Author’s Note: This interview is reprinted with the permission of Edible San Luis Obispo.
Shameful disclosure: I never used to think about where my flour came from. I took for granted the straightforward convenience of my supermarket’s baking aisle. But lately I’ve been reminded that flour comes from a plant. Grown in the ground. By a real person.
There was a time when every town along SLO County’s historical train route operated its own flour mill. One of the dominant wheat varieties grown at the time, Sonora soft winter wheat, was so named because it was brought here from the mountain plains of Sonora, Mexico by the mission padres. During the Gold Rush, many panners abandoned the pursuit of gold to farm wheat as it was often the more profitable venture. By 1880, California was the largest producer of commercial wheat in the world, setting floor prices on the London International Wheat Exchange.
Sadly, the commodification of wheat in California was its demise. As farmers looked to make more with less, they found that the Midwest was better suited to industrial-scale production, and modern wheat withstood rigorous transport, machine-processing and longer periods of storage than heritage varieties. Every Central Coast flour mill closed its doors with the exception of the San Miguel Flour Mill (which now only cleans grains, mostly for livestock feed) and heritage wheat varieties were all but forgotten.
“It’s time to bring grain production back to a human scale,” says John DeRosier, a farmer who is looking to revive local grains after their 130-year hiatus. “Humanity has a deep connection to grains because we’ve depended on them for thousands of years for their rich energy content. When I started growing grains, that ancient connection touched me deeply. So I started exploring different types and ways we can re-introduce them to a more human-centered process.”
Getting Stoked on Diverse Grains
I had heard John described in near-mythical terms as the Paso Robles man who could harvest an acre of wheat by hand in one day. On his farm, With The Grain, he grows different varieties of wheat, oats, barley, kamut, corn, millet, spelt, quinoa, amaranth, sorghum, and teff, and is experimenting with growing upland rice and other lost grains. With a new grain CSA and starting a grain processing co-op, he seemed like just the guy to help me get to the bottom of SLO County’s lack of local wheat production.
“Grains are nothing new to this area, but the commodity price is horrible for a small-scale farmer. There’s so much supply now that the price is driven down to a ridiculous low. Wheat sells for the same price it did 100 years ago: six cents per pound.”
But it isn’t too much competition in the marketplace that keeps wheat from being profitable. John is convinced that it’s actually too little.
“A lot of varieties need a certain kind of climate to be usable, and that climate isn’t always our own. But there are so many different types of wheat, and no one has bothered to explore which ones do really well in our area. So I experiment with those varieties and educate people to get them stoked on diverse grains. The demand is totally there – I have people interested in driving from Northern California, Bakersfield and Santa Barbara to get my CSA boxes. People want this.”
“So why aren’t more farmers hopping on the bandwagon?” I ask him.
“Because you can’t just harvest grains and sell them. Growing is the easy part. But it takes a whole system on the farm to plant, tend, harvest, clean, store, make them into food and package them. That equipment doesn’t come cheap.”
And neither does the Health Department kitchen certification required to mill flour these days – an expensive and prohibitive hoop for many small-production farmers to jump through.
“So I’ve started a co-op to buy equipment that we local grain farmers can share or rent. I’d like to see other people come forward to join me in this business of experimenting. If people could only taste the difference between the flavor of a commercially-grown and processed flour and that of an heirloom wheat cultivated in the perfect conditions of their backyard, they would demand local grains.
The Terroir of Bread
At this point in my investigation of local flour sources, I was craving an opportunity to taste what John described. And at just the right moment, I was introduced to Ron Skinner of Huasna Valley Farm.
Six years ago, Ron and his wife Jenn attended a sustainable farming conference and met someone who was promoting heirloom Sonora wheat for its suitability to organic and sustainable farming systems, and for its delicious flavor. Starting with 10 lbs. of wheat, the Skinners grew it out and planted it back until they were able to harvest 7,000 lbs of wheat from 3 acres.
“Sonora is adapted to our dry summer climate which means we don’t have to irrigate the crop. It also grows tall, which allows it to compete with weeds on our farm,” Ron tells me in an e-mail. “Our climate is much different than the coastal climate in which most SLO County residents live. It’s colder in the winter, hotter in the summer, and we get less rainfall,” all of which, he tells me, has made vegetable-growing over the past twelve years challenging. “So instead of veggies, we are switching to what was traditionally grown here: dry-farmed grains.”
I artfully mentioned that I am an avid home baker with an itch to try some local flour, and Ron offered to drop off some of his own. I came home one afternoon to a pound’s worth of stone-milled Sonora wheat flour on my doorstep, along with baking suggestions. Without further ado, I donned an apron and got down to business.
I once read that bread has its own terroir just as wine or cheese does. The naturally-occurring yeast that causes dough to rise in one place is completely different from that of another, imbuing the final bread with its own unique character. Add to that the particular taste profile of a locally-grown and milled grain, and the bread shows even more provenance.
So I explored the terroir of a whole-wheat loaf and the house filled with the ancient, earthy scent of yeast, molasses, and grain. My husband – who typically forgoes any kind of brown bread in favor of the bleached white stuff – was surprised at how much he enjoyed the flavor of my Sonoran bread. Indeed, so was I. It had a moist, light nuttiness that I’d never experienced with store-bought whole-wheat flour.
At Ron’s suggestion, I then tackled biscuits, which were as light and puffy as cotton – nothing like the whole-wheat biscuits I once baked for my dad, who lovingly termed them “hockey pucks.” But the best use for Ron’s Sonora wheat by far was whole-wheat pancakes. Never have I tasted more complex, rich, and delicious flapjacks than those I ate straight from the pan, naked and unadorned.
It wasn’t until I caught myself cooing about the pancakes’ savory, near-divine quality to yet another friend that I realized John DeRosier was right: if everyone could just taste the difference, there would be no end to the demand for locally grown and processed flour. I, for one, am hooked.
Whole Wheat Pancakes
From SF Chronicle Staff Writer Tara Duggan
Makes 10 three-inch pancakes
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 egg
- 1 cup milk, or more as needed
- 3/4 cup buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons melted butter + more for cooking
Instructions: In large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda.
In a separate bowl, combine egg, milk and buttermilk. Beat together wet and dry ingredients to a smooth consistency. Slowly add melted butter, stirring continuously.
Heat a large skillet or griddle. When hot, add enough butter to coat the surface. Just as butter begins to bubble, drop pancake mix, 1/4 cup at a time onto cooking surface. When small bubbles begin to form around the edge of each pancake, flip, using a large spatula. Remove from cooking surface when golden brown on each side and cooked through.
John DeRosier, With The Grain Farm
(805) 237-9783, email@example.com
Ron and Jenn Skinner, Huasna Valley Farm
(805) 473-3827, firstname.lastname@example.org
Whole Grain Connection
San Luis Obispo County Grain Improvement Association
“White Sonora Wheat.” Slow Food USA: Ark of Taste. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/ark_product_detail/white_sonora_wheat/
Linhart Money, Elizabeth. “When Wheat Was Local.” Edible East Bay Magazine. Spring 2008: pp. 26-29.
Duggan, Tara. “Bay Area Wheat Makes a Comeback.” San Francisco Chronicle. 10 Dec 2008: F-1.
Jaime Lewis left a successful career in orchestra management for a year of farming, eating, and drinking in Italy and New Zealand. She is now a freelance food and drink writer in San Luis Obispo. Read about her odyssey at www.jaimeclewis.wordpress.com.