Wheat isn't a lucrative crop for California farmers, but there are reasons to grow it anyway: It's a good cover crop for field rotation, it doesn't require irrigation, and there's a certain romance to it. At least that's what drew Peter Buckley to wheat-growing. He bought Front Porch Farms in Healdsburg as a late-career shift from consulting, and ripped out 60 acres of underperforming vineyards to make room for an orchard, a vegetable garden, and 20 acres of grains. "There's something about a field of wheat that is ... it's beautiful, but somehow it makes me feel wealthy. But it's a funny idea of wealth," he says. "It just seems like such a miraculous thing, you plant these seeds and then pretty soon you see a field that's golden and you can see the wheat heavy on the plant, and it's amazing."

Buckley has a mill, and grows six varieties of grain that he supplies to Community Grains and local restaurants, including an Italian durham for pasta he's trying out specifically for Klein. (He also tried growing einkorn for Robertson at Tartine, which didn't work very well — the varieties they've tried to date just don't grow in Northern California — but he's imported some seeds from southern France, where it thrives, and is trying again this fall.)

A major reason that Buckley, and people like Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards, who is growing six acres of wheat on his 120-acre Dry Creek farm and winery, are able to experiment with growing wheat in small batches is largely thanks to a neighborly obsessive named Doug Mosel. The nearly 80-year-old farmer heads up a 5-year-old CSA-like grainshare called Mendocino Grain Collective, and owns the necessary equipment, like vintage combines, grain drills, seed cleaners, and so on, to process grains on a small scale.

Josey Baker peers into the Austrian stone mill installed at the back of his Divisadero cafe.
Molly Gore
Josey Baker peers into the Austrian stone mill installed at the back of his Divisadero cafe.
Restaurant owner Bob Klein is making single-origin whole-grain pasta through his company Community Grains.
Courtesy of Community Grains
Restaurant owner Bob Klein is making single-origin whole-grain pasta through his company Community Grains.

Mosel's on a single-minded mission to revive the local grain economy in Mendocino County, and grows a variety of his own grains in the Russian River Valley while helping small farmers process their own. He's willing to harvest as little as an acre of wheat for an enthusiastic tinkerer, and has lately been working with winemakers to experiment with growing wheat between the vine rows (a smart dual use of valuable land).

This kind of infrastructure-building is also very much on the mind of Klein as he works to build a statewide system. "I think of Community Grains as fundamentally an information company," he says, and talks about things like a recent "sensational meeting on [grain] cleaning and storage" he hosted at Oliveto with the fervent enthusiasm common to the wheat community.

The result of the community-building efforts of Klein, Mosel, and people like Monica Spiller — a vociferous advocate for local grains who owns a seed bank in Mountain View — is that farmers, millers, and bakers have the necessary momentum to rebuild the grain ecosystem. Many participate in a lively Google Group called the North Coast Grain Growers, where wheat geeks can troubleshoot problems, share successes, argue over the proper fineness of flour, and get everyone excited about a new kind of Spanish bearded spelt they just tried.

Preston, of Preston Vineyards, sees a corollary to the experiments in winemaking in Napa and Sonoma 35 years ago that put those regions on the map. "You know, we didn't know a lot. ... It was really learning by doing. So here we are all over again," he says.


If you talk to the local bakers, farmers, and millers pushing this movement forward, you'll realize that they each have their own intense, almost religious devotion to How Things Should Be Done, and their credos often contradict. So much of this stuff is still being figured out, and no one knows for sure what will happen when we start playing with these grains. You'll also realize the absurdity of this: that the flavor and nutrition we coax from new grains could fundamentally change the way we think about flour. So yes, it's a new frontier for bread.

Which is pretty mind-blowing, when you think about it. As one of the last major areas of the food pyramid to go local (legumes still have a way to go), whole grains are also one of the most foundational. Food has never been so globalized and the boundaries of edibility never so enthusiastically explored as right now (Korean tacos are so five years ago; the hip thing to eat right now is crickets and pigs' feet). And then, here's wheat, the most ordinary and basic of foods, which turns out to be one of the most exciting of all.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that this movement isn't going away anytime soon. It's got too much going for it: the local food movement, the renewed interest in wheat and other grains, the likely shortage of water in the next century. As we talk about fixing our broken food ecosystem, local grains will have to be a part of the solution.

