Maine wheat? A vision of the future.

When Tod Bramble, director of bakery and foodservice sales for King Arthur Flour, told me he was interested in having us sponsor a grain growing and baking conference in Skowhegan, Maine, I returned a blank stare followed by, “What?”

Didn’t he know I had just posted a blog about our fantastic visit to the wheat fields of Kansas, highlighting the terrific quality of the grain grown there and showing how our consistent flour was dependent upon Midwest grain?  I thought, won’t people be confused by this apparent contradiction?

Then I met with the event’s organizers one beautiful, unseasonably warm March day in Portland, Maine. And it all made sense.

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The Kneading Conference, now in its fourth year, grew out of the local food movement when a group of millers, oven builders, and bakers in Maine realized they had to address wheat production if they wanted truly local bread produced in their communities.  “Local” up until that point had really meant “locally baked” or maybe even baked from “locally milled” wheat – but the wheat itself was still coming from elsewhere.

For King Arthur Flour, “local” flour has meant milled from U.S.-grown wheat. When you’re talking about a product that’s only grown in certain parts of the country, keeping it local has meant keeping it domestic.

Of course wheat isn’t only grown in certain parts of the country – it’s grown in a great diversity of locales. Yet for King Arthur Flour, only grain of a certain specification can be milled to produce our flour.

As I’ve written before and you undoubtedly know from using our products, we’re very picky about the grain. And the grain-growing regions outside the Midwest simply don’t have enough to supply the vast amounts we need. So King Arthur Flour grain is currently only grown in certain parts of the country. Can we, KAF, really someday make flour from grain grown on the plains of Maine?

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Maybe. Or, rather, we better hope so. It’s simply a matter of food security. You already know about the dangers of putting all your eggs in one basket, or in this case putting all your grain in one bread basket. If something should happen to debilitate or destroy the wheat harvest in the Midwest and there’s no substantial alternative wheat production possible elsewhere, we could be in for trouble. That’s one possibly alarmist view of the situation.

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The other perspective is simply that some people want to consume food that’s produced nearby to lower the environmental impact of food production and consumption, and to increase the diversity of agriculture in their regions.

A century and a half ago, most small farms across New England were growing grain for human consumption. There were more than 10,000 mills in northern New England producing flour, from locally adapted, now endangered or extinct wheat varieties. That was before the railroads opened up the Midwest and West, where conditions were more favorable for massive wheat cultivation. Wheat production in other regions of the country withered, too, as the Midwest became the dominant grain-producing area.

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The Kneading Conference in Maine hopes to not only revive and improve upon wheat varieties that succeed in Maine’s climate, but to revive overall the practice of crafting bread locally, from seed to loaf. At King Arthur, we think that’s pretty cool.

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So it begins with baby steps. We’re giving our support to the movement to build a knowledge base among practitioners (those millers, oven builders, growers and bakers I mentioned) so that one day soon Maine – and perhaps other locales around the country – will boast a thriving, sustainable wheat supply.

That begs the question, would a bag of King Arthur Flour from Maine wheat really be an advantage in, say, Arizona? Or even South Carolina? Probably not. At least not from the point of view of the local food movement.

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But what if the people who lived within a few hundred miles of the Maine-grown wheat could buy the flour in their local co-op food store? And what if there were regional varieties of King Arthur Flour available all over the country? A marketer can dream…

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Of course it all depends on whether locally grown wheat – wherever “local” is – can meet the quality standards necessary to bear the name King Arthur Flour. Right now to make King Arthur Flour from Maine wheat (or Carolina wheat, or Arizona wheat), we would have to compromise quality for the sake of producing a regional flour. With our support we hope The Kneading Conference helps Maine reach a critical mass of growers and bakers – and technical expertise – so that someday soon Maine will be a steady source of high-quality wheat, the best of which will find its way into a bag of King Arthur Flour.

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And, at the end of the day, into your homemade bread.

About

Tom Payne is the Director of Marketing for the King Arthur Flour Company, Norwich, VT. Tom has nearly 10 years experience marketing in the baking industry and several years working as a baker himself.

comments

  1. Suzanne

    This post, in addition to giving me hope for the realization of true “locovorism”, gives me one more reason to love King Arthur. Your commitment to high quality products produced by employee owners is a reall model for all of us. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday

    What will have to be done to the wheat in order to bring it to the level of quality seen in Midwestern wheat? If we’re talking about major genetic modifications for the sake of the local food movement then I doubt that it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s more economical and environmentally friendly to regard ‘local’ on a bit larger scale (like national).

