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 around local grains. In an increasingly globalized world, wheat is a crop that has been grown on American soil for over five centuries.
There are a number of challenges associated with local grain networks. 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, making industrial operations very efficient. Moreover, because commercial wheat has become a commodity crop, the industry tends to favor large operations in the form of federal subsidies to industrial wheat farmers and 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 its challenges (Bland, 2013). It can be hard to market flour as more flavorful if people are unable to detect the subtle complexities of non-commercial wheat products. Moreover, local grains milled into fresh flour are perishable, unlike refined flour, adding an expensive element of urgency to the storage and distribution of the product. To consumers, it may simply come down to price: due to these aforementioned reasons (particularly the economies of scale awarded to large commercial farms), regional wheat tends to be more expensive. Even to a consumer who is interested in buying local foods, flour often does not hold the same appeal as a juicy local tomato, for example. Due to the embeddedness of commercial flour, many people do not even think to consider whether there is such a thing as local flour!
Luckily, however, there is. In fact, the regional grains movement is seeing mounting support as more and 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 as people can meet the people 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 a relatively rare breed of wheat are unlikely to refine that grain down to the unnourishing stub of a kernel found in 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 Collective launched a program as a direct response to flour shortages during the outbreak called Neighbor Loaves, 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).
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.
Finally, 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 a handful of proven strains. Smaller farms, more nimble, 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, thereby bringing forward flavors that may have been lost because the plants under-produced or were vulnerable to weather and pest events. 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.