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A glimpse into the promising future of wheat

Katherine Martinko for Treehugger
Photo: JenR
Link to article on Treehugger

One food scientist is on a mission to save the world’s most important food and bring back the delicious, nutritious, wholesome wheats of the past that we’ve lost to industrial production.

It has become easy to source locally grown meat, vegetables, fruits and, to some extent, dairy. But when it comes to wheat, it is a much bigger challenge. Wheat production has evolved from local, regional growth along the coasts of the continent in the 18th and 19th centuries, to heavily centralized production in the Midwest. Almost all of the wheat we consume comes from huge mono-crop farms and is processed by only 200 mills in the United States – a drastic drop from the 23,000 mills that once serviced the country in the mid-1800s.

Wheat has lost the nutritional value it once had. Stores are filled with limp, preservative-soaked, plastic-wrapped loaves of sandwich bread made from anonymous chalk-white flour. They are a far cry from the crusty, moist, flavorful, and nutritious boules of sourdough that they could be. Is it any wonder that so many people complain of digestive problems whenever they eat wheat?

Only 6 percent of the wheat sold in the U.S. is whole-wheat, and most of that is roller-milled flour with the bran and germ added back in. While the FDA states that whole-wheat flour must contain native proportions of germ, bran, and endosperm, there is no further verification of products’ composition before they are sold.

Stephen Jones, director the Bread Lab in Mount Vernon, Washington, is on a mission to change this. He believes that wheat, like wine grapes, has “terroir.” This is the idea that a combination of factors, including soil, climate and sunlight, can give wine – or, in this case, wheat – a distinctive regional flavor. Jones wants Americans to return to a healthier, more varied and robust, local version of wheat that tastes unique depending on where you are.

The Bread Lab is described by the New York Times as the “headquarters for Jones’ project to reinvent the most important food in history.” There, he grows varieties of wheat that are suited to Washington’s cool, wet climate; measures and assesses the quality of the flour made from the wheat in his quest to create “entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts”; and bakes loaves that impress the likes of Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery and restaurateur Dan Barber.

This isn’t a radical notion; it is more of a return to the past when home bakers had a personal relationship with the wheat they used. Culinary historian Karen Hess explains, ‘‘Even if you yourself did not grow wheat, you knew that what you bought was local wheat, and you knew its baking characteristics.’

I can relate to that. In recent years, I’ve begun baking with local organic wheat, and it’s an entirely different experience from the store-bought flours I used to buy. None of the measurements or weights line up, and I’ve noticed mostly that the dough requires much less water, since there’s so much moisture in the flour to begin with. It doesn’t stay fresh for as long, but makes fabulous loaves that get gobbled up by my family in no time.

Jones has been highly successful with his breeding program so far. It has been very well received by local farmers and bakers, and has even drawn attention from restaurant chain Chipotle, which wants to partner with him to make tortillas. He can scarcely keep up with demand. According to the New York Times:

“So far the Mount Vernon breeders have produced wheat with higher than typical levels of iron and other micronutrients; grains that are strikingly blue, purple and black; and wheats that imbue bread with maltiness, spice, caramel — a whole palette of flavors most people would never expect. ‘Much as grapes acquire a sense of place, we are finding so does wheat,’ Jones says.”

It is wonderful to know that regional wheat is gaining a foothold in a market long dominated by big mono-crop producers. It is yet another example of the seismic shift occurring across North America in the way people want to eat. Big Ag just doesn’t do it for us anymore; we want real and recognizable food, regional and seasonal food, food that nourishes our bodies rather than fills us up.

Baking Bread with Washington’s First Lady, Trudi Inslee.

Washington State University’s bread laboratory has planted wheat and barley plots at the governor’s mansion in Olympia.

Matthew Weaver
Capital Press
 OLYMPIA — Researchers from the Washington State University bread laboratory have planted wheat and barley plots at the governor’s mansion in Olympia.

They planted a new WSU bread wheat variety, Skagit-09, and two Oregon State University food barley varieties in plots at the mansion.

The lab wants to release the wheat variety this fall. It is bred specifically for the west side of the state, said director Stephen Jones. The lab is in Mount Vernon, Wash.

Roughly 1 percent of the wheat grown in Washington comes from the west side, Jones said. The majority of Washington’s wheat is exported to other countries, but the new variety will be used only by bakers in the region.

“It’s important as a rotational crop,” Jones said. “Our goal is to add some value to that part of the rotation. Anything we can do to get some value to the farmers, that’s our job.”

