The industrialization of flour milling in the early twentieth century introduced compromises to the food choices of American consumers. At first, the public firmly rejected bread made from flour stripped of bran and germ, complaining of the lack of taste and texture. When people became ill from eating bread lacking nutrients, the government enacted laws requiring that a percentage of the grain’s original nutrients remain in “refined” flour. Although retaining some of the nutrients began to increase acceptance, white flour triumphed following a marketing campaign that relied on barely concealed racial discrimination against the mostly immigrant bakers. 1 Americans grew accustomed to the convenience of a shelf-stable product and, eventually, white and refined became the norm.
The trade-off – flavor and nourishment for convenience – was accompanied by another significant consequence, the demise of local mills and regional grain networks. Restoring both has been the focus of forward-thinking bakers and chefs during the last quarter-century, but within the past decade, the trend has accelerated. The generous funding that supports this Grain Guide is one indication of new interest in regional grains, and another is the surge in new artisan mills proliferating around the country. The coronavirus pandemic taught us the value of smaller, more circular food economies that develop from the relationships between regional growers, millers, bakers, and eaters. But despite this growing interest and new connections, and even the fact that community wheat grew on American soil for centuries, establishing regional grain networks is challenging.
Agricultural and Economic Challenges
A highly differentiated and unique breed of locally adapted wheat may be difficult for farmers to source and grow. Modern grain needs to be highly uniform to comply with the efficiencies of industrial processing. Because commercial wheat is a commodity crop, the industry favors large operations that can take advantage of scale. For example, federal subsidies support the economies of scale that accrue as the number of acres invested in crop production increases. The independent small farm is disadvantaged in the competition for local sales.
Like selling many products that fall outside society’s norms, selling local grains poses challenges2. Fresh flour, which is more nutritious than refined flour, is perishable, adding an expensive element of urgency to the product’s storage, distribution, and use. The suggestion that whole-grain flour products offer more flavor than refined flour goods may be indiscernible if other ingredients subtly mask the flavor complexities. It may simply come down to price for many consumers: regional wheat tends to be more expensive due to these challenges. Naturally, flour does not hold the same appeal as a juicy local tomato, and therefore the farmer may find it difficult to market “local flour” as a reason for higher prices. Plus, due to the embeddedness of commercial flour, many people may not have encountered fresh-milled regional flour.
Luckily, local flour exists, and it is moving front and center in the grain revolution. Farmers are increasingly seeking grain varieties bred for flavor and nutrition, and entrepreneurial millers are building regional mills. These mills are game-changers. Grains, if stored properly, can be milled successfully after lying dormant for years, even decades, which enables them to be shipped from one part of the country to another and held in storage until needed. When milled, they release the subtle flavors of the unique soil that grew them and, most importantly, the desirable taste of freshness. We take the attitude that flour, in addition to the qualities inherent in the type and variety of grain being milled, becomes viable and therefore “local” when it is milled.
For farmers, a local grain economy can transform into a collaboration as farms become hubs for transferring knowledge. 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). Regional grains enable consumers to support local businesses, and their support can serve their community during global or national supply chain disruptions. As grocery shortages in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated, the food supply chain is profoundly convoluted and precarious (Whole Grains Council, 2020). As a direct response to flour shortages during the outbreak, the Artisan Grain Collaborative launched a program called Neighbor Loaves to provide bread for people in need, illustrating the usefulness of regional food systems (Neighbor Loaves, 2020). An unexpected bonus to the urgent need for fresh bread gave many people a first-time taste of locally grown wheats.
In addition to the benefits we’ve listed, local grain economies also create environmental advantages. The Northeast Organic Wheat Initiative, which sells seeds online, extolls the ecological virtues of locally adapted heritage wheats. According to their website, heritage wheats grow large roots that absorb more nutrients from the soil and therefore are healthier and tastier. The Land Institute in Kansas is developing a perennial wheat, Kernza, that reduces carbon in the atmosphere. According to their website, “The roots can extend 10 feet or more beneath the soil surface, where they deliver atmospheric carbon to the soil and efficiently take up nutrients and water.”
Ultimately, regional grain networks are all about diversity. The planet 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 treasured by chefs and bakers for their unique flavors and desirable textures. Wheat breeders at Washington State University’s Bread Lab breed ancient grains with modern varieties to bring forward flavors that may have disappeared with the advent of commercial processing. Through trial and error, farmers revitalize regional grain economies by researching archival information about varieties that once thrived in the local soil and weather. These distinctive grains may have historical roots in the area and can confer community pride in the unique identity created by the symbiosis of place and taste.