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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One of the effects of this movement is to change the very nature of wheat, as obscure antique varietals are slowly going from seed banks into the ground, and thence the oven. As a commodity, bought and sold on exchanges in Kansas City, Chicago or Minneapolis, wheat is defined by three dichotomous characteristics—that is, whether it is hard or soft, red or white and winter or spring. Hard wheats, high in protein, give bread its body; soft wheats are preferred for pastry and noodles. Red wheat has a little more edge to its flavor than white, and winter versus spring has to do with when the wheat is planted and harvested. But wherever it’s grown, on city-size farms from Texas north to the Dakotas and west to Washington State, commodity wheat is a modern variety, bred for yield, disease resistance, ease of harvesting and, above all, consistency, right up to the moment it pops out of your toaster.

But that system, for all its efficiency, fails to exploit the fantastic genetic diversity of wheat. It is a plant that Abdullah Jaradat, a research agronomist with the Agriculture Department, describes as “perhaps the most variable crop on earth,” growing from the equatorial highlands up to the Alaska panhandle. The genome of most modern wheat is the largest ever decoded by biologists, including those of corn, rice and the creatures who plant and eat them. It comprises three distinct subgenomes, Jaradat explains, “each from a totally different plant, but together they act as one.” They joined in two events of natural hybridization, in the Fertile Crescent some 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, and on the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea in what is now Iran some 3,000 or 4,000 years later.

It was this second event that gave wheat its enormous adaptability, a trait that Eli Rogosa, director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, thinks may prove to be the salvation of humanity as the climate changes and pests evolve. On her Massachusetts farm she cultivates an array of rare “land­races,” organic heritage breeds that are adapted to particular ecological niches, but with the genetic capacity to thrive in many different environments. Many of these bear exotic names seemingly out of the Arabian Nights—emmer and einkorn and Ethiopian Purple, Poltavka and Zyta and Rouge de Bordeaux—and were collected from gene banks and traditional farmers in Europe and the Middle East. Rogosa showed them off this past July at a conference on Bread, Beer and Biodiversity at the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts, from which Don Lewis returned with a half-dozen samples to grow on his Hudson Valley trial plots. “I’m in business,” he says with a shrug, “but I’m also trying to feed the valley, as much as possible, with what we grow here.” As Elizabeth Dyck of the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-sharing Network notes, “It has always been a deluded idea that you should cede the production of the foodstuff you eat the most to another part of the world.”

Of course, the part of the world that actually produces that foodstuff tends to disagree. “Heritage wheat?” says Jeff Borchardt, president and CEO of the Kansas City Board of Trade, through which contracts representing 800 million bushels of hard red winter wheat, the raw material of uncount­able billions of sandwiches, pass each year. “I’ve heard of it, I guess. But I can’t say I’ve ever had any.” It was in Topeka, capital of the nation’s leading wheat-growing state, that a bakery last spring had to stop selling its popular cider doughnuts at a farmers market because it could not obtain enough Kansas-grown whole-wheat flour. “In other areas of the country, grain farmers and bakers have gotten together and they’re trying to rebuild that infrastructure that we’ve lost through consolidation,” Mercedes Taylor-Puckett of the Kansas Rural Center told the Lawrence Journal-World. “And so, it would be really interesting to explore whether we can look at grain in Kansas as a product, not just a commodity.”

For locally grown heritage varieties of stone-ground wheat to become more than a novelty, there must be a consensus that the flavor of the wheat is carried into the bread. Many people are willing to pay a little extra for their baguette if it helps support local agriculture, but many more would do so if they were convinced that it tasted better. Does wheat have varietal characteristics? Does it reflect “terroir”? Those are still controversial questions, and even bakers who think they can taste the difference between wheat varieties agree that it’s small. “I’ve had very good chefs tell me there’s no difference between 19-cent commodity flour and $1 specialty flours,” June Russell of the New York City Greenmarket told the UMass conference. “We’ve got to close that knowledge gap, to develop a vocabulary of taste for wheat, like we have for wine.” Even growers and bakers who have bought into the artisanal philosophy wonder how far to push it. “We’ve had to get used to using local grains,” says Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads, a large Maine bakery. “They vary. No one is blending them for consistency. Our breads are flour, water, salt and starter. If that’s all you’re using, the ingredients really matter.” On the other hand, he adds, “it emphasizes your connection to the land. The consumer has to understand that wheat is a seasonal product, like blueberries. But even then, there is a window of acceptable variability, and you cannot go outside it.”

In fact, the paradigm shift is already happening, and no one knows it better than Jones, the organizer of the Kneading Conference West. For a bread demonstration, he gave one of the bakers in attendance, George DePasquale of Seattle’s Essential Baking Company, a sample of flour from Bauermeister wheat. This is a variety Jones himself developed in 2005. Like most breeders at the time, he was interested in qualities such as yield, disease resistance and protein content. He was a little surprised, then, to hear DePasquale rave about the flavor of the resulting bread as “the best in 35 years of baking...nice controlled acid flavors [with a] strong hit of spice, strong hit of chocolate.” Jones, who has been involved in wheat-breeding since 1981, said, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard it described that way.” But he also acknowledges that future breeders will increasingly consider that subjective and hard-to-measure quality of flavor.

Around the time of the conference, it was raining in Massachusetts, where Robertson-Goldberg’s wheat was still standing out in the fields, gathered into neat ricks and covered with tarps, awaiting time and space in the barn for threshing. It turned out that ricks, at least the ones he built, couldn’t stand up to Hurricane Irene. Some of the harvest got wet and sprouted. “I am still figuring out the art of building a sound, weather-proof rick,” he wrote in an e-mail after the rain stopped. “The best instructions I can find in old books is ‘get an old-timer who knows how to do it to show you.’ Which is not particularly helpful, as I don’t think there is anyone left alive with much experience.” Still, it was not a total loss, he cheerfully noted; although he won’t get enough good flour to do the baking trials he wanted to do, he managed to salvage enough seed to plant again for 2012.

Jerry Adler wrote about modernist cooking in the June issue of Smithsonian. Amy Toensing is based in New Paltz, New York; Brian Smale also photographed “Native Journey.”


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