So yes, there will be a day when you feel as passionately about soft Sonoran and hard Red Fife wheat as you do about Honeycrisp and Pink Lady apples. You'll pay $10 for a bag of flour, and engage your local baker in ridiculous, detailed conversation about where his flour comes from. Artisanal grains are just one more piece of the ever-expanding food puzzle to worry about. But it's about time, since it was also the beginning of it all.

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5 comments
rlauriston
rlauriston

"gluten's exile has opened up a new market for grains like spelt and rye"

 Only among people who don't know that spelt and rye contain gluten.

chrisjuricich
chrisjuricich

God I love bread, but as my wife is Asian and has more of a preference for rice, buying a nice loaf is something of a waste or too big a calorie bomb for me to finish.

Glad to see new types of flour being promulgated--and yeah, I understand that this stuff can't be cheap for all the basic Econ 101 reasons, so for this occasional home baker of bread...fat chance! Still, as insinuated and eve stated in the article with the words 'precious' and a riff off of Portlandia, how much artisanal specific products can we stand. Forty years ago it was just organic. Now like nuances of types of rock music, food has been taken into divisible territory as artisanal, natural, gluten-free, hormone-free, and multiple other designations.

Oddly, I am at a crossroads in my life, being a person who likes to bake and cook and make my own food as inclined or able. My growing concerns about big commercial food practices has been tempered by a general effort to control my intake and portions through what might be called a loosely local and Mediterranean cuisine. I try to limit meat intake and choose other animal proteins with a bit of care. I try to be alkaline and more green in my food choices.

Now I have to face a choice of freshly milled heirloom grain products. Noooooooooo....

barmbaker
barmbaker

In answer to lisapetrison, most local Californian farmers, millers and bakers who are working to produce organic whole wheat breads and pasta, are aware of the danger of mold formation in the grain and in the flour. They work to avoid molds, which would spoil the good flavor that they are working to reveal, by keeping the grain and flour as dry as possible.

Fortunately in most of California the summer is bone dry, so that the expectation is that the grain will contain only 10% moisture, which is well below the danger level of 12% moisture.

Also, freshly stone milling this grain “as is” and using it in breads or pasta, within a week or so, and often right away in breads made by the miller-bakers, means that there is no opportunity for molds to settle into the flour. Storing the flour briefly at room temperature, avoids the condensation that would occur if the bag of flour was kept in the freezer or refrigerator, and repeatedly opened at room temperature.

These stone ground whole wheat flours are rarely sold, and where they are there is an increasingly concerted effort to present them freshly ground. No moisturizing process is used for good stone milling, so that the whole wheat flour will likely have a moisture content well below 12%, the same as the grain. These flours are intended to be used within a short time, even though theoretically all the antioxidants in a stone ground whole wheat flour, and the low moisture content, would enable a much longer shelf life.

philja
philja

Very interesting column  thanks for that. There's a bakery here (Amsterdam)that's baking whole wheat loaves since almost 90 years now.

lisapetrison
lisapetrison

So glad to see this trend!  But I would like to see more discussion of the issue of mycotoxins as well. The Bulletproof Executive has created a whole business based on "upgraded" products with low levels of mycotoxins, and it seems time for other food products to be considering the relevance of this factor too.  

Wheat flour tends to contain high amounts of certain mycotoxins (such as trichothecenes and fumonisins) that are not regulated in the U.S.  If I knew that these artisinal wheat flours were low in mycotoxins (as well as from heritage strains that are a pleasure to eat), I would buy them in a heartbeat! Otherwise, I will have to keep purchasing from Jovial, which sells the heritage einkorn type of wheat, grown in Italy where their standards with regard to mycotoxins in food are much more strict that the (non-existent) ones in the U.S.

 
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