Photo by Carole Topalian
That green or golden wheat is one of the world’s most important crops. After being harvested, it is milled, processed into flour and, because our world is a beautiful place, it is typically baked into loaves of bread.
Yet wheat production isn’t really happening in Los Angeles. California does have the distinction of having the most commercial- sized processing plants, but the wheat is brought in from out of state—mostly from Montana and the Dakotas. Much of the wheat grown in our Central Valley is shipped to other countries to be made into products that are shipped back to us.
But, a local group of people known as the LA Bread Bakers wanted that to change. Including the possibility of using a scythe, because, why not? They seem pretty cool.
Like many people with a food passion and commitment to using what is local and heritage, the LA Bread Bakers decided to take matters into their own hands. With that, they began experimenting with small-scale wheat production at a farm in Agoura Hills. While they’re a committed group of enthusiasts who want to work with top-quality products, they also have the goal of re-introducing heritage-variety flours that will be milled in our own backyard—something that would benefit us all.
In the true spirit of community, the would-be wheat farmers reached out to several growers who share their (down the rabbit hole) curiosity, including Glenn Roberts from North Carolina’s Anson Mills, who donated seed. They decided to plant mostly Sonora wheat, a strain from Mexico, which at one point was a California mainstay, and a few other varieties to see which worked best.
While there are tens of thousands of varieties of wheat—many of which were developed at agricultural universities for the benefit of large-scale farming—very few of the old types are grown and milled today. Many have simply lost favor, while others are difficult to process using modern machinery. A dedicated family who had been searching for a superior product developed the India Jammu variety, which Monica Stiller of Whole Grain Connections provided for LA Bread Bakers, over four generations. The DIY mentality, increasingly important in our country as it stands, has been the key to biodiversity for generations. And so, the core members of the planting group, led by Mark Stambler, Nan Kohler and Paul Morgan, made an agreement with Nathan Peitso’s Maggie’s Farm to use a small portion of the farm’s acreage as their initial testing ground.
“We aren’t experts, but the spirit is there,” says Stambler.
Since December, when a few volunteers scattered the seeds, Morgan and Kohler have been keeping fastidious notes on the progress. The process has been meticulously cataloged on their blog. The learning curve included the swift realization that weeds, weather and hungry little ground squirrels would all require their attention. The harvest will begin in summer and continue for a month or so as they gather the seed for milling.
For baker Nan Kohler and her business partner Marti Noxon, the idea of milling flour came up after Kohler watched an episode of “Adventures with Ruth” (Reichl), in which the acclaimed food writer and editor spent time with a baker and in turn went to his favorite flour mill in Bath, England. Kohler was struck by the hands-on process using a stone gristmill and logically wondered why that wasn’t something we could do, here. It was that spark that led the women to found Grist & Mill, which plans to be grinding and packaging small-batch flour by summer 2013.
Buy why go to all this trouble? And why wheat varieties and spelt flour that most of the people involved have never even tasted? According to Kohler, “Freshly sown and milled flour is higher quality and more nutritious. It has all of the components a baker wants, and it keeps fresher, longer.”
People have cultivated wheat for 9,000 years. Due to its abundance it’s the main source of vegetable protein for a large percentage of the world’s population. Yet, like many other facets of our agricultural system, unique strains of wheat have been lost in the shuffle. What remains has been selectively whittled down to a few super-plants that take up millions of acres. What the big agricultural companies are growing is supposed to be hardy, fast growing and, in turn, yield a high profit. It’s efficient, but loses individuality that way. The flour we then buy on the shelf in the market is a mix that is created to be consistent and neutral. Unique varieties, on the other hand, re-introduce much-needed basic biodiversity and the resulting flour has different notes, so it isn’t just a base ingredient, but can be considered a flavor component.
For gardener Paul Morgan of Westchester, the experience of farming has been “an interesting game to watch. You think one type is going to do well and then the other one takes over. We thought the Sonora would be in first place, but the Red Fife surprised us all.” He admits they have had to digest and use a lot of new information, and quickly, but with experts like Stephen Jones, PhD, director of the Washington State University Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon on speed dial, they have a lot of support.
LA Bread Bakers hope not only to be able to bring back some of these lesser-known wheat varieties, but also to reduce the carbon footprint of wheat Los Angelenos are already consuming. With the popularity of bread baking, it certainly seems like a good idea.
The long-term plans of the group include providing data for research and finding out which strains grow best in our climate. With real estate prices being the main obstacle to any farming operation in LA County, they are also actively seeking land owners who might be willing to plant and grow some of these unique cereal grains on currently unused acreage. As the group has demonstrated, there’s a mill and a committed and active group who wants it. Or, to quote Paul Morgan, “If you raise it up, we’ll buy it up.”