A Fresh Flour Movement Comes Alive: Local “Grain Chains” Being Revived Across the West
On a Saturday afternoon in a tiny ranching town in southwest Colorado, a group of about twenty people huddle around a mismatched collection of tarps, buckets, fans, and baskets outside the front doors of a bakery. After tramping on piles of hay with the determination of grape stompers, they pour the resulting tawny, crackling mixture of dried vegetation in front of the fans. They repeat this again and again, watching as the light bits float away and the heavier parts, grains of Turkey Red wheat, land on the tarps and a small mountain of golden rounded wheat berries piles up.
The group, all participants in a Grain School hosted by Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA), were learning a practice that’s been around for almost as long as human civilization, though today it’s nearly forgotten: threshing and winnowing grain. They represent part of a larger movement of farmers, chefs, malters, and flour geeks around the west who are reviving local grain economies—which were swallowed up by industrialization in the 1930s—by growing smaller-scale heritage grains, processing and milling them locally, creating connections between growers and buyers, and introducing the foodies of the world to the complex flavors and health benefits of varieties like einkorn, Khorasan (or kamut), amaranth, spelt, and farro.
Welcome to the fresh flour movement.
In many communities, local food has become a cultural norm. Farmers markets dot cities around the country, and many communities proudly serve locally roasted coffee, locally brewed beer, and wine made with locally grown grapes. But while it has become routine for many to consume salad greens grown within five miles, apples from across the valley, and a burger made with locally raised beef, grains have not entered our local food vernacular in a major way.
LeeAnn Hill is a farmer and special projects coordinator for RMSA, which teaches grain education classes around the country. She says local grains haven’t yet caught on like other local comestibles for a few reasons, the chief one being a misconception about the difficulty of growing grains.
In reality, grains don’t require vast swaths of land like some people assume, Hill points out, and they are typically easy crops to cultivate. The catch is that more equipment is needed for the processing of grains, and finding buyers isn’t as easy as heading to the farmers market. But with a little bit of work on the front end of things, grain economies can take off.
“It’s a little more difficult to get from field to plate,” Hill says. “But we really see a lot of success when people do take that leap of faith.” Hill would know: she has cultivated Turkey Red wheat, barley, oats, and rye on her farm in Mancos, Colorado, where she was able to grow twenty pounds of grain from a bed.
RMSA executive director Bill McDorman, who has spent his life working on seed-saving initiatives and local food projects with his wife, Belle Starr, thinks another factor that has hampered local grain production is the residual influence of industrial farming. “I would say the largest thing keeping farmers from thinking about it is we are coming out of this industrial storm,” McDorman says. “Our whole way of looking at the world is through this industrial lens. Farmers think you need to start big. You don’t have to. You can garden grains.”
Part of the work of the Seed Alliance is to encourage and foster such small-scale operations. Along with its Grain School classes, which cover the history, cultivation, processing, and networking of grain economies, RMSA operates a heritage grains trial program. Through the program, farmers or gardeners can sign up to trial different varieties of grains. In exchange, they return at least double the amount of seeds, which grows seed stocks for the Alliance and provides crucial information about how varieties fare in various climates. Some sixty-six farmers are currently trialing grains across the west through the program.
The program doesn’t aim to just build new economies, Hill explains. It also endeavors to rebuild ones that were lost. “In our research we’ve been able to find again that the west had a rich grain heritage,” she says, adding that before the Midwest took over as the capital of massive-scale wheat cultivation, communities all over the country had their own grain fields and town mills. “We forget that even with a shorter growing season [in the west], there are varieties that work. That’s really exciting. There are lots of microclimates in the west, and there are grains out there that are well adapted to those climates. It’s really a matter of poking around, finding these grains, and connecting them back to the places.”
And the interest among farmers is only growing. As Hill notes, “more and more people are becoming more alert and savvy to the need to keep the genetics of these heritage grains robust and to keep them growing out.”
Ben Rossman runs Blue Grouse Bread with his cousin Hannah Rossman in the remote southern Colorado town of Norwood. Using old-world slow-fermentation methods and a hulking steam-injected deck oven, they bake beautifully crusted loaves of organic sourdough bread that fly off the shelves of regional markets and grocery stores.
Being bread aficionados, they mill much of their flour in-house and experiment with different varieties of wheat. In the early days of their search for quality flour, however, it was difficult to find fine organic flour that was also local. It was that need, combined with the culinary curiosity of heritage wheat, that prompted them to start growing trial plots of wheat through RMSA.
Over two seasons, they have planted nine varieties of bread wheat on less than an acre that a friend loaned them, with varying results. Just getting started, they haven’t had enough yield yet to bake on a large scale. But they have been able to test the Khorasan flour on several loaves, and Rossman said it was both delicious and deeply gratifying to bake and eat bread made with wheat they had grown.
“I was like, wow, this is the ultimate dream,” Rossman says. “We grew wheat from seed, milled it ourselves, made bread, and then ate it.”
In the meantime, he and Hannah have also hooked up with a spelt farmer within one hundred miles who sells directly to them in bulk; their spelt loaf has become a popular sell. And they worked with a rancher and his wife just down the road to grow roughly four acres of Turkey Red that the Rossmans will purchase once it’s harvested.
Rossman says heritage grains are on the rise for a few reasons: they support good farming practices and adaptable crops, and their flavor profiles are superb. “They have a lot of depth of flavor that even changes region to region and variety to variety,” Rossman says. “It’s really quite nuanced. It’s fun as a baker, we have this whole new palette of flavors to play with.”
There are also health-related reasons for the rise in interest. McDorman says heritage grains are higher in protein and minerals than commercially produced grains, and people plagued by food allergies and digestion issues related to gluten can often tolerate bread made with heritage wheat. This pairing of producer and consumer interest means that the movement is picking up steam. “The farmers want to get in on it. It’s a great crop to grow. The consumer interest is huge. The baker interest is huge. It’s just been going like gangbusters. It’s exciting,” Hill says.
The stories are proliferating across the country: a bakery in Tucson that sources all of its White Sonora wheat locally; restaurants in Boulder that are starting to grow their own grains; brewers who are making beer from heritage varieties; an einkorn farmer in Idaho who’s the darling of bread connoisseurs.
But McDorman notes that the Rossmans’ story is a prime example of how grain economies can’t be built by one person—they require a whole system of growers, processers, millers, bakers, and consumers to succeed.
“The number-one overarching concept is that one person or entity can’t change their grain economy,” McDorman says. “What we’ve learned is that all those pieces have to be there. You have to reach out and work with other people in your economy.”
The movement has its ebb and flow. But McDorman is hopeful. “I think there is this general awareness. Americans on every level are growing up in their cuisine,” he says.
And that extends all the way to the humble, overlooked, and under-appreciated wheat berry.
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Originally published in Comestible Issue 7
Illustration by Laurence Deschamps-Léger (Laucolo)