high time to rethink that unassuming white powder from the Great Plains of the Midwest—that a truly viable New York food system must grow its own grain.

“Grain is such a basic commodity,” says Erick Smith, one of the farmers who started Farmer Ground Flour, an upstate mill that began producing flours from local grain in 2008. “When you really think about a regional food market, what’s more basic than grain? If it’s missing, it’s just a hole in the notion that you can have a regional food system. It’s the heart of our food system.”

In the 18th century, New York was the region’s breadbasket, producing wheat for consumption here and in neighboring states. But as canal and railroad systems allowed for long-distance transport, cheap grain rolled in from the large, flat farms in the Midwest, and the small community mills dotting the Hudson Valley crumbled. Today some farmers are working to rebuild the Empire State’s grain industry, following the lead of farmers resurrecting local grain economies across the country, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania.

But plugging local wheat into a system designed to receive it from the West is more complicated, it turns out, than building a local market for heirloom tomatoes, organic milk or even grassfed beef. The generational knowledge of growing grain on our terrain has been lost. New York is no longer home to regional mills that clean, de-hull and grind grain. And, despite today’s farm-to-table sensibilities, local flour is a hard sell.

Even farmers market mavens who seek out kabocha squash and Seckel pears are typically innocent of the nuances of high-quality, stone-ground wheat flour—and those who buy a bag might find baking with it a challenge. One batch of regional flour often varies from another in gluten content, water absorption and texture. Small-batch stone-ground flours, with their quirks and variations, their slightly oily textures and their musky, unfamiliar fragrances, can be tricky for bakers raised on the consistent, mass-produced flour that has made precisely calibrated baking recipes the norm. And, for professional bakers, inconsistent supplies of local grain have made bulk production difficult.

But against all these odds, New York’s grain industry is experiencing a renaissance. Growers are experimenting with specialty grains, which are in turn showing up in farmers markets, bakeries and restaurants. A grain tasting organized by Greenmarket and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) at the French Culinary Institute in January drew a Who’s Who of the city’s baking elite—including representatives from Roberta’s and Hot Bread Kitchen.

June Russell, who manages farm inspections, strategic planning and regulations for the Greenmarket, was the force behind that tasting, and she says local grains are gaining ground. Cayuga Pure Organics, the beans and grains company started by Erick Smith and his partner, Dan Lathwell, has expanded rapidly into local grains and flours. The two partnered with another area farmer and a young miller to start their flour mill, Farmer Ground Flour, in Trumansburg, New York. Since June 2009, wheat, buckwheat and rye flours have been on sale at their Greenmarket stalls, as well as corn meals, polentas and whole grains such as emmer, barley and oats—all grown upstate. In Brooklyn, their flours and grains are available at Greenmarkets in Fort Greene, Grand Army Plaza and McCarren Park on Saturdays and at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket on Sundays.

“Chances are, we’re going to sell everything that can be grown this year, which is fantastic,” Russell says. “That signals to the growers that there’s a demand for it.”

For years, New York’s farmers have been skeptical about the possibility of growing high-quality wheat in our wet, unpredictable climate. But individuals bucking that conventional wisdom today say that when it comes to wheat, quality isn’t the same as quantity or uniformity.

“The skepticism wasn’t ‘you can’t grow wheat.’ The skepticism was ‘you can’t grow a uniform product,'” Smith explains. “It will be different in a dry year than a wet year. Nobody says you can’t grow it here, but you can’t grow it to meet the standards of U.S. agriculture, that it’s uniform every year.”

Klaas Martens, who has been growing organic grains with his wife, Mary Howell-Martens, on their Finger Lakes farm for over a decade, echoes this sentiment. “I think we’ve bought into a false definition of quality with the industrial food system, and that quality is uniformity,” he says. “With uniformity you bring up the worst, but you also eliminate excellence.”

For home bakers used to the consistency of supermarket commodities, the fluctuations of small-batch flours require a flexibility that many of us are uncomfortable with. Instead of slavishly relying on exact recipes, local flours force us to observe the texture, consistency and pliability of a dough, adding water or adjusting the yeast as necessary. This way of baking is a long-forgotten skill, and can be off-putting for some.