Brigid Meints, a doctoral student at the lab, is breeding food barleys for the region. The barley plot includes a strip of the OSU variety Streaker and a mixture of Streaker and a new variety, Buck. She said she wants to increase awareness of barley as a food crop.

read full article here

Plant breeding for local food systems


Plant breeding for local food systems: A contextual review of end-use selection for small grains and dry beans in Western Washington

Brook O. Brouwer1 , Kevin M. Murphy2 and Stephen S. Jones1 * 1 Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, Washington State University, Mount Vernon, WA 98273, USA 2 Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-6420, USA *Corresponding author:


The rapid growth and co-option of the local agriculture movement highlights a need to deepen connections to place-based culture. Selection of plant varieties specifically adapted to regional production and end-use is an important component of building a resilient food system. Doing so will facilitate a defetishization of food systems by increasing the cultural connection to production and consumption. Today’s dominant model of plant breeding relies on selection for centralized production and end-use, thereby limiting opportunity for regional differentiation. On the other hand, end-user-driven selection of heirloom varieties with strong cultural and culinary significance may limit productivity while failing to promote continued advances in end-use quality. Farmer-based selection may directly reflect local food culture; however, increasing genetic gains may require increased exchange of germplasm, and collaboration with trained plant breeders. Participatory farmer–breeder–chef collaborations are an emerging model for overcoming these limitations and adding the strength of culturally based plant breeding to the alternative food movement. These models of variety selection are examined within the context of small grain and dry bean production in Western Washington.

Read the full study (pdf)

JD McLelland Interview

The Grain Divide
 from JD McLelland is a cinematic journey into the most debated food issues of our day. The film began as an unbiased, journalistic pursuit of real answers to growing concerns with modern wheat and grains. Theories suggesting the elimination of what has been our most basic food for thousands of years triggered a passionate curiosity and mission. The film originally began as a 22 minute short with the working title “Rise of the Grains”. It turned into what would become a feature length, 3 year project across 10 of the United States. Visit the Grain Divide website here.

JD was recently interviewed at the 2015 Grain Gathering.

Locally Grown Barley Means Truly Local Beer 

Photo Caption: Kendall Jones raises a glass to the new, micro-local terroir of Washington beer
Kendall Jones – Seattle Magazine|   October 2015   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

The Locale brew crew at Knutzen Farms

The terms “small” and “local” are pervasive in conversations about the virtues of craft beer, but until recently, no craft beer was entirely small or local. It burns the ears of craft beer aficionados to hear that the primary ingredient in the suds they love was developed at the behest of the mega breweries they despise, but in reality, the malted barley that serves as the backbone of most craft beer is the same stuff used by the largest breweries on earth.

But now, Skagit Valley Malting in Mount Vernon is working in conjunction with Washington State University’s Bread Lab to provide a truly small and local alternative, doing something that makes craft brewers giddy: producing small-batch, locally grown malted barley.

To read the complete article follow this link: Seattle Magazine

2015 Grain Gathering by MC Farine


MC Farine

Jumma soft white wheat berries from Pie Ranch Farm in Pescadero, California

I just got back from this year’s Grain Gathering (GG), held as usual on the beautiful grounds on Washington State University Extension in Mount Vernon, Washington. I have been attending the GG since its inauguration in 2011 (back then it was called the Kneading Conference West and changed its name only last year). I enjoyed each and every one of them. This year was no exception. Except that it was maybe even better than the four previous ones. Which came as no surprise. Like good wine, GG gets better as it ages.
Of course some things don’t change. The setting is as lovely as ever…

…the bread good for body and soul…

…all other food beautiful and tasty…

…and I could wax lyrical about the good-natured atmosphere, the sheer pleasure of spending two and a half days in the company of others sharing the same interests and passion, the thrill of hearing big-name bakers and other experts in the field talk about their work and share their know-how, the excitement of catching up with friends and acquaintances but I have covered that angle exhaustively over the years and it is decidedly not fun to write the same thing over and over again (not to mention reading it!). Although if you do want to refresh your memory, you’ll find the links here.
So I’ll go straight to sharing what I saw and heard. Of course, this year like the other years, I had to choose between many appealing classes, workshops, roundtables and talks held concurrently, which means that that my account can only be partial and my outlook limited. I sure wish I could have attended everything. Hopefully other bloggers will cover some of the ones I didn’t get to. For a look at the full schedule, click here.

