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Sustainable fields of local grain

Good for us, good for our economy

June 19, 2014 | Photo courtesy Lena Pardo

Last week Francesca and Marisa heard Dan Barber (of Blue Hill at Stone Barns fame) in conversation with Ira Glass (of NPR fame) at the 92nd Street Y. Dan is promoting his new book The Third Plate and among the many concepts he puts forth is that we all need to dig a little deeper in our quest for sustainable eating. We need to think beyond the “stars” of the farmer’s markets, like ramps and heirloom tomatoes, and pay attention to slightly more mundane products, like buckwheat and flour. As the zeitgeist would have it, those very same principles came up in conversation with June Russell, Manager of Farm Inspections and Strategic Development for GrowNYC. June also directs their Regional Grains Project and this is a drum that she’s been beating for ten years.
 
Here’s the dish. When we think of those amber waves of grain, the northeastern United States is not the vista that immediately comes to mind. But travel back some 200 years and you’d find that New York was the breadbasket of the young nation. As the country expanded westward, farmers found the climate in Kansas, the Dakotas, and Wyoming more conducive to growing grains—and so did the huge agricultural conglomerates that followed. An integral part of this region’s local food system had practically disappeared.
 
When June came to GrowNYC in 2007, conversations about local flour had gone long dormant. But she picked up the mantle and found a group of researchers and wheat breeders with grant funding to test different wheat varieties for bread baking. “They were interested in bringing wheat production back to the northeast and we were looking for a source for flour,” June explains. “GrowNYC has to manage our Greenmarket space in support of our mission, which is to support local agriculture and bring fresh food to New Yorkers. Ten years ago, we had bakers who were selling banana bread made with commodity flour. We can’t justify that and we couldn’t justify it to our farmers who were struggling to grow local crops. So we were able to provide them with a market and a bit of a test market for these varieties. And that is still happening. We work together in a concerted effort.” By 2009, the Greenmarket required that bakers use 15-percent local grain—locally grown and locally milled—in any products sold through their system.
 
It wasn’t an easy sell to the farmers or the bakers. The commercial agricultural system is really efficient—on an economic scale, it’s very hard for small farmers to compete. And it requires persistence on the part of the farmers, as well.
 
Take, for example, 150ish favorite Daisy Flour. When June started her research, Daisy’s maker, McGeary Organics of Pennsylvania, was one of the few companies still buying and milling local grain (Birkett Mills in western New York was another). McGeary is so dedicated to the preservation of quality strains of wheat, that they’ve spent ten years in the development of their Heritage Series flours. Starting in 2004 with mere handfuls of vintage wheat seeds sourced from seed banks, they now have a consistent quantity to sell to the public. Lancaster Red, a soft red wheat that can be traced back to 1819, when it was brought here from Italy is now available and two more heritage varieties will be released soon.
 
The world of wheat and the various types of flours produced today can be a little complicated, so let’s pause for a (very) brief primer.
 
In North America, we grow two types of wheat: hard and soft. There are winter and spring crops of both types, as well as red and white varieties. In general, everything else (white, whole-wheat, all-purpose, cake, pastry, and bread flour) is the result of how the wheat is milled and mixed. Hard wheat has a higher protein content and is considered best for bread baking, while soft wheat is lower in protein and traditionally used for cakes, cookies, and pastries.
 
To convince their bakers, most of whom were working with high-protein commodity flour, to work with lower-protein local grains, GrowNYC organized a number of workshops and informational sessions—and they’ve gained some important evangelists along the way. In April, when the New York Times voted for “Five Great New York Breads”, local grain advocates Runner & Stone and She Wolf Bakery represented three out of the top five. “We’ve come a long way from when people said this wouldn’t work,” June says. “It’s different from commercial wheat, but what you get are the characteristics of possibly a single wheat variety, plus the terroir. And we’ve been working with our bakers to get them to understand and appreciate this.”
 
150ish spoke with Peter Endriss, formerly of Bouchon and Per Se, and now the bakery half of Runner & Stone, the Gowanus bakery and café, about the challenges of working with local grains. Noting that 80 percent of what they bake contains local grains, he says: “The learning curve came in incorporating some amount of whole-grain flour into products that normally don’t have it—like our croissant and brioche dough. I also think a lot depends on how the flour is milled: stone-ground flours tend to be coarser, so you have to reduce the amount of yeast or starter to allow for a longer fermentation time to develop the gluten structure.” That gluten structure is what gives the dough its elasticity and the bread its light texture.
 
Endriss started working with local flours when he spent a year consulting at Hot Bread Kitchen, the East Harlem bakery and incubator. “But [at Runner & Stone] it’s been our reality from the beginning,” he says, noting that when you’re using local grains, you’re “supporting a local economy, using less petroleum, and you know exactly where your product is coming from and who is making it. I always feel that knowing the producer brings with it the comfort of knowing that the product is made in a responsible way.”
 
Suffice to say, if your grain is grown on small, local farms, it’s also going to be fresher—that’s especially important with whole grains. Since they’re less refined, they will go rancid more quickly than the processed stuff. And those wheat allergies that seem so prevalent these days? No one can say for sure, but current research seems to suggest that genetic changes to the grain and chemicals used to treat the soil may be an underlying cause.
 
Because Francesca and Marisa love good bread so much, we’re always interested in flour, but there are a wide variety of local grains now available, including cornmeal and polenta (which are gluten-free); einkorn, faro, and spelt (so-called “ancient” grains); freekeh; triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid); as well as oats and rye. You’ll find 100-percent New York State rye in the Finnish Ruis Bread sold at Union Square and other markets, too.
 
There’s one last piece of the puzzle that’s helping the resurgence in northeastern grain crops—distilleries and brewers. June Russell cites 2010 as a watershed year, because “it’s the year that local grains came into the conversation and it’s the same year that all the micro-distilleries started opening. Add to that the creation of the Farm Brewery License in 2013 [which allows breweries to sell beer so long as it’s made from primarily local product] and now we have a big initiative to grow malting barley.”
 
Farmers, millers, bakers, distillers, brewers—another example of how buying local is good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for us.
 
GrowNYC’s Regional Grains Project will be selling local grains at the New Amsterdam Market, South Street between Beekman Street and Peck Slip, on Saturday, June 21st, and hope to be a regular retail presence at the NYC Greenmarkets later this year.
 
To support local growers and bakers using local grains, look for these products:
 
Daisy Flour 
Available online and at select retail stores.

Wild Hive Farm
Sells its grains at the Rhinebeck Farmers Market on Sundays and the Hudson Farmers Market on Saturdays. Also available in-store and for online ordering at Bklyn Larder.
 
Runner & Stone Bakery and Café
285 3rd Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11215
(718) 576-3360
New Amsterdam Market (this Saturday and throughout the season) and at the Park Slope Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
 
She Wolf Bakery  
Now at the Union Square Greenmarket on Mondays and Fort Greene on Saturdays (fresh sourdough arrives at noon). 
 
Finnish Ruis Bread 
Available online and at the Union Square Greenmarket Fridays and Saturdays.
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