Ask pastry chef Emily Marks of the Bachelor Farmer for the secret to her croissants, and she’ll point to Baker’s Field’s mill, located mere blocks from her North Loop ovens.
Just down the street, Spoon and Stable chef Christopher Nye rolls Baker’s Field Bolles wheat flour into his seasonal pasta dishes. “It has the right percentage of proteins for our pasta dough and tastes better than commercial durum wheat.”
“Fresh” and “flavor” are not concepts typically associated with flour.
But more and more, local millers, bakers, chefs, and farmers are rising up in a battle against spongy bread and tasteless pasta—and you can join their ranks. Slice into Baker’s Field Flour and Bread’s tangy, naturally leavened miche, or Sun Street Breads’ nubby, dense Emmer wheat Vollkornbrot loaf. Who can resist Gigi’s golden biscuits, crafted from heritage wheat milled by Baker's Field?
At a time when headlines about climate are grim, artisan grains are a key to growing a delicious and vibrant local food system. Rye, oats, barley, heritage wheat varieties, and buckwheat are grains that once covered the land before soy and corn became king. These grains provide continuous cover to retain topsoil, stem erosion, replenish soil nutrients, nurture wildlife, protect pollinators, and capture carbon. Tiny but mighty, they are our first line of defense against climate change.
But that’s not the primary reason they’re the grains and flours Kim Bartmann prefers for her nine restaurants.
“Flavor is our priority,” Bartmann says. “The ecological services that heritage grains provide are critical to our decision, but really, Turkey Red wheat from Sunrise Flour Mill performs beautifully in baked goods.”
“The bread dough of freshly milled heritage wheat is very responsive,” says Darrold Glanville, who co-founded Sunrise Flour Mill with his wife, Marty. “It springs up as it hits the oven’s heat, and the loaves rise evenly and develop beautiful, firm crusts.”
Bakers call that “bounce.”
The quest for health got the Glanvilles into the milling business. Suspecting that commercial wheat was causing health issues, Darrold began milling heritage wheat to bake his own bread, and soon, his chronic pain and digestive ailments disappeared. By sharing their story at their Mill City Farmers Market booth and teaching baking classes, the couple are creating a community of home bakers and chefs. Red Wagon Pizza, I Nonni, Luci Ancora, and the Bartmann Group restaurants are among their best customers.
The toasty scent of freshly ground Turkey Red flour perfumes Baker’s Field Flour and Bread as the mill grinds 900 pounds of organic wheat each day. The wheat varieties are identified on Baker’s Field’s bags of flour and loaves of bread. A Baker’s Field farmer, Ben Penner, says, “I farm wheat organically for my kids and their kids; it’s the best way to care for the land. My Ukrainian ancestors planted Turkey Red when they settled in this region.”
(Turkey Red, a tall, burnished variety, inspired the amber waves of grain line in “America the Beautiful,” and its sheaves were minted on the backs of pennies until the late 1950s.)
The question of commercial viability is often used to discredit the practice of growing artisan grains. Corporate farmers are invested in the equipment and chemicals to grow commercial wheat. Is it unrealistic to expect them to plant sustainable, healthier, more flavorful grains?
“Yes,” answers Dr. Don Wyse, University of Minnesota plant geneticist and force behind University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative. “The responsibility of a land-grant institution is to address the key issues of our time—the most pressing being the environmental crisis and climate change related to industrial farming practices. Farmers are running a business, and if we expect them to grow food that is good for us and for the planet, we have to provide them with a profitable alternative.”
That’s why Wyse, with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute (a nonprofit ag research group in Salina, Kansas), has been developing perennial crops such as Kernza. Kernza is an intermediate wheat grass with a robust root system. It grows well organically and produces grain every year as well as forage for livestock.
“Perennial crops increase the productivity and profitability of a farm, creating new economic opportunities while enhancing our environment,” says Jacob Jungers, a University of Minnesota ecologist. Pioneering organic wheat farmer Carmen Fernholz from Madison, Minnesota, agrees. “Kernza is a game changer,” he says.
“Kernza flour reminds me of rye,” says chef Marshall Paulsen, of Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis. “It’s dark, slightly grassy, with notes of molasses.” Paulsen tosses the cooked grain into waffles, pancakes, and grain salads, and he bakes the flour into crackers and tortillas. Last summer, Birchwood Cafe created wildly popular Kernza-focaccia BLTs for the Farmers Union Café at the State Fair.
Buckwheat, rye, and Kernza star in Dumpling & Strand’s award-winning prepackaged pastas, too. At the company, there’s a shared belief that the food you buy on shelves should be made in a way that supports healthy farmlands and fields. But again, here, co-founder Jeff Casper creates pasta with sustainable, and often local, grains because of taste.
“Our noodles are not a blank canvas or carrier for other foods; they’re equal partners on the plate,” Casper says. “Take our buckwheat soba noodles; they’re different from soba noodles made with imported Japanese buckwheat. We want people to appreciate the particular flavors of this particular place.”