What would it take to revive a local grain economy?
By Elizabet h Linhart Money
Photos by Teal Dudziak
We Bay Area diners can be a discriminating bunch. We like knowing where our food comes from and we want to taste the landscape in every bite. We get a kick out of curing our own olives, chatting with the tattooed kid who makes our favorite salumi, and debating over the best way to brew locally roasted coffee. For us, perfection can be found at a table brimming with farm-fresh produce, local artisan cheese and chocolate, and meat that was raised on pasture at a small ranch not too far away. Some of us daydream that one day the bread we break might also be a truly local product, made from heirloom wheat grown here in our foodshed.
In fact, local heritage wheat is already available. At some of the East Bay farmers markets, you can find wheat berries and freshly milled flour from Full Belly Farm or Massa Organics. At the Morrell’s Bread market stand, you’ll find a dense, chewy loaf that Eduardo Morrell makes using the Full Belly heritage wheat, baking it in a brick oven at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin. There’s local wheat on the menus at Bocanova in Jack London Square and Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant in Oakland, and there are rumors that Steve Sullivan is looking into using local wheat at his renowned Acme Bread Company. But if you ask the people behind these efforts, they will tell you that revitalizing California grain production is not as simple as planting a plot of wheat and letting it go to seed.
A Problem of Language
Bob Klein, Oliveto’s proprietor, began investigating the feasibility of locally produced grains several years ago when he invited a whole coterie of farmers, millers, and bakers to meet and discuss the issue. “I see an emerging grain economy,” Klein says today, “but I see gaps.” He goes on to say that these gaps are a lot wider and more numerous than those encountered by the chefs and organic farmers who first sought to stamp “local” on Bay Area cuisine three to four decades ago. Unlike fruits and vegetables, which are relatively easy to move from field to farmstand, wheat must go through many steps on its way to market, from harvesting and cleaning to milling, storage, and distribution.
“It’s amazing how the industrial model pervades everything from what wheat we grow to how it is milled,” Klein laments. He contrasts this with the intimate relationships developed between farmers, millers, and bakers in the Piemonte region of Italy. “They have all been on the same land for generations,” Klein says, “and they all talk. They know what different varieties grow best where and how best to use them. Because of that, they make the best pasta.”
Thinking small has not historically been the American way. This has held true in the matter of grain: Since fields were first planted in Colonial times, Americans have grown
grains with the global market in mind. Because of this, not only is the necessary infrastructure largely inaccessible to today’s small farmer, but our understanding of grain itself has been paralyzed. “Everyone was excited about the potential for growing and selling wheat,” Klein says of those early meetings, “but because there is no language, everyone was talking in a cloud chamber.”
To many of us, wheat is wheat and flour is flour. Most cooks are aware that flour comes bleached or unbleached, and that besides “all-purpose,” we can buy flour designated for breador cake-making. Bakers who choose whole wheat might also have tried wheat relatives, such as spelt and Kamut, which are available at stores with a “health food” orientation. But few people are aware that there are roughly 30,000 known varieties of wheat. Most are categorized as red or white, depending on the darkness of the wheat berry’s outer covering (bran), and as soft, hard, or durum, depending on the hardness of the endosperm. This latter point is of particular importance to bakers. Harder wheat has more protein, the basic building block of gluten, which provides structure to bread. Softer wheat has more starch and is better for lending a delicate crumb to cakes and pastries. Durum, the hardest of all the wheat varieties, is largely used for making pasta.
Connoisseurs will be pleased to know that, as with their beloved wine, the French idea of terroir also applies to “the staff of life.” Like wine grapes (or any plant for that matter), wheat responds to the subtleties of the land on which it is grown. Nitrogen- and sulfur-rich soils contribute higher protein levels to wheat, even to the softer varieties, while the particulars of the area’s climate, topography, and geology impart unique flavors and other characteristics.
