Going to the grocery store for bread and flour right after an event spent exploring the importance of locally grown and milled grains is ill-advised.
You will walk down the bread aisle, viewing the double-wrapped loaves with a new measure of skepticism and curiosity. The memory of a slice of hazelnut rye lingering on your taste buds, you’ll think about what it would take for this aisle to instead burst with loaves made from heritage grains grown and milled just down the road.
Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Northeast’s Food Building held a public presentation Sunday on just these topics called Farmer, Miller, Baker, Maker. Farmers and millers sat on a panel in a discussion moderated by Amy Halloran, author of the book The New Bread Basket and a self-proclaimed “missionary” for local flour.
The current grain economy operates on a huge scale, favoring farmers who grow wheat varieties with high yields. The resulting flours are highly refined and predictable in their behavior, but they lack what all panelists agreed was the most enticing thing about locally milled heritage grains: flavor.
“Wine, coffee, chocolate—we purchase those foods based on flavor,” Ben Penner, a farmer who works with Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, pointed out. “Flour should be a part of that.”
The move from stone milling to roller milling in the late 1800s meant processing larger quantities of grain more efficiently. But that efficiency stripped the wheat of its bran and germ, removing flavor and nutrients. Halloran described stone milling, on the other hand, as crushing wheat together, so that even after sifting, elements of the bran and germ remained in the flour. This results in flour with “more flavor, more fats, and more nutrition,” said Steve Horton, a co-founder and miller and baker with Baker’s Field Flour & Bread.
So how do the Twin Cities—and the rest of the country, for that matter—get back to a local grain economy that supports farmers and baking with flavorful flour? Jeff Casper, co-owner of Dumpling & Strand, said it would take nothing less than an all-out cultural shift. But it’s a shift many consumers have made when it comes to other food products: “We demand freshness in everything but grains,” Casper said. Roller-milled refined flours would have made sense in the late 1800s, he admitted, as grain processing and milling scaled up. Flours then traveled across the country in barrels in wildly fluctuating temperatures. In that kind of environment, unrefined flours would have arrived at their destination black from oxidation, rancid, and potentially filled with bugs.
Appealing, right? But Casper feels we’ve reached a point where we could support a return to local milling of local grain.
“We’re not going back to a point in history when it was right,” Halloran added. “There was always something wrong.” It’s about finding our way forward now, she explained. The panelists see the return to stone-milled flour made from locally grown grains as ultimately about supporting farmers and biodiversity.
Luke Peterson, another farmer who supplies Baker’s Field with a grain called Forefront, works 550 acres of farmland. He’s passionate about the health of his soil. “Soil is alive,” he said. “It’s an ecosystem.” A nutrient-dense soil will yield crops rich in nutrients, and farmers can encourage that kind of soil with organic farming practices, as he does. He no longer attacks weeds with a hoe or herbicide, but that transition took time and resources. Farmers, he explained, would need incentive to change their methods and risk growing new, perhaps unfamiliar, crops.
They might have that incentive if consumers created demand for more uncommon grains and local milling. That’s where education comes in. Some folks already pay a little more for organic produce or go out of their way to purchase groceries from co-ops and farmers markets, so it isn’t out of the question to expect that they might also pay a little more for a flavorful loaf of bread.
Halloran talked about the success of education campaigns and baker meet-ups for sharing knowledge and skills and promoting locally milled flours. (She asked how many people in the room already bake their own bread, and when about 20 hands went up, she joked about preaching to the already converted.) Penner volunteered to give a presentation at Kowalski’s stores after a Kowalski’s employee in the audience explained their desire to sell more of their Baker’s Field products. Another woman in the audience said she’s already spoken with her co-op’s manager about the amount of imported vs. locally made pasta they carry. The panelists encouraged those kinds of activities to spread the good news, so to speak, of flavorful flour.
The thing is, local flours are appreciably more expensive than the $1.99 five-pound bag of unrefined powder you’ll find at Cub. So how to make them accessible to everyone? Food deserts are already a major problem in our food system, and the cheapest foods available may be calorie-dense, but they’re usually not very nutritious. Halloran, who also runs a food pantry and soup kitchen in her native upstate New York, had some ideas. “There’s a lot of room for innovation in mill byproducts,” she said. As flour is being sifted, there’s a resulting amount of bran or corn flour—depending on what’s being sifted—and those by-products are usable. She sees a third party taking those and putting them into baking mixes to be distributed by food pantries. She also explained that the first 60 minutes of any stone milling produces flour that is imperfect but still functional and flavorful. That flour could be sold at a discount or made into baked goods.
Community baking enterprises, too, are spaces where locally milled flours could grow in prominence. Halloran pointed to the success of Hot Bread Kitchen in New York, a model that could be adopted throughout the U.S. as a way to explore and promote new flours and delicious baked goods, all while bringing people together to literally break bread.
After the discussion, attendees were invited to sample some of Baker’s Field’s products. Jars of different wheat varieties sat on the table, followed by stands and baskets full of slices of brioche, crostini, bagels, and more. Going through the line, Penner paused before a sign identifying a basket of golden rolls as being made from the grain he’d grown. He pulled out his phone to snap a photo, then asked his young daughter to get into the next shot.
“Are these made with your grain, Dad?” She tore into a roll. “I love it.”