The Movement to Revive Local Grains — and the Infrastructure Required to Keep It Going

by Lela Nargi

Published: 6/12/23, Last updated: 9/25/23

Walk into an artisan bakery in New York or Seattle, Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, and more likely than not, you’ll discover your baguette or boule was made from locally sourced flour.

A bakery using local flour was a rarity even a decade ago. But the current expansive landscape for these products is not an accident. It’s the result of years’ worth of dedication on the part of regional food systems advocates to revive wheats both ancient (emmer, einkorn, spelt) and heritage (red fife, white Sonora, warthog and some of more than 30,000 others), along with varieties of rye, barley, buckwheat and oats.

There used to be some 24,000 mills scattered across the U.S. that supported grain farmers and bakers. Now, says Kevin Morse — CEO and co-founder of Cairnspring Mills, in Washington’s Skagit Valley, and an integral player in the Pacific Northwest grains movement — “We’ve got 166.” The opening of massive grain mills in the Midwest in the late 19th century led to a process of consolidation that has continued ever since. These mills can process thousands of tons of wheat daily into flour, which often contains “enhancements,” like peroxide, that bleach it and vitamins to compensate for the bran and germ that’s been removed; and they purchase monoculture wheat from commodity farms, which they can blend to make flour that performs the same every time. Local flour is locally grown, locally milled, contains no additives, likely contains more bran and germ and supports local food systems.

“Most small mills have limited ability to blend,” says June Russell, director of regional food programs at the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. “They might blend a winter wheat and spring wheat to make a bread flour, and they will know the names of those varieties. Small mills, and certainly those that are organic, are not using chemical additives.”

Yes, the pandemic created many new home-baking enthusiasts and saw purchases of local flour soar when national brands became nearly impossible to come by. But “That system of [local mills] didn’t fall apart overnight,” says Russell, who is credited with spearheading a local grains push in New York when she was manager of farm inspections and strategic development at GrowNYC. “We don’t recover it overnight.” Russell knows local small grains can’t compete with the commodity market. Instead, she has embraced a more multifaceted goal: “To develop markets that support healthier farming systems, rural economies, better bread.”

Beginnings of a Movement

The growing of grains in the Skagit Valley began in the late 1800s when the first settlers moved in, and it never really stopped. “Oats was the first crop they planted,” Morse explains, “because it was salt-tolerant, and it was also the diesel fuel of the time — they fed their horses with it.” Partly as a result of those oats, which added fertility to the soil, the valley’s 100,000 acres of farmland soils are rich and productive; more recently, rotations of wheat, barley and silage corn (for dairy cows) in between crops like potatoes and tulips have helped break disease and pest cycles and reduce the use of chemical inputs. “It’s a very regenerative, sustainable system,” Morse says.

Nevertheless, according to Morse, “The farmers here have been mostly losing money doing the right thing by using grain rotations. The joke here is we grow a lot of wheat mostly for fun, sometimes for profit, when the commodity prices are enough to actually make money.” A few years back, community leaders got together to look at, as Morse put it, “how we maintain our very unique farming system and keep it viable.” The answer: Grow nutrient-dense heritage grains and get bakers to use them.

The reintroduction of local grains got off the ground a little differently on the East Coast. Russell says that, before she began at GrowNYC, there were several interconnected conversations, starting around 2004. On the one hand, market rules required that value-added products at GrowNYC farmers’ markets be made from locally sourced produce, as with sauerkraut from local cabbage. “Someone pointed out that bakers were really the outlier. They didn’t have any requirements for [using local flour] — why not?” Russell explains. “At the same time, there were some [organic farming] luminaries that were including small grains in their crop rotations but were in need of a market.” Up in Maine, Aurora Mills and Farm had already been growing and milling organic wheat for local bakery Borealis Breads. But they were an outlier.

“That started to trickle into greenmarket discussions,” Russell says — “Hey, we can do that here, although there was an awful lot of pushback on that concept. People said, ‘The Northeast will never produce quality wheat, it’s going to be too expensive, we can’t get the customer to pay for that.’ All those things have been disproved over the years” — thanks to the efforts of Russell and so many partners committed to the endeavor.