Early in California’s history, these variables served the state’s wheat trade well. Virgin soils yielded strong protein content in the soft white wheat that was prized for producing a fine white flour in the era before roller milling. By the end of the 19th century, California grain set the floor prices on the London International Wheat Exchange, making Yolo County one of the largest wheat growing regions in the world and the Carquinez Strait one of its busiest waterways. (For a more detailed history of the golden era of wheat in the Bay Area, see the Spring 2008 issue of Edible East Bay.)
Today, wheat covers about 600,000 of California’s nearly 12 million acres of cropland, with over half planted in hard red hybrids. Originating in Russia and planted on the Great Plains, hard red wheat is high in protein and has a bran and germ easily removed when roller milled, making it ideal for industrial agriculture. Over time, California wheat breeders adapted the hard red varieties to the local climate and all but abandoned the more diverse heritage varieties. Further changes came with the postwar “Green Revolution,” when weak hybrids with outsized endosperms were first bred to be dependent on fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
When Paul Muller, one of the partners at Full Belly Farm, made the decision to plant wheat in 2002, he went with White Sonora, a heritage variety that was one of the first to have been planted in North America. This wheat is extraordinarily drought tolerant, resistant to diseases, and tall enough to shade out competing weeds. It is also, despite being a soft white variety, capable of yielding the high protein content necessary for bread production, as witnessed by its 19th-century boom.
Muller first learned about White Sonora from Monica Spiller, whose Penisula-based nonprofit, Whole Grain Connection, has been working for over 10 years to reintroduce heritage wheat varieties to farmers and bakers. (Read more about Spiller’s work at sustainablegrains.org and in Edible East Bay Spring 2008). It was Spiller who gave Muller the idea that he could try growing a patch of White Sonora at his Capay Valley farm. The White Sonora produced well for Muller, and he found that small grain production fit nicely into Full Belly’s diverse operation. Still, despite the apparent success, Muller admits that more work needs to be done. “There is a tremendous amount to learn about varieties, growth habit, milling quality, and bread/tortilla making characteristics,” he says, “as well as the varieties that this growing area will support.” In an effort to keep learning, Muller devoted a handful of acres to other varieties including Expresso, a hard red variety, and the hard white Blanca Fuerte.
Muller’s experiments on his tiny 300-acre diversified farm are notable, but as Klein says, “The big issue is transitioning farmers from commodity crops to specialty crops.” Klein points to the efforts of the Rominger brothers, fifth-generation Yolo County farmers who raise 4,000 acres of row crops—including rice, safflower, sunflower, alfalfa, and hay—as well as wine grapes and processing tomatoes. While Rominger Brothers Farms has customarily sold its produce on the commodity market, the brothers have long kept their eyes on the localfood movement. “For years we have watched our grain being shipped to who-knows-where for seven cents a pound,” Bruce Rominger says. “We live less than an hour from eight million people. We thought we should be tapping into that market.’”
Their chance came in 2007 when Klein invited them to participate in his grain summit. “The whole thing just sort of found us,” Rominger says today. After realizing that both of them had a vision of local wheat gracing Bay Area tables, the farmer and the restaurateur decided to team up. He now devotes several acres to experimenting with both heritage wheat and polenta corn, and has begun working with a breeder at UC Davis to help find the right fit for the farm. The trick, explains Rominger, is to find hybrids with the flavor and nutritional characteristics of the heritage varieties, but with the yields and disease resistance of the more industrial ones. “Usually, this research is done by the seed companies and the University, but their priorities are a bit different,” adds Nick Charles, a baker, cheesemaker, and livestock manager who is in charge of marketing the Romingers’ grains to new customers.
The Infrastructure and the Market
Figuring out what varieties to grow is just one part of the challenge. As Rominger explains, “People don’t understand that we don’t have the infrastructure for cleaning and storage . . . [this] is no small feat.” Laughing, he adds, “We can’t just show up to Oliveto with a 2,500-ton truck and deliver a year’s supply of wheat!”
