As you begin to integrate whole grains into your menu, you’ll need to think about the varieties that work best and where to find them. As with sourcing other foods, the relationship between chef or baker and purveyor is key to achieving the product and quality you need. Understanding the grain farmer’s perspective – the how and why of growing grains – can inform your choices and open new opportunities.
Grain growing and harvesting at a scale large enough to create profit requires specialized tools and technology – the critical agronomic infrastructure. Planting and harvesting equipment, post-harvest grain storage, and other grain type-specific tools are essential. Farmers who grow grains as cover crops or for animal feed may have many of these tools and will have knowledge that places them ahead of other farmers, even if they aren’t yet growing for human consumption.
Beyond farmer skill and experience, wheat can be a challenging crop to grow because it is easily impacted by weather. While it grows in many places, a drier climate tends to produce less disease-prone grains but lower yields, while a wetter climate can mean higher yields but more susceptibility to disease.
Growing organic grains can add additional challenges, even if a farmer is experienced growing conventional grain. The commodity grain market serves the conventional, large-scale grain production that provides the refined flours that comprise many packaged and processed foods. Switching to organic can mean forgoing existing relationships and seeking new relationships with seed companies, buyers, funders, and like-minded farmers.
The transition to growing wheat for human consumption can also be a big leap for many farmers. The quality standards for food-grade crops are much higher, and, as bakers well know, end product qualities like protein content and hydration matter immensely. The various tests of flour quality are mostly conducted in research labs or by millers and bakers. While the farmer is not solely responsible for testing the final product, they must be aware of the end product requirements and in communication with millers and bakers to produce the highest quality foods.
Researchers at university cooperative extensions, or places like the Bread Lab in Washington State, can play an important role in helping farmers and bakers achieve their end goals. They can test and develop varieties of wheat or other grains that are adapted to the local region and achieve the qualities a baker or chef requires. For example, Dr. Stephen Jones at the Washington State University Bread Lab directs grain breeding research to develop varieties of wheat and barley specifically for flavor, nutrition, and the Pacific Northwest’s marine climate.
If you would like to experiment with the grains and flours grown and milled in your area, you’ll want to reach out to sources that can answer your questions. What grains are already grown? What grain varieties were grown historically? Who are the farmers and millers on whose expertise you could rely? What are the constraints for a farmer – for example, what are the quality parameters or the requirements of the market that a farmer must meet? What inputs are necessary to produce the wheat you desire? Chef, restaurateur, and author Dan Barber champions the symbiotic chef-farmer relationship, explaining:
“We work with Klaas [Martens], a brilliant grain farmer who, to prepare the soil for his wheat, plants a whole series of other soil-supporting grains, legumes and cover crops like rye, barley, millet, beans, buckwheat, cowpeas and clover. Each crop performs a very specific function: The beans give the soil nitrogen, the barley builds soil structure and so on. If that sounds complicated and time-consuming for the farmer—it is. Which is why we need to create a culture that supports those crops.”
– Dan Barber, Edible Brooklyn article 2016 [Link to: https://www.ediblebrooklyn.com/2016/grimm-ales-beer-blue-hill-stone-barns/]
But this relationship is not built overnight, rather, it is crafted from a series of conversations and negotiations. Bakers may need to accept starting small, experimenting with grain varieties, and paying a premium for the variety and the quality they desire. The farmer, the miller, and the baker meet one another from their unique perspectives, so crystal clear expectations of the measurements and outcomes that will be used to assess the final product are key.
Universities, regional grain organizations, and groups like the Food Lab can support stakeholder conversations by hosting cross-supply chain roundtables and making introductions. Armed with the information in this Grain Guide, we hope you will be well equipped to begin sourcing your own regional grains.