Amber Waves Again
- By Joshua E. Brown
At Borderview Farm in Alburgh, Vt., less than a mosquito’s flight from Canada, Heather Darby swats one -- and then clambers onto the high seat of a strange piece of farm equipment. Attached to the back of a John Deere tractor, it looks like a cross between a disc harrow and a movie theater’s popcorn popper. But she’s not popping corn; she’s planting wheat.
The machine is a cone seeder. On its left side, a large rack holds aloft a long box full of small brown-paper seed packets. Darby runs her finger down the packets like a librarian scanning her collection. Each has a handwritten label: Redeemer, Forward, Harvard, Clark’s Cream, Gold Coin.
Darby, a professor of agronomy with UVM Extension, and Roger Rainville, who owns this farm, are setting up a planting trial of winter wheat. Dozens of red and yellow sticks cover the plowed field, marking where each variety will grow. “Modern-day varieties on one end,” says Darby, “and heirloom varieties on the other.”
They have seeds from all over the world, including Siberia and Idaho. They want to see which ones will stand up well to New England’s unique brew of cold winters, diseases, high humidity and rocky soils.
“We’re figuring out what varieties would be good to reintroduce in Vermont,” Darby says. In the nineteenth century, Vermont grew 40,000 acres of wheat, but that dropped to nearly zero over the last century, as the soils, railroads and climate of the Midwest triumphed in the intense competition of grain commodity markets.
“Industry came in and said, ‘We can’t do that here,’” Rainville says. “Guess what? Now we’re doing it again!”
Darby began researching the viability of growing wheat in Vermont in 2004.
Four years ago, she and Rainville began trials with organic spring and winter wheat varieties on his farm. They, like farmers across the state, had very successful results with wheat in 2010.
“But this has been a crazy year,” Darby says, shaking her head and laughing, “for one thing, the mosquitoes are the worst ever; they’re getting us in broad daylight! It went from drought, to too much wet, to a hurricane. We’re really not sure what’s going to happen next.”
And not being sure what is going to happen next seems to be one of the major reasons why consumers have shown an increasing interest in getting food -- including their daily bread -- grown close to home by farmers they know.
“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.”
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. “Demand for local organic food is rising steadily in New England,” she says.
Though a few Vermont farms, like Butterworks Farm and Gleason Grains, have been growing their own wheat since the 1970s and ‘80s, a dramatic burst of interest hit the state soon after the turn of the 2000s. “Starting in the summer of 2004, grain growers in Shoreham and Orwell began to meet informally,” Darby recalls. “The localvore movement was so intense by 2008 that we formed a group, the Northern Grain Growers Association, to try to deal with the demand, the phone calls from new farmers and consumers.”
Vermont now has the highest per capita spending on local foods of any state, according to USDA figures, and several dozen farms across northern New England and New York are growing wheat.
“We’re not growing wheat because we want to compete with Kansas,” Darby says, “we’re growing wheat because there is a local market for it.”
“More and more consumers are asking for bread baked with local wheat,” she says.
And so bakers, in turn, are asking farmers to grow it. Until very recently, however, few bakers were willing to incorporate Vermont-grown wheat in their products, complaining of low quality and limited supply -- which is why Darby and Rainville are out planting today, looking 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, “We soon realized that we needed to improve quality.”
To help, Darby opened a cereal grain quality laboratory in UVM’s James Jeffords Hall. 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. In Darby’s machine, a specialized plunger-like device reveals this baker’s woe when it falls through a heated slurry of ground wheat too quickly -- resulting in a low falling number and bad bread.
Randy George -- one of the pioneers in baking bread from local wheat and the co-owner of Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex, Vt. -- started as a skeptic.
In 2009, he admitted to thinking “we were years away from baking a bread made exclusively from Vermont-grown wheat.” Some of the Vermont flours he had gotten in earlier years were “pretty good,” he says, but he had to mix them with at least eighty percent Midwestern flours to get the dough and taste he needed.
He credits Heather 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.
In the fall of 2009, Randy George bought batches of flour from Nitty Gritty Grains, in Charlotte, Vt., and from Gleason Grains, in Bridport, Vt., that were “greatly improved,” he says, “really excellent,” and he began “making bread that is beyond my wildest dreams of what we could do with an indigenous Vermont bread.”
Soon, Red Hen was selling a hundred loaves a day of their new Cyrus Pringle bread -- using one hundred percent Vermont wheat -- in honor of UVM’s nineteenth-century botanist and wheat breeder.
Improving on Pringle’s
With funding from the USDA’s organic research program, Darby now employs nine technicians and other staff on her research program -- and is following in the long-abandoned footsteps of Cyrus Pringle.
Last June, on a tour of research plots she is running with Ben Gleason at Gleason Grains, Darby described her goal of bringing some of Pringle’s genius back to life.
“Champlain is a wheat variety Cyrus Pringle developed right here in this area,” she said, pointing to a small plot of electric-green wheat, blowing in the wind. “We’ve crossed it with a popular modern variety from Canada, A.C. Barrie.”
And from the cross, working with expert wheat breeder Steve Jones at Washington State University, Darby has developed a new spring wheat variety she’s dubbed Pringle’s Revenge.
“We’re hoping to release it next year or the year after,” she says. “We’re at the point now where we’re growing out seed -- where we can evaluate quality and yield and start to do some baking trials.”
Supply side economics
And, at Borderview Farm, Darby would like to do the same with winter wheat: find the best varieties available and, eventually, breed them together to make new wheat stock that will do well in Vermont. But part of the challenge is that each year is different, and 2011 has been tough.
“The farmer’s are getting the same quality as last year, but yields are way down,” says baker Randy George. “The fact of the matter is that we get most of our wheat from Kansas.” And he’s not getting as much Vermont flour as he’d like.
“We need to grow this niche industry, so we can guarantee that there will be enough supply of local wheat every year,” he says.
Which is why Roger Rainville -- who has been farming here for 29 years and now has given over his entire 235-acre farm to testing and trialing many crops with Darby -- starts the tractor rumbling down the field. “We’ve got work to do,” he says.
Riding behind, Heather Darby methodically opens the paper envelopes and pours their contents -- wheat berries from around the world -- into the spinning cone seeder that drops them down a plastic hose and drills them into the Vermont soil.