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Where's the local wheat?

Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm started growing wheat several years ago because he wanted a source of local, organic grain to feed his laying hens. But he soon discovered there was a strong demand for whole-wheat flour among his CSA members and farmers market customers.

He bought a stone mill and branched out into heirloom wheat varieties like Frassinetto, Sonora, Ghaba Di Farro, and Bolero. “Customers who have tried freshly milled, heirloom wheat tell me I’ve spoiled them,” says the Dixon farmer. “Now they taste flour from the store, and it tastes rancid.”

But Nigel has a problem. He can’t afford to grow it on his current acreage. “I’ve got customers up the wazoo,” says Nigel. “I’m desperately trying to grow more or have it grown for us.” However, even heritage wheat cannot command the prices of heirloom tomatoes, and it’s also a riskier crop to grow, as weather variability can make or break a season. “The problem with wheat is that it’s not that valuable,” he says. This year, he’s only growing one acre of wheat for seed. He’s looking to acquire more land, and hopes to bring his stone-ground flour to market again in the summer of 2014.

It’s a different story over at Massa Organics in Hamilton City. Greg Massa started marketing his wheat to monetize what was a rotational crop in his rice fields. But after trying to sell it as wheat berries, whole wheat flour, and tortillas at farmers markets, and eventually as livestock feed, he found that it simply wasn’t profitable, given the high cost of milling and the low yields for organic wheat. “At this point, we are feeding all of our wheat to our pigs, essentially turning our organic wheat into organic pork,” Greg wrote in an email.

In Search of a Local Loaf

In a state known for its agricultural bounty, commodity crops like wheat are a losing proposition for many farmers. California grows some 700,000 acres of wheat, much of it for livestock. The state is in a “wheat deficit,” according to the California Wheat Commission; in other words, we eat more wheat than we produce.

Still, there is a slowly but steadily growing hunger for locally grown and milled whole-grain wheat, a natural extension of the locavore movement. Acme Bread Company owner Steve Sullivan has been interested in sourcing local organic wheat for years, but he hasn’t been able to make it work at his bakery’s scale of production. “We use more organic wheat than is grown in California,” he says.

Acme’s experiments with local grains are embodied in the Edible Schoolyard Levain, a rustic, flavorful loaf that uses 92% California-grown, stone-ground wheat. Because the wheat is twice as expensive as Acme’s standard organic flour, the levain is about $.50 more than their other loaves. “It’s sort of been a niche product because the cost is so high,” Steve says. Additionally, sourcing from local farms has resulted in variability in the finished product, as weather fluctuations affect the quality and availability of wheat varieties from year to year.

Nigel admits that it’s been difficult to get commercial bakers on board with using his stone-ground flour, since it’s less predictable than flour from centralized milling facilities. “When I mill flour, maybe there was a little more moisture in the air today than there was last week,” says Nigel. “Each mill is different. Little things like that make a big difference to a baker. They have to work a bit harder.”

At industrial mills, the bran, germ, and endosperm of the wheat are separated in the flour-making process to help ensure a consistent product for large-scale production. But what freshly milled, small-batch, heirloom whole-wheat flour might lack in consistency, it makes up in freshness, texture, and flavor.

Grain Goodness

Across the Bay in Oakland, Robert Klein at Oliveto restaurant recognized a need to educate food artisans and consumers about the differences between mass-produced wheat and true whole grains. “Flavor in wheat is in the germ, and if the germ is taken out or if the oil is somehow modified, you have this neutral substance,” he explains. “But really good whole-grain wheat that is milled well isn’t just ‘good for whole-grain,’ it’s delicious.”

Inspired by the farm-to-table movement, he helped form Community Grains in 2007 to get farmers, millers, bakers, and cooks speaking a common language in the interest of rebuilding a local grain economy. His company now offers whole-grain flours and pastas made with wheat grown and milled in the surrounding Bay Area counties. “We know what season the wheat was grown and when the flour was milled, which is more than you would know about most flour,” he says.

At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and at their Market Hall storefront in Oakland, The Pasta Shop offers fresh bucatini, rigatoni, and pasta sheets made with Community Grains whole-wheat flour. “I felt that the best way for us to be involved in the project was be to buy and use the flours,” says Sandy Sonnenfelt, creative director of the pasta department. “Using these grains supports a blossoming local grain economy by creating delicious and healthy food and helping to close the circle of conscious production and consumption.”

Grains of Truth

Taking this concept to its natural extension, Community Grains recently launched a new Identity Preserved label, which discloses the variety of wheat, when and where it was harvested and milled, and even the type of milling wheel used. Bob hopes the line will take off, but recognizes that the limiting factors in a local grain economy are cost and infrastructure. “If you’re a small farmer, and you’re cleaning [your wheat] on a small cleaner, the labor is intense,” he says. “But if you have a lot of wheat, you can pass it through a cleaner really inexpensively. The infrastructure for small farms doesn’t really exist now.”

While there are still many gaps, food artisans, bakers, and restaurateurs might play an important role in growing the market for local grains. As Sandy at Pasta Shop observes, “Our stores and the farmers market are the ideal situations to introduce people to this exciting concept.”

Wheat photo by Eatwell Farm. Pasta photo by The Pasta Shop/Market Hall Foods.

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