University of Vermont

Research at The University of Vermont

Vermont Wheat Makes a Comeback

HEATHER DARBY, PH.D., EXTENSION ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR

In the nineteenth century, Vermont farmers grew some 40,000 acres of wheat each year. But as the soils, railroads, and climate of the Midwest triumphed in the intense competition of grain commodity markets, Vermont wheat production steadily declined and all but disappeared. Wheat fields have begun to sprout once again in Vermont in the past decade, thanks in large part to the research and outreach of UVM Extension agronomist Heather Darby, Ph.D. Darby began studying the viability of growing wheat in Vermont in 2004, later taking that work into the field with Roger Rainville on his Borderview Farm in Alburgh, Vermont, where they began trials with organic spring and winter wheat varieties.

As the local food movement grows, particularly in Vermont, for many it has come to include the desire to have daily bread sourced close to home. Darby points to a rash of recent food safety problems in the global food system, climate change, worries about energy supplies, and skyrocketing commodities prices as part of the changing food landscape.

"People want some control of their food and they want to be connected," Darby says, "The localvore thing is moving beyond the gourmet foodie market — it's now about knowing where your food came from."

Vermont has the highest per capita spending on local foods of any state, according to USDA figures, and that desire to eat local has increasingly come to include bread. Until very recently, however, few bakers were willing to incorporate Vermont-grown wheat in their products, complaining of low quality and limited supply. This has driven Darby to look for varieties that not only will survive in Vermont but produce flour with the protein levels, gluten strength, and taste that bakers demand.

"When the farmers, bakers, millers, and Extension actually started listening to each other, things really took off," Darby says. To help, Darby opened a cereal grain quality laboratory in UVM's Jeffords Hall with funding from the USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture Organic Research and Education Initiative program. There, she and her team test wheat samples from farmers on a sophisticated machine that measures what millers and bakers call "falling number." If it rains just before harvest, or wheat contains too much moisture, it may start to sprout. This releases an enzyme that starts breaking down the starch and protein in the grain — which results in off-flavored flour and weak dough.

Randy George — one of the pioneers in baking bread from local wheat and the co-owner of Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex — started as a skeptic but credits Darby for what happened next. "There were a lot of good intentions, but we were bumbling around in the dark until she got the farmers and bakers together," he says, "and soon we saw dramatic improvements in quality." Local farm tours, a trip to Denmark, visits with millers and agronomists in Quebec, and other education spearheaded by Darby helped farmers to understand better the subtle issues that determine wheat quality, including harvest timing, drying techniques, and variety selection. The result: flours with higher falling numbers and better protein levels. Before too long, Red Hen was selling a hundred loaves a day of their purely Vermont-wheat Cyrus Pringle bread, named in honor of UVM's nineteenth-century botanist and wheat breeder.

Last modified May 15 2014 12:12 PM