Benefits of Regional Grain Networks
Photo: Michael Richard

Benefits of Regional Grain Networks

Benefits of Regional Grain Networks
Commercial flour has introduced a number of compromises to American society as complex taste and holistic nutrition are sacrificed in favor of a shelf-stable commodity. Another significant trade-off has been the loss of regional grain networks. However, the past decade has seen a renewed interest in the knowledge and practice of local grainsheds, as people begin to recognize the value of artisanal grain and develop smaller, more circular economies. The emphasis is indeed on community: participation from growers, millers, bakers, and consumers is necessary in order to foster a community connected by local grains. In an increasingly globalized world, wheat is a crop that has been grown on American soil for over five centuries. However, like any attempt to break from current convention, the regional grains movement has faced some challenges.

Agricultural and economic challenges
For farmers, a highly differentiated and unique breed of locally adapted wheat may be more challenging to find and grow. Modern wheat is bred to be highly uniform to comply with the needs and efficiencies of industrial processing. Moreover, because commercial wheat has become a commodity crop, the industry tends to favor large operations; large federal subsidies to industrial wheat farmers support massive economies of scale for harvesting and processing. Selling local grains, like trying to sell any product that is outside society’s norm, also poses  challenges (Bland, 2013). It can be hard to market flour as more flavorful if the complexities of flavor in different varieties of wheat  are subtle. Moreover, fresh flour, which offers the richest flavors, is perishable, adding an expensive element of urgency to the storage, distribution, and use of the product. To consumers, it may simply come down to price: due to these aforementioned reasons (particularly the economies of scale that increase the advantages benefiting large commercial farms), regional wheat tends to be more expensive. In general, flour does not hold the same appeal as a juicy local tomato, and due to the embeddedness of commercial flour, many people are not even aware that there is such a thing as local flour!

Market opportunities
Luckily, there is such a thing as local flour. There is literally, grain grown on local fields, and there is locally milled flour. This is significant because grain, if stored properly, can lie dormant for decades. The measure of a grain’s character – it’s flavor and nutrition – occurs when it is converted into an edible form through the milling or cooking process. Grain from the Midwest can be shipped to New England and held in storage until it is needed. When milled, it will release the subtle flavors of the unique soil in which it was grown and, most importantly, it will be distinguished by the irrepressible taste of freshness. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, wholesome flour is a perishable product.

Of course, if possible, and for all the reasons above, seek locally grown and milled grains. They tell a local story, and they will be uniquely delicious. Plus, it’s becoming easier to access local grains. The regional grains movement is seeing mounting support as more people learn about the benefits of buying flour and other grains from local sources. On the farmer level, a local grains economy offers another avenue for increasing human connection: people can meet those who grow the wheat for the flour that ends up in daily staples like bread and pasta, and perhaps learn about the uniqueness of the product. This connection also takes the form of collaboration, as farms evolve into hubs for the transfer of knowledge. For example, The Northeast Grain Gab is a conference for “individuals from all sectors of the Northeastern grain world” to meet and share their experiences working with local grains (Northeast Grain Gab, 2021). For bakers, local grains often lead to more nutritious products. People who go out of their way to procure and grow a relatively rare breed of wheat are unlikely to refine that grain down to the unnourishing stub of a kernel that defines commercial flour.

Regional grains also offer the opportunity for consumers to favor local businesses over the massive wheat conglomerates that otherwise dominate the industry. Over time, this may develop into circular economies that reward farmers for growing and selling local grains. These smaller economies are also more resilient. As grocery shortages in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated, the food supply chain is a deeply convoluted and precarious system (Whole Grains Council, 2020). In fact, the Artisan Grain Collaborative launched a program called Neighbor Loaves as a direct response to flour shortages during the outbreak, which highlights the significance of regional food systems (Neighbor Loaves, 2020). Local grain systems are much better suited to providing for local demand. Moreover, there are indeed subtleties in taste that lend a much more rich and complex quality to foods made from whole local grains. Dr. Stephen Jones of the Washington State University Bread Lab explains that grains, like wine, have terroir: flavor derived from their specific geography (Stephen Jones, 2016).

Environmental opportunities
In addition to the benefits to the people involved in local grain economies, there are also a number of environmental advantages. The Northeast Organic Wheat Initiative, based in northern New York, extolls the environmental virtues of locally adapted heritage wheats. Heritage wheat, they explain, has naturally larger roots that are able to absorb more nutrients from the soil and therefore is healthier and tastier. This farmer-owned cooperative sells seeds from their website and encourages farmers to expand the biodiversity of their operations with local grains.

Ultimately, it’s all about diversity. The world is home to more than 30,000 varieties of wheat, yet the commodity market, prioritizing varieties that are disease resistant and produce high yields, represents only a handful of proven strains. Smaller farms, more able to accommodate changes, can introduce wheat varieties that are treasured by chefs and bakers for their unique flavors and the desirable textures they produce. Wheat breeders at Washington State University’s Bread Lab are breeding ancient grains with modern varieties to bring forward flavors that may have been lost due to their unsuitability for commodification. Through trial and error, farmers are revitalizing regional grain economies by planting varieties that thrive in the local geography and weather. These distinctive grains may have historic roots in the area which, when restored, can confer pride in the uniqueness of place on local eaters.