Artisanal Wheat On the Rise

Giving factory flour the heave-ho, small farmers from New England to the Northwest are growing long-forgotten varieties of wheat

“Man does not live by salad alone,” says farmer Tevis Robertson-Goldberg of Massachusetts. “He needs croutons.” (Amy Toensing)
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Under the warm August sun, the wiry, lushly bearded farmer moves at a slow walk through the field, swinging his scythe in a steady rhythm, the tawny stalks of wheat falling to one side in neat rows. From time to time he pauses to hone his curved steel blade on the stone he keeps in a belt pouch. He is followed by three or four young women, who gather the felled stalks by the armload, picking out the stems of mayweed and ragweed, tying the wheat into sheaves, and standing up the sheaves into shocks that will dry and ripen in the sun until they in turn are assembled into circular head-high ricks that will resist the autumn rains until the time to bring the harvest indoors for threshing.

Civilization began like this, as acknowledged in Genesis with the Lord’s decree that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” and thus it was until the invention of the mechanical harvester and the combine. Then a vast monoculture of wheat spread across much of the land, abetted by railroads and chain supermarkets, bequeathing unto the nation bread untouched by human hands from the moment the seed goes into the ground until the loaf is unwrapped and the slice anointed with peanut butter. That the scythe-wielding farmer is seeking to reverse 150 years of industrial history is an act of, at the very least, hubris. That he is attempting to do it in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on an acre of heavy, cold soil containing a limitless supply of stones to menace his blade seems to border on madness.

But there’s something about wheat. It speaks to the American soul like no other crop, even much more valuable ones, which is most of them. Find a penny from before 1959, and what you see on the reverse are two iconic stems of wheat, not a bunch of arugula. “Man does not live by salad alone,” says the Berkshire farmer, Tevis Robertson-Goldberg of Chesterfield, Massachusetts. “He needs croutons, too.” In growing grain where it has not been grown in living memory, Robertson-Goldberg is pushing the boundaries of locavorism, the national movement that obsessively tracks the miles covered in every calorie’s journey from earth to mouth, combining elements of environmentalism, survivalism, nutritional fanaticism, common sense and food snobbery.

As recently as 2005, when the writers Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon tried to live for a year exclusively on food grown near their home in Vancouver, flour was among the most elusive staples; in their book, Plenty, they describe the tedium of separating mouse droppings from the grain in the only sack of wheat they could find within 100 miles. They would not have that problem today; farmers in the lush Skagit Valley north of Seattle, whose leading products are potatoes, tulips and vegetable seed, have begun adding wheat to their crop rotations for what one of them, Dave Hedlin, calls “fun, and occasional profit.”

Like many farmers, Robertson-Goldberg planted wheat as a cover crop, something to keep down the weeds on a field being rested from the more demanding work of growing the broccoli, berries, rutabaga and other vegetables he supplies to farmers markets and to families who pay a flat sum for a share of his production, an arrangement called community-supported agriculture (CSA). But standing tall in the late-summer sun, the wheat looked so beautiful he couldn’t bear to plow it under.

His only real qualification to raise wheat was knowing how to scythe, a skill he’d picked up during a year at a “living history” farm in New Jersey. (Scything, he says, “is harder and less dangerous than it looks.” The other way to harvest wheat, if you don’t happen to own a combine, is with a sickle, a curved blade attached to a short handle, and wielding one of those is easier and more dangerous than it looks.) He didn’t even have wheat seed, at least not of the heirloom varieties he was interested in growing. One of those varieties is Arcadian, which was grown in New York State as recently as the 1920s; it had gone so thoroughly out of fashion that when officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture sought it for their seed bank in 1991, they had to get it from Russia. (And even that, he says, may not be identical to the New York strain.) The seed bank provides only five grams to a customer, or about 100 seeds. These, after one growing season, yielded Robertson-Goldberg a pound of seed, which turned into ten pounds the following year, at which point he was ready to have a crop. And he would have harvested one, too, if a hurricane hadn’t hit the Northeast this past fall.

Even home gardeners are planting wheat, in backyards measured in square feet rather than in acres. They are harvesting it by hand, threshing it by flailing chains inside plastic buckets, separating the chaff from the berries (or kernels) with vacuum cleaners and then grinding it themselves on hand-cranked mills. This is an impulse entirely separate from the desire to grow, say, tomatoes, which are obviously better and cheaper from a garden than a supermarket. As an economic proposition, raising wheat to save money on flour makes about as much sense as raising children to help with the dishes. In either case, the decision is an emotional one. Home-grown wheat springs from the soil of American self-reliance and independence, fertilized with a pinch of apocalyptic fervor. Jack Jenkins, a genial tinkerer who sells hand-cranked tabletop mills by mail order out of Stanwood, Washington, cites a customer who connected two of his machines in tandem to a stationary bicycle and in a year “processed enough flour to bake 1,456 loaves of bread. She trained for a marathon that way!” Jenkins praises the taste and nutritional value of freshly ground whole-wheat flour, but also notes, pointedly, that unmilled wheat can potentially keep for decades, a useful quality if you’re stocking up in advance of social and economic collapse. (Flour has a definite shelf life, which can be extended by refrigeration, Jenkins notes—“if you’re sure you’re going to have electricity.”)

The unlikely ground zero for the nouveau-wheat movement is Skowhegan, Maine, in a region that was, long ago, one of the breadbaskets of America. It was here in 2007 that the annual Kneading Conference was born, a celebration of bread bringing together small farmers, artisanal bakers and practitioners of the obscure art of building outdoor wood-fired brick ovens. The missing link in re-establishing the area’s self-sufficiency in bread was a mill, so two of the conference organizers, Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz, constructed one in a vacant building that had been the city’s jail. This year, the Kneading Conference spun off a West Coast satellite event, held in September at the Washington State University (WSU) research center in Mount Vernon and organized by its director, a WSU plant geneticist and plant breeder named Stephen Jones. “Farmers here need wheat in their rotation, but they lose money growing it,” Jones told an appreciative crowd at the conference. “They just want to lose a little less money.”

Tom Hunton, a farmer in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon, where a leading crop is grass seed, said he became restless growing “things you can’t eat.” He was encouraged in this change of heart by the housing collapse, in which the market for lawn seed was collateral damage. He planted a field with hard red wheat, the kind used for bread flour. The infrastructure of the valley was geared to transporting soft white wheat—used for pastry and noodles—to ports for shipping to Asia. Hunton at first had his wheat custom-milled, but then he too built his own mill, the Camas Country Mill, in Eugene. When it opened, this past spring, it was the first in the region in 80 years.

In semi-rural Dutchess County, New York, Don Lewis, a farmer and baker, built an artisanal “micromill” to process locally grown grain for sale at his own farm store and bakery and to supply the voracious epicures of New York City, some 100 miles away. “The nation owes its very existence to Hudson Valley wheat,” Lewis avers, because the grain allowed the Continental Army to eat fresh bread, while British troops were gnawing stale hardtack. (Legend has it that Catherine Schuyler, the wife of the American Gen. Philip Schuyler, burned her wheat fields near Albany to keep them from the British—the subject of a painting by Emanuel Leutze, who also painted Washington Crossing the Delaware.) The heyday of Hudson Valley wheat ended in the 19th century with the spread of a stem-devouring pest called the Hessian fly, which supposedly had been brought by Britain’s Hessian mercenaries, and the opening of efficient transport routes from the Midwest. But the land and the climate are still there, and people are still eating bread.


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