Then, there is the market. Presenting a conundrum that sounds a lot like the chicken and the egg paradox, Rominger explains that they can’t devote the acreage and money for infrastructure if the market is not there, but the market can’t develop unless there is a reliable product. “We’re walking a tightrope,” he says. “We can’t afford to gamble by starting off big, but we also don’t want to invest in infrastructure so small that it will soon be obsolete.” “Pragmatically speaking,” adds Charles, “we have to be in business for next year.”
Working outside the commodity system has a number of very real risks, particularly when any profit a farmer may make can be easily turned into debt by an unexpected frost, an errant bug, or a nasty fungus. So, why make the jump?
“In the commodity market you have no control,” laments Rominger. Not only are prices consistently low, but because there are so many middlemen, any profit ends up in other people’s pockets. “Someone is definitely getting rich, and it’s not us!” Citing their dedication to land stewardship and the quality of their products, his voice lightens: “We think we are a huge asset to the community . . . and we feel that we don’t get a fair return.”
Like the Romingers, Greg Massa has not yet been able to justify creating the infrastructure necessary to leave the commodity market that has been buying his family’s rice for four generations. He drives 40 miles to clean his wheat, and over 70 to mill it. He utilizes everything from CSAs to Twitter to market his crops, and he says that wheat is especially challenging. “There are only so many wheat berries you can sell at the farmers market.” Fortunately, the effort has paid off, and a number of nearby bakeries now use his flour. Massa also contracts with a small company in Woodland to produce whole wheat tortillas that he sells at a few farmers markets.
Despite the challenges, Massa steadfastly believes that working outside the industrial system can benefit baker as well as farmer. As an example, he cites the drought and series of fires in Russia that caused the global price of wheat to skyrocket this summer. “Selling locally means that those things don’t affect me, because I only have to pay attention to my costs and my yields to market successfully. While our prices may have seemed high to some of our bakery customers last year, this year our price [which hasn’t changed] will seem low compared to commodity wheat and flour.”
Putting It Back Together
Sitting in his office on a hot day in August, Klein is the first to admit that building a local grain trade from the ground up is a daunting undertaking. “It’s like putting together a business plan,” he says matter-offactly. Despite the initial slow start, Klein is happy to note that progress is being made. Not only have farmers been testing different varieties, many have been looking into pooling their resources for a cleaning and storage facility. Education continues, spearheaded by people like Monica Spiller, who recently hosted a workshop for farmers at the Yolo County Farm Bureau on growing, marketing, and distributing wheat to local bakers. Klein’s group has begun to discuss funding alternatives for growing specialty crops with the help of a Business and Cooperative Specialist from the USDA’s Office of Rural Development.
And the products are becoming available already. Klein will begin selling heritage wheat and polenta corn grown by Rominger and others through his new venture, Community Grains. “People think I’m charming for doing all this,” he says, “but truly it is drudgery to try and make this happen.”
It is clear that there is something more at play than controlling prices, building infrastructure, and expanding markets. Muller talks of the thrill of harvest day and the rhythm of baling a wheat byproduct—hay for the animals’ wintertime bedding—while Massa eagerly explains the importance of wheat in his crop rotation and the excitement of diversifying a farm once based on monoculture.
Rominger notes that planting organic wheat has challenged the brothers into employing century- old weed-control techniques and reintroducing sheep, which once populated his family’s farm, to clean and fertilize the fields. “Now we realize how it all fits,” Rominger says, “and we are trying to put it all back together.”
Elizabeth Linhart Money is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Her article “Turning Kernels into Gold” appears in Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Community Grains: www.oliveto.com
Full Belly Farm: www.fullbellyfarm.com
Massa Organics: www.massaorganics.com
Rominger Brothers Farm: www.romingerbrothersfarms.com
Whole Grain Connection: www.sustainablegrains.org