But the variations in local grains, once you’ve learned to work with them, are precisely what make them worth the trouble. The mass-produced Midwestern wheat in supermarket flour is grown for yield, not flavor. It’s roller-milled to chalky shelf-stability, stripping it of all the wheat germ and fibrous bran that can give flour its character and nutritional value, then sifted and mixed to precise gluten levels. When local farmers grow heirloom grains and grind them in small batches, the product is as different from that supermarket bag as a juicy Green Zebra tomato is from a pale, spongy supermarket tomato.

“You cannot compare it at all,” says Albano Ballerini, the chef and owner of Aliseo Osteria del Borgo on Vanderbilt Avenue. Ballerini also uses whole-grain wheat flour from Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners, New York, to add flavor to his pasta, mixing in an organic semolina flour for springiness. The variable nature of the local flour requires some extra attention, he says, but that’s a part of his cooking process anyhow.

“You go by the texture,” he says. “We check the density, we touch the pasta, and when it’s the right texture, that’s when we stop . . .We don’t work with standardized recipes, we don’t work with books. It’s the real thing.”

Ballerini also makes polenta with a combination of coarse and fine-ground cornmeal from Wild Hive, an operation run by Hudson Valley baker Don Lewis, who has stone-ground his own local grain, mostly from nearby Lightning Tree Farm, for a decade. Lewis sells flours, cornmeals and baked goods at his bakery and café in Clinton Corners, through a CSA upstate and wholesale to several chefs in New York City.

“American commodity [cornmeal] doesn’t have flavor,” Ballerini explains. “You have to put butter in there, you have to oversalt it, you have to doctor it up. To me, there is no comparison.” Ballerini uses a double-boiler to cook the upstate-grown polenta with water and salt for three or four hours. Then he serves it with braised local mushrooms or crumbled sausages and Pecorino. “It’s just fantastic,” he raves, admitting he sometimes downs it nearly straight. “I love to eat it just with some olive oil and cracked black pepper on top. That’s my favorite way.”

At the Brooklyn Kitchen, which sells Farmer Ground Flour as well as Daisy Flour, an organic pastry flour from Pennsylvania, the unfamiliar grains and variable nature of the flours can present a challenge for customers, says co-owner Harry Rosenblum. That’s part of why baking classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen Labs try to wean participants off complete reliance on recipes, he says.

“Yes, there’s a recipe but, especially with bread-baking, there’s a feel to it,” says Rosenblum. There’s nothing new about this approach, he points out—it’s exactly how his Hungarian grandmother baked before standardized flour became the norm. And it’s not all that complicated, either. He adds: “If you find your dough is a little too sticky, add a little more flour. And if your dough is a little too dry, add water.”

A bigger challenge of baking with Northeast flour is its lower gluten level. Area farmers have had success growing soft wheat, the variety traditionally grown here, which is preferred for pastries, pancakes and cookies. In our climate, however, it’s more difficult to grow so-called hard wheat, whose higher levels of gluten give yeasted bread its structure, producing the big air bubbles we’ve come to love in our loaves.

Despite the conventional wisdom that New York’s soil and climate can only support soft wheat, some New York farmers—many of whom started out growing animal feed for the organic meat and dairy market—now grow the hard wheat favored for bread flour. Just two or three years ago, hardly anyone in the state was growing hard red spring wheat, says Elizabeth Dyck, coordinator of NOFA’s Wheat Project. But now heritage red fife and other hard red spring wheats are gaining ground. This year she worked with farmers together growing 400 acres of organic hard red spring wheat statewide, and she expects an even higher acreage of hard red winter wheat next year. That may not sound like much, but in a state where wheat production has dropped too low to be counted by the federal government, Dyck says, “Those are hard-won acres.”

