Regional Grain Networks

The invention of the roller mill fueled the commercialization of flour and imposed unforeseen compromises on American diets. The first significant change in the processing of grains into flour removed the germ and bran from the wheat’s endosperm. This capability reduced spoilage, invented the “shelf-stable” category of foods, and boldly marked the prioritization of profitability and efficiency over nutrition and taste complexity.

The second significant trade-off was the loss of regional grain networks. Just 150 years ago, 15,000 grain mills fed Northeastern villages, towns, and cities. [Whole Grains Council,]. By 2019, the United States had lost all but 166 flour mills [] according to data from Sosland Publishing Company’s Grain and Milling Annual. Despite this enormous reduction, the past decade has seen a renewed interest in the knowledge and practices of local grainsheds, as people recognize the value of artisanal grain and more minor, more circular agricultural economies. The emphasis is on community: participation from growers, millers, bakers, and consumers is necessary to build a community of support for local grains. In an increasingly globalized world, wheat stands out for its tenacity and adaptability: it has grown in nearly every state. It has acclimated to the local weather and geography, the transition that results in terroir. Terroir is the taste of place and is one of wheat’s attributes that inspires bakers and chefs to experiment with varieties and learn techniques to bring out the best in the grain.

There are, however, challenges associated with local grain networks. A highly differentiated and unique breed of locally adapted wheat may be challenging to find and grow. Modern wheat is bred primarily for uniformity which makes industrial operations very efficient. Moreover, because commercial wheat has become a commodity crop, the agriculture industry favors large operations that benefit from federal subsidies. The subsidies enable massive economies of scale, which supports equipment purchases and the processes of harvesting and distribution. Selling local grains, like trying to sell any product outside society’s norm, also poses its challenges (Bland, 2013). It can be hard to market flour as more flavorful if people cannot 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 the reasons mentioned above (particularly the economies of scale awarded to large commercial farms), regional wheat tends to be more expensive. Even to a consumer interested in buying local foods, flour often does not hold the same appeal as a juicy local tomato. Plus, due to the embeddedness of commercial flour, many people may not realize there is such a thing as local flour!

Luckily, however, there is. The movement to restore regional grain networks is experiencing mounting support as more people learn about the benefits of buying wheat flour and other grains from local sources. On the farmer level, a local grains economy offers an avenue for increasing community connections and awareness of the uniqueness of the product. For residents, CSAs and farmers’ markets acquaint neighbors with the farmers who grow the wheat for the flour in daily staples like bread and pasta. This connection also takes the form of collaboration, as farms evolve into hubs to transfer knowledge. For example, The Northeast Grain Gab conference is 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 an appreciation for 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 that becomes commercial flour. Besides, millers know that the taste comes from the combined flavors inherent in the nutrients stored within the bran and germ.

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 convoluted and precarious (Whole Grains Council, 2020). The Artisan Grain Collective launched a Neighbor Loaves as a direct response to nationwide flour shortages during the outbreak, highlighting the significance of regional food systems (Neighbor Loaves, 2020). Local grain systems are better suited to local demand, especially if a disruption occurs within the national food system.

In addition to the benefits to the people involved in local grain economies, there are also several environmental advantages. In a video on the WSU Bread Lab website, Dr. Stephen Jones points out that grain fields yield 30% greater amounts of wheat per acre if millers use the whole kernel. [Better Bread for More People, Video, WSU Bread Lab]. The Northeast Organic Wheat Initiative, based in northern New York, extolls the environmental virtues of locally adapted heritage wheat. Heritage wheats, they explain, have naturally more extensive roots that can absorb more nutrients from the soil and therefore are healthier and tastier. This farmer-owned cooperative sells seeds from its website and encourages farmers to expand the biodiversity of their operations with local grains.

Moreover, subtleties in taste lend a richer and more complex quality to foods made from whole grains. Even professional bakers are surprised to learn that grains, like wine, have terroir: the unique flavor derived from the location, weather, and grain farmer’s decisions.

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, high yielding, and tolerant of industrial processing equipment, represents a handful of proven strains. Smaller farms, more nimble, can introduce wheat varieties treasured by chefs and bakers for their unique flavors and the desirable textures they produce. Wheat breeders at the Washington State University Bread Lab breed ancient grains with modern varieties to bring forward flavors that may have been lost because the plants under-produced or were vulnerable to weather and pest events. Through trial-and-error and studying historical grain bulletins, farmers are revitalizing regional grain economies by planting new hybrid varieties or older varieties that thrived in the local geography.