Missing Pieces

Getting farmers to grow grains for local markets is just a fraction of what’s needed to make a viable local system. Consider all those thousands of mills that no longer operate: Something’s got to replace them so farmers have a place to sell and grind their grain, and someone’s got to run them. Morse built a new, state-of-the-art mill; the Fischer family revived the 300-year-old Castle Valley Mill in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Adding to the challenge is the fact that there’s only one milling and grain processing degree program in the country, at Kansas State University,  and Morse says most of its graduates get scooped up by the biggest companies.

All sorts of other “middle infrastructure” has to be revived along with the mills. “You have to have small enough, modern enough granaries that can keep your grain clean to modern food safety standards, keep the different varietals separate,” says Morse. “It requires lots of time, expertise and infrastructure to do it right, and none of that’s cheap.”

Value and supply chains also have to be created, Russell points out, noting that “We’re still working very much in developing those.” Under her tenure, GrowNYC piloted a program that sold grains grown by 100 local farmers at some of its farmers’ markets, which helped drum up shopper interest. Educating consumers is hugely important, too. Heritage grains don’t act the same way commodity grains do, so bakers and chefs — not to mention home bakers and cooks — need to understand what these fresher, generally higher-protein flours do when you mix them and stick them in the oven.

“We’re still at the beginning of the process of establishing local grain systems,” says Kelly LeBlanc, director of nutrition at Oldways, a nonprofit dedicated to getting more Americans to eat whole grains, “and being able to say, ‘This type of grain is best suited for this purpose.’”

“We're getting to an impact and scale that's meaningful, but there's plenty of room for more of these mills around the country.”

Kevin Morse

CEO & Co-Founder, Cairnspring Mills

And, of course, farmers need seeds they can plant in different regions that will reliably yield useful and delicious crops. On the West Coast, both the University of California, Davis, and the Bread Lab at Washington State University have been instrumental in breeding new varieties. Morse says hard red spring wheats like Yecora Rojo (developed by UC Davis) are his best-selling flours — they yield soft, nutty breads — although he sells a winter-planted gazelle rye that is also popular. “The public is discovering [its] wonderful flavor qualities and we like it too, because from a producer standpoint, it’s low-input [and] disease-resistant.” Cornell University has been breeding small grains for the East Coast since 1907, including, more recently, malting barley for beer. (Craft beer standards in New York state mandate that increasing percentages of ingredients be locally sourced.)

Breeder Mark Sorrells says there’s increasing interest in specialty grains like quinoa and amaranth. He’s also focusing on developing hull-less grains as a piece of the East Coast supply-chain puzzle: “With some ancient grains, the hulls stay attached to the kernels and have to be removed for human consumption,” he says. “Hulling machines are expensive and the process is labor-intensive and time-consuming. But if I can remove those hulls genetically and make grains free-threshing, that will reduce the cost for both the farmer and the consumer.”

The Push for Scale

In his corner of Washington, where 14 farmers are producing 4,000 acres worth of grains, Morse says demand for his flour continues to surge. He’s currently milling a few million pounds a year to supply production bakeries like Tartine, in California, as well as “people pulling up in their minivan [or] Outback, wanting a couple of 50-pound bags.” He says his business grew 56 percent last year, and he’s looking to slow things down as his mill nears maximum capacity. Distillers like Portland, Oregon’s Freeland Spirits, which sources buckwheat from Camas Country Mill in the Willamette Valley, are also part of the PNW grains resurgence. “We’re getting to an impact and scale that’s meaningful,” Morse says, “but there’s plenty of room for more of these mills around the country.”

Russell sees positive strides on the East Coast, too. Many artisan bakers are milling in-house and under the radar, she says. Skowhegan-based Maine Grains recently expanded its product line. Wild Hive, Farmer Ground Flour, Small Valley Milling and Castle Valley Mill all have “excellent” bread flours, made from local wheat. “We are seeing some things are increasing in demand,” Russell says, “and at this point we have several very good performing bread flours coming out of the Northeast, which is such a huge achievement for this community. What’s happened in a decade is pretty amazing.”

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