What struck me as different this year may not be so much the level of energy (it is always tremendous) but how far we have come. Four years ago we were dreaming of bringing back local grain but wondering how farmers could be enticed to grow it if, for lack of local milling infrastructures, bakers had no way to get the flour. Well, today more more bakers are buying small mills to mill the grain themselves. With the help of experienced millers/bakers such as Dave Miller in Oroville, California, they are learning to work with freshly milled flours and clearly excited at the realm of flavors now open to them. Nary a white baguette was to be seen at the GG this year: whole-grain ruled and Dave’s class was mobbed.

Cliff Leir of Fol Épi inVictoria, British Columbia -who seemed like the odd man out four years ago when he showed up with armfuls of wholegrain loaves and the plans to his mill- could be seen under a tent helping Scott Mangold of Bread Farm in nearby Edison, Washington, build his own mill and I heard many other bakers enquire about small mills or comparing notes on the ones they had just acquired. Independent mills are starting up too: Nan Kohler‘s Grist & Toll in Pasadena is one beautiful example. If flour can be milled, farmers can grow grain. With the help of The Bread Lab at WSU Extension, they are learning to select varieties which are not only well adapted to their climate, soil, etc. but offer the flavor and nutritional value craft bakers (and their customers) are looking for not to mention the functional properties required to bake a good loaf.
Still in its infancy, the movement is clearly growing. To most home bakers though, availability remains an issue: living as I do on California’s Central Coast, the only locally grown grain I can get without going online is to be found either very occasionally at my neighborhood farmers’ market or (until they run out) at the farm stand up the coast, in both case at a price that would make it difficult to bake with it everyday. So yes, we still have a ways to go but at least we are moving in the right direction and nowhere is it more obvious than at the yearly GG.  If all goes well, I am hoping to post (in various degrees of detail) about the following:

  • Keynote addresses by Marie-Louise Risgaard and Lot Roca Enrich. Marie-Louise is a baker and teacher and co-owner of Skaertoft Mølle in southern Denmark. Lot is a miller who took over Harinera Roca from her grandfather 25 years ago. Her mill is located in Catalonia, Spain. A welcome look at some of the challenges of organic milling in Europe!
  • Dave Miller‘s class on 100% fresh-milled whole-grain artisan bread: I was only able to attend the milling part but with the help of a generous friend who took lots of videos, I might be able to cover more. Dave kindly sent me his formulas which I will post as well.
  • Jeffrey Hamelman‘s flatbread class: five flatbreads, all baked in a wood-fired oven. Exciting international flavors. You’ll enjoy reading all about it. My favorite was the socca (no formula but some tips and one or two pictures) and the anise-chocolate dessert bread (I got the formula for the dough but I think Jeff winged it for the topping, so you’ll have to wing it too if you make it).
  • Andrew Ross‘s presentation “The Skinny on Gluten.”  The goal was to straighten out the facts. It was so packed with technical info though that I am not sure I can do it justice. But if my notes make sense, I’ll share them and you can take it from there.
  • Conversation with bakers: a roundtable moderated by Leslie Mackie of Macrina Bakery in Seattle. Lively and thought-provoking!
  • Hand-making whole-grain pasta, a demo by Justin Dissmore, pasta chef at Café Lago in Seattle. He uses Edison wheat and from the tasting we got, I sure wish I could get it where I live.
  • And last but not least: Whole-grain artisan bread for the home-baker, a lively demo acted out (you’ll see, there is no other word for it) by bakers Josey Baker (yes, that is his real name) of The Mill in San Francisco andJonathan Bethony, resident baker at The Bread Lab, and by some accounts the baker with the best job in the world since he spends his time testing and baking with the stars. No formulas but plenty of tips!

So stay tuned (and please be patient as it might take some time).

The Grain Gathering 2015: keynote speaker Marie-Louise Risgaard

by MC Farine

I was delighted to read on the 2015 Grain Gathering program that Marie-Louise Risgaard would deliver one of the keynote addresses. I had never met her but I knew that her family had a farm and a milling business in Denmark and I owned and loved her mom’s book, Home Baked: Nordic Recipes and Techniques for Organic Bread and PastryHanne Risgaard’s Real Rye Bread was actually the very first bread I had baked in the months after we lost Noah, in part because having never baked rye bread with the grand-kids, I wasn’t weary of re-awakening painful connections, but also because I had wonderful memories of summer vacations spent in Denmark with my former in-laws when our own children were little and I was hoping to find some degree of comfort in making rugbrød, a staple in their household. The recipe is terrific as are many others in the book and now I was to hear Marie-Louise, Hannah’s daughter, tell in person the story of Skaertoft Mølle, her family’s small organic mill (mølle means “mill” in Danish). How lucky was that?

