Heather Darby, Food Systems researcher and UVM Extension Agent, featured in NYTimes
An Associated Press story that ran in The New York Times and numerous other publications notes the university's major role in helping farmers grow wheat in New England. Among other UVM aid, agronomist Heather Darby says she's working on strategies such as choosing the most suitable grains and improving harvesting practices.
- By Daniel John Kirk
There were plenty of freshly baked loaves, hot out of an assortment of portable bread ovens, to persuade the uninitiated that nothing tastes as good as bread made from richly flavored varieties of grain.
The Kneading Conference is part of a quiet revolution whose center is Skowhegan, a town in central Maine that produced enough grain in the 1830s to feed 100,000 people. As interest in local food has risen, federal and state agriculture departments are underwriting experiments to find the best varieties of wheat, and artisanal bakers are eagerly trying the flours they produce. But it is the conference that has helped turn the scattered movement into the next new thing for locavores, and the practical topics discussed this year — building more gristmills, making old farm manuals available — reveal its progress from infancy to adolescence.
The demand for local grain is being fueled by bakers, who are responding to requests, often insistent ones, from customers. Michael Scholz of the Albion Bread Company in Albion, Me., started baking with local flour in 2004, selling the bread at a farmers’ market. “I never have enough,” he said. “I have people in tears. One 80-year-old lady screamed at me: ‘Who took the last five baguettes? You louse, you louse.’ ”
Michael Richard, a documentary videographer from Maine, explained the phenomenon less colorfully: “We’re just blown away by the quality of the bread,” he said. “It’s nuttier. It has more taste and more texture.” Unlike commodity wheat grown in the Midwest, for which consistency and yield are the primary considerations, local wheat is selected for nutrition and taste.
At first, farmers were skeptical of local grains, said Jim Amaral, who owns three Borealis Breads stores in Maine and began using local flour in 1994.
“But the patrons have always been very, very supportive,” he added. Today, 10 to 20 percent of the wheat in Mr. Amaral’s breads is local.
Heather Darby, an agronomist at the University of Vermont, is its coordinator for a joint program with the University of Maine to find the best grain for northern New England. “The interest in local food in the last two years has put a spotlight on what we are doing,” she said.
That attention didn’t happen overnight. Jack Lazor, a farmer in Westfield, Vt., has been growing wheat since 1977 and selling it to local food co-ops. Today, he provides them with 600 to 1,000 pounds of flour weekly. His and other local farms, like Grassland Farm, supported the conference.
Many bakers are now deep into local grains as well. Orwasher’s Bakery in Manhattan is selling Ultimate Whole Wheat, from a farm in the Finger Lakes region. Wheatberry Bakery in Amherst, Mass., started a community-supported agriculture group for grains two years ago: it now has 175 members. David Mostue, who owns an old pear orchard in Medford, Ore., will offer a community-supported agriculture group for grains and other storage crops this winter. And in Vermont, the Red Hen Baking Company in Middlesex is selling a Vermont loaf named for Cyrus Pringle, a wheat breeder and native son. Some champions of local grain look to it not just for nutrition and taste, but also to help make food supplies secure and reduce energy costs.
Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, told the Kneading Conference that industrial farming must eventually change. “It is not possible to maintain the current system,” he said.
The main problem, as he sees it, is the cost of energy, but others include the decreasing availability of water and a less stable climate.
King Arthur Flour, a 220-year-old company in Norwich, Vt., which sells Vermont Grains — its first, and for now only, bread made from Vermont flour — helped finance this year’s conference.
“We can no longer have foodstuff grown thousands of miles away,” said Tod Bramble, national sales director for the company’s bakery flour. “We have to get ready for a time when it won’t be a viable option.”
Stephen Jones, director of the Washington State University Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, said: “We have to decentralize grain growing. The price of grain for Maine and Washington State should not be determined in Minneapolis, Kansas City or Chicago, where grain futures are traded. When the cost of wheat skyrocketed in 2008, it had nothing to do with shortages.”
The attendees also discussed more immediate concerns, like the shortage of seeds for old varieties of grain, the high cost of new farming equipment and, on the East Coast, the scarcity of old equipment that can be refurbished. Some were worried about a lack of information about “lost” grains and how to grow them, but Dr. Jones said his lab had found almost all the old Agriculture Department pamphlets and had put them online.
For small farmers who want to grow more grain, the lack of gristmills is another serious obstacle. There were once 10,000 in northern New England. Today, the closest mill to Skowhegan is three hours away.
Amber Lambke, the driving force behind the Kneading Conference, is working to change that. With Mr. Scholz of the Albion Bread Company, she bought an unoccupied 1863 county jail for $65,000, with their own money, gifts and grants. They need to raise another $300,000, but slowly the jail is becoming a gristmill, as well as a center for sustainable agriculture and a farmers’ market.
The conference grew out of Ms. Lambke’s desire to help down and out Skowhegan, where she moved when she married a local doctor. But the town is not an unlikely place for such a gathering. Before railroads made it possible to buy grain cheaply from the Midwest, Maine grew plenty.
Grain-growing there is spreading. Three years ago, the Skowhegan area had 2 grain farmers; today, there are 22.
One aim of the conference, Dr. Jones said, is to let people know they are not alone. This is especially true of farmers as they face the big growers who — perhaps a trifle concerned about the trend — tell them not to bother with local grains because they can provide any kind of flour that anyone wants.
The movement has other worries, like price. Growing local grain is labor-intensive and usually organic, meaning cheap pesticides are not an option, and it is done on a small scale, meaning it lacks the economies of agribusiness. And while local grain will not be traded on the commodities market, it will still most likely be affected by commodity prices.
Another concern — one that is foremost for King Arthur and other commercial bakeries — is the consistency of local flour. Until there is more local grain available, there is no way to judge that consistency. But neither artisanal bakers nor home bakers see consistency as a problem. “You can adjust if you know what you are doing,” said Kendra Michaud, a baker from Montville, Me. Michael Jubinsky, of the Stone Turtle Baking and Cooking School in Lyman, Me., agreed. “It’s a learning curve,” he said.