New York’s hard wheat flour has slightly lower gluten levels— around 12 percent, compared to the 14 percent flours of the Midwest, which are generally considered best for bread. But the strongest retort to arguments that New York can’t grow good bread flour is a slice of the Ultimate Whole Wheat loaf developed by Keith Cohen, owner of Orwasher’s Bakery on the Upper East Side. This domed loaf, which is on sale at Cayuga’s Greenmarket stands in Brooklyn, was inspired by Irish brown bread and features Farmer Ground’s whole-wheat bread flour. It’s rich, nutty and moist, substantial and wheaty without being dense—a brown bread that evokes a farmhouse table rather than a health-food store.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Cohen says of baking with local flours. “But for many years there wasn’t a great supply of it. Recently it’s come to the forefront.”

At Roberta’s, the celebrated locavore pizza destination in Bushwick, chefs have incorporated local grains and polentas into the menu, and the bakers use some Farmer Ground Flour in the breads they’re baking in their backyard shipping-container bread oven. It adds flavor to rye and walnut loaves, says Gabe McMackin, the catering and events chef at the restaurant. The challenge, McMackin says, is “trying to work out ways that we can use local flours and keep the breads inexpensive.”

“It’s such a terrific product, but it’s also precious,” he says, acknowledging that small-batch flours cost significantly more than their commodity counterparts. “We’d love to get to a point where we could use a local bleached white flour, but right now it doesn’t make sense to do that, economically. We use what we can for where we are, but we want to get to a place where we can use local grains for all we’re working on.”

No one is more excited about the growing popularity of local grains than Dyck, who has been working for years to revive the region’s wheat industry. But she’s aware that limited processing infrastructure drives prices up and means there’s a lag time before demand can be met. After January’s tasting, a baker asked where he could get 30,000 pounds of a specialty wheat he tasted there. She had to tell him that only one test acre had been grown.

“I don’t want this to be just a flash-in-the-pan fad,” she says, aware that chefs and bakers could lose interest before local production can scale up. “The infrastructural elements still need to be worked out. That takes a little time. I’m hoping demand hangs on.”

A real regional wheat economy will require more than fashionable ideology, says Klaas Martens, the Finger Lakes farmer. Growers have to entice customers to put their money where their mouth is, he says.

“It doesn’t really help to only like the concept,” he says. “You have to have tangible benefits, and they have to be tangible right away.”

With the help of farmers, bakers, and chefs, we may still rediscover one tangible benefit: nuances and depths of flavor that our collective palate has forgotten after decades of industrial flour.

Nathan Leamy, acting director of operations for Slow Food USA, certainly hopes so. He’s something of an expert on wheat, having traveled the world to study how American agricultural policy is affecting bread consumption worldwide, and he also teaches sourdough baking classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen. There he shows students that there’s more to flour than that battered bag of all-purpose on their shelf. He even has them taste different raw flours and discuss each one’s flavor and textural nuances, using words like “earthy,” “nutty,” “chalky” or “almondy.”

Leamy compares these different flours to another crop for which the public’s rediscovered appetite has helped stem the loss of biodiversity: apples.

“There are thousands of different types of apples in the world,” he explains. “You might use one type for making pie and another for making apple sauce and another type as a table apple. We use wheat as if there were only one kind of wheat in the world, because there’s really only one kind of wheat that’s widely available. But there are so many different types of wheat. I think as this develops, that people will be able to say, ‘this is my favorite wheat’ for a particular task.”

And ultimately, bread—that “staff of life”—probably matters more than apples, Leamy points out: “People eat bread a heck of a lot more than they eat apple pie.”

Indrani Sen is a freelance writer, an adjunct professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, and an editor at the Local, a hyperlocal blog covering Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. Her Web site is indraniclips.com.

Flour power: Klaas Martens now grows over 600 acres of corn, buckwheat, spelt, emmer, wheat and oats in Penn Yan, New York.

“Grain is such a basic commodity,” says Erick Smith, one of the farmers who started Farmer Ground Flour, an upstate mill that began producing flours from local grain in 2008. “If it’s missing, it’s a hole in the notion that you can have a regional food system.”

Stellar Starches: In polenta at Aliseo and by the pound at The Brooklyn Kitchen.

Editor’s note:  Aliseo Osteria del Borgo and Wild Hive Farm have closed.

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Indrani Sen is a freelance writer, an adjunct professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, and an editor at the Local, a hyperlocal blog covering Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. Her Web site is indraniclips.com.