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

Marie-Louise herself isn’t a miller. She’s a baker and an instructor. Her dad, Jørgen, is the miller “and technical genius,” Hanne, her mom, the driving force behind it all and the one who keeps reminding both of them that, in the words of Marcel Proust, “the real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

Jørgen was a farmer-teacher with an MBA and Hanne a journalist working in both radio and television when, in 1983, they took over Skaertoft, a farm that had been in Jørgen’s family since 1892. For a few years they both kept their outside full-time jobs and farmed the land with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Then they had a visit from an adviser who introduced them to organic farming. That was their first eye-opening.

Photo courtesy of Skaertof Mølle

The second came in August 2003 when a question popped up in a radio program they were listening to: how come there was no good organic bread flour on the Danish market? They saw their chance and jumped for it. At the time Marie-Louise was finishing her master’s degree in agricultural studies. She became her parents’ scientific anchor as, over the next three months, they worked on developing a 5-year business plan. The family got in touch with Irma, a high-end supermarket chain which had been very supportive of organic farming since 1987. Irma was enthusiastic and placed an order for flour. The only problem was that it gave them only eight months to deliver it. The family had no mill yet. Only an old cow stable in which to put one. Which they did. And on June 1st 2004, they shipped that first order. Right on schedule.
But not before the family had acquired a third set of eyes: their flour was going to be the best, a high-end organic product that would sell for much more than the regular supermarket flour (€3.80 as opposed to €1.20). It needed a distinctive face. No happy farmer against a sunny-field and blue-sky background for them! Skaertoft Mølle being a no-waste business, they wanted their bags to evoke the full cycle of organic farming. The face the design firm StudioMega came up with was indeed strikingly different.

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

The flour was an instant success. But then it was a complete departure from what had been available until then on supermarket shelves: organic, cool-milled on a slowly-revolving stone mill, it had better flavor. It also offered better nutrition: to keep mechanical influence to a minimum (thus protecting the integrity of the nutrients), the grain passed through the mill only once and distance from mill to bag was as short as possible.

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

Because of the varieties chosen, it had a higher protein content and better baking properties. “We have never mixed individual loads of grain. We have always relied on the quality of the single batch. This means that we have single-farm – sometimes single-field – traceability. We always visit our partners to check out storage facilities, take grain samples for analysis (protein, gluten, ochratoxins, baking test), to discuss crop rotations and our needs for grain, but we never make contracts. We only accept the highest quality – a promise we’ve made to ourselves never to be compromised. The farmers accept and respect this, because we also pay a higher price for the grain. When the quality of our own harvest is not good enough we sell it as animal fodder.” Skaertoft Mølle started with five types of flour in 2004. Today it offers about thirty products, flour and grain combined.

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

Skaertoft Mølle published a cookbook and a bread book, started offering bread baking classes, was awarded three esteemed prizes, began cooperating with an organic company in Germany, introduced fresh organic yeast to the Danish market and launched an annual Bread & Food Festival. The Skaertoft story truly has all the makings of a Danish fairy tale, especially when one doesn’t stop to consider the enormous amount of work and energy that made it come true.

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

And like in all good fairy tales, it has its dark moments. One year “we had a catastrophic harvest. And land prices halved over night. And the same year sales stagnated. Completely. And we were totally unprepared for that. … Other mills were now making stoneground flour – and they were building bigger plants with packaging machines – and not relying, like us, on manpower and hand-packed bags. They made what appeared to be similar products but at a much lower price. And supermarkets love that. So we were no longer in that very privileged situation of being “alone” on the shelves.”

Photo courtesy of Skaertoft Mølle

Hard times helped the family grow yet another set of eyes: the mill was separated from the farm and turned into a shareholding company. They started looking for other outlets for their flour and grain, both in the food service industry and in supermarkets other than elite ones. As hard as it was, they also decided to lower their prices. The family and the mill workers (most of them women) labored flat out for two years with minimal payoff in economic terms. But they never compromised on quality and it worked: Skaertoft Mølle has acquired new customers, come up with new products for both elite and regular supermarkets, entered into new deals in the food service market, and set up shop online. It has also acquired a human face (or rather three): “We are no longer just bags – we have been on TV commercials and have become ‘the family’ in people’s minds and that has been an important change.” The shareholding arrangement has brought in funds: next step is the purchase of a packaging machine to decrease costs and provide a healthy working environment. New products and exports are in the works. The morale of this modern-day fairy tale? “Looking at bread though new eyes can take you a long way!” Indeed.