Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on local grain economies. Part I covered the value consumers of local grain place on producers’ stories. Part II detailed the rise of small mills in the Northwest. All installments are posted online at postregister.com/farmandranch/ and on the Farm & Ranch Facebook page.
Crop breeder Steve Lyon acknowledges his groundbreaking new release, Skagit 1109, is essentially a reboot of the wheat that ancient grain farmers raised for thousands of years before the advent of hybridization.
Lyon, with the Washington State University Bread Lab in Burlington, Washington, said people are calling that promising hard red winter wheat variety a “modern landrace.” The term “landrace” refers to endemic, domesticated crops that evolved over time through adaptation to local environments.
The bread lab strives to develop seeds adapted for specific regions, thereby building a more “resilient food system.” The lab has been among the foremost leaders in the reemergence of local grain economies — marketing grain for local consumption rather than through the commodities market.
Lyon explained Skagit 1109 was especially well suited for the lab’s local grain mission. He made an initial cross from two carefully chosen wheat varieties. But rather than continuing with the normal breeding process to produce homogeneous seed, Lyon intentionally released seed with a high degree of variability.
The bread lab allows growers to save seed and replant it over several generations, a practice that will enable their local environment to select the best adapted seeds from the mix.
“Agronomically, you keep planting back the best seed, and the bad types weed themselves out,” Lyon said, adding the approach also holds promise to help farmers cope with climate change and disease.
Grain with ‘terroir’
Lyon explained the farmers in northwestern Washington’s Skagit Valley historically raised grain almost as a “throw-away crop,” simply to diversify rotations with other cash crops.
“I did variety trials and found out they were growing the wrong varieties,” Lyon said.
His lab focused on developing varieties specifically for the region’s climate, annual moisture level and day length.
Two often overlooked attributes of grain — nutrition and flavor — were also considered. Differentiation holds little value when grain is commingled and sold as a commodity.
“We say we’re not commodity breeders,” Lyon said. “We have blue wheats, browns and greens and purples.”
Key infrastructure to support local grain fell into place when a mill opened in Skagit Valley that was committed to identity preservation, allowing bakers to buy locally sourced flour.
The lab explains on its website how identity preservation allows farmers to capitalize on the “terroir” of their grain: “Instead of growing to maximize yield, farmers growing outside of a commodity system are able to focus on growing varieties that produce much nuttier, sweeter, earthier flours than the all-purpose wheat flour we’re used to.”
In Skagit Valley, for example, Lyon said a major selling point of the local grain is its characteristic, earthy flavor, which isn’t present when the same varieties are grown in other regions. He also noted that his region’s soils hold three times the national average of zinc, iron and manganese, which contributes to a more nutritious product.
“Nutrition and flavor are something we never used to look at, and now it’s becoming very important,” Lyon said.
Growers who participate in local grain economies often receive a premium from buyers seeking a better product and interested in investing in their own communities. They also pad their profit margins by cutting out the middle man.
“We’ve got (local farmers) growing the right varieties,” Lyon said. “They’re starting to make money on it.”
Boise baker collaborates with farmers
To supply his Boise bakery with the best flour imaginable, Mathieu Choux, works closely with the farmers who raise his wheat.
“My main ingredient is flour,” said Choux, owner of Gaston’s Bakery. “We grow so much wheat in Idaho. We had to find some wheat that would work for us.”
Choux opened the bakery in 2006. He started milling some of his own flour in 2018, buying both conventional and organic grain directly from a local grain elevator and local farmers. He’s currently working on an experiment with a Fairfield organic farmer, which he expects to be mutually beneficial.
“We’re blending in the field instead of at the mill,” Choux explained. “Instead of having them plant one type of wheat, they’ll plant a blend of 10 to 20 to 40 varieties.”
Similar to the philosophy behind the Washington State University Bread Lab’s “modern landrace,” Choux reasons farmers who supply Gaston’s stand to reduce their risk by planting several varieties. Growers are bound to have seeds in such diverse blends that are well suited for any field conditions that may come their way, Choux said.
A key benefit of grinding his own flour is that it contains no additives, which he said would interfere with the natural, slow fermentation he uses in his baking process. Furthermore, Choux theorizes many people who claim to suffer from gluten intolerance may actually be adversely affected by the many additives and preservatives used in most commercial flour.
“What made me very interested in sourcing grain and milling it in house was more and more people were getting gluten intolerance, and I did not think it made sense,” Choux said. “We have been eating wheat for 500 years. There’s no reason why all of a sudden we’re getting sick from it.”
Promise in identity preservation
Cathy Wilson, director of research for the Idaho Wheat Commission, sees a marketing opportunity for many of the state’s wheat farmers in the local grains movement.
But she offers a caveat: “The volume in that market stream is really small.”
Wheat farmers stand to reap much larger rewards, in Wilson’s opinion, simply by establishing the infrastructure for identity preservation of their grain, regardless of where it’s sold.
“Overall for our industry, I think it is true the commodity market will always be there. That market is for starch because starch provides calories,” Wilson said.
But she also sees demand for segregating grain and charging more for varieties that deliver specific desirable traits — especially health-related attributes. For example, Wilson said there’s been a recent trend of breeding varieties with resistant starch that breaks down slowly, providing a lower glycemic index to benefit consumers with diabetes.
Wilson said an early example of identity preservation of wheat involved an agreement between Ardent Mills and Colorado State University to release the hard white wheat Snowmass, which has less gluten but still retains outstanding baking qualities.
“That’s thinking of wheat as an ingredient as opposed to just a commodity,” Wilson said. “That’s similar to local but would be a value option to a grain grower going forward.”
Don Trouba, senior director of Go-to-Market — The Annex by Ardent Mills, said his division has started marketing an heirloom soft white wheat variety dating back to the 1700s, called Sonora. He said it delivers a buttery flavor to tortillas and also works well in pozole.
“Grains that are able to have great flavor now have potential to become regional or even national superstars,” Trouba said.
His division is also offering a culinary barley variety high in heart-healthy beta-glucan fiber, called Sustagrain.
A late-comer to local
Caroline Sluyter, program director of the Boston-based Oldways Whole Grains Council, believes the nation is experiencing a “local grain Renaissance,” particularly in the Northeast and West Coast.
But Sluyter acknowledges grain is a latecomer to the broader locavore movement. The industry has long viewed its mass-produced refined flour as a “blank slate” on which to add more flavorful ingredients, she said.
“We haven’t thought of grains in the same way as a crop like an heirloom tomato,” Sluyter said.
As consumers have become more interested in healthy foods and culinary experimentation, she believes a premium has been placed on whole grains that also pack a distinct taste.
“Chefs at high-end restaurants are taking advantage of flour with textures and pepperiness and nuttiness and making it a feature in the dish rather than a blank background,” Sluyter said. “Taste as kind of the frontrunner characteristic that is being bred for (in flour) is a new thing and has come about with this rebirth of local bakeries and farm-to-table restaurants.
“We’re really just sitting on the cusp of that.”