    There is no GMO wheat in the USA. And King Arthur Flour does not support GMO wheat development. This is not about making Maine wheat identical to wheat grown in the Midwest. Quite the opposite. The goal is to help Mainers reach a critical mass of growers and bakers – and technical expertise – so that someday soon Maine will be a steady source of high-quality, robust, locally grown, wheat. Frank @ KAF.

    We’re definitely not talking about GMOs. The aim is to use good, old-fashioned techniques of plant breeding to cultivate varieties suited for Maine growing conditions and that will yield the highest quality flour. Some of the earlier varieties that once thrived in Maine are now extinct. Experts from the Midwest will be in attendance to share their knowledge with Mainers. The conference is a place where people can share their expertise and their experience. Tom @ KAF

    Reply
    1. Sherry Langevin

      Hi, it’s now 2014, and I’d like to know more about this stuff now.

      Recently, I’ve read about ‘Paleo’ type eating.
      I started it, because I wanted my kid to lose 100 lbs- she’s currently dropped 80lbs.
      She also had behavioral issues and I wondered if they were tied to her love of ‘carbs’ –not only sugar, though that also made her misbehave, but something about the breads and noodles seemed to keep weight on her.
      I read alot about how grain has changed over the last 50 years. There is arguements for and against.
      What is King Arthur/Maine growers doing about ‘local’ grain?
      I’m very interested. My sister in law, from Cape Cod, loves King Arthur flours, and frequents their store in Vermont, near her vacation cabin. I like them, too, but as far as I know, there’s none here (for local grain, if it’s grown for anything other than cattle)
      We do have grains, about once a week, perhaps twice during long cold winter.
      We’ve always eaten vegetables, locally grown (mine included) when we can, and I’ve begun preserving some of those too.
      I’m interested- is anyone still reading this? Or am I way to late ?
      thanks
      Sherry
      Bucksport Me.

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s never too late to be concerned about our food choices and food supply! The Vermont Grains Bread offered at our bakery on Tuesdays uses Vermont-grown grains. Thanks for reading and responding to this blog. Happy Baking – Irene@KAF

  3. Nel

    Wow… beautiful loaves of bread! I can almost smell them!

    I hope when you report back, you’ll tell us more about those ovens. I have this dream of one day having some kind of ‘hearth oven’ (or something): fire below (from wood) and some kind of oven above that would give me nice, crisp loaves without having to bake in a covered clay pot or dutch oven.

    I don’t even know what I’m dreaming of, I’m just fascinated by stories of my great-grandmother and grandmother baking bread in the oven of a woodstove, and putting their hands in the oven to know whether it was hot enough to cook meat, bake bread or bake a cake (they could just the temperature just by reaching into the oven). I imagine that bread baked that way has got to taste special. So more about those intriguing ovens would be appreciated. Can they be built into the kitchen (in place of a fireplace, for example)? How are they heated? And most important – what qualities do they add to the bread?

    Looking forward to your report!

    Reply
  4. Missy K

    This post is one of the reasons I love KAF. The fact that you see the local food movement as one to come alongside and support speaks volumes about your understanding of your customers and the food issues that should concern us all.

    Imagining regional varieties with the high standards KAF hold are a dream I’d like to share in!

    Reply
  5. Angela

    Actually I live in Texas so plenty of our wheat is local! Yay! Of course I would love to grow my own entirely but I know that the kind of individual milling I could get would never match King Arthur. Ah well. A girl can dream.

    Reply
  6. SoupAddict Karen

    Oh, how I wish I could go! This stuff fascinates me. I would love to build a big, brick, wood-fired oven in my backyard. Of course, I also want chickens. And winning the lottery would be nice. ;)

    Reply
  7. Kelly

    Regional flour varieties. Awesome. You would know that it came from within say at least a few hundred miles, reducing fuel distribution costs. That’s assuming it would be only available for the region in which it was grown… Then you would also know that you were at least in some measure supporting more local agriculture. I think it’s a novel concept.

    Reply
  8. Galen

    LOVE IT! We need a KAF “Kneading Conference” in Nebraska. Anyone know where to get plans for that oven?
    We do not know where there may be plans for the oven but it is really beautiful. Our understanding is that it is personally made, in Skowhegan Maine. JMD @KAF

    Reply
  9. Marcia

    I live in Oklahoma, so Kansas is local for me. (At least within a few hundred miles). It’s great to think that I can get flour from local grain.

    Sooo, I would like that to be the case for people all over the U.S!!!

    Keep going with such good ideas.

    Reply
  10. Sally

    I am excited to hear that you are talking about wheat “from the seed” as I have been grinding wheat at home for many years. KAF has always provided delicious recipes, but I have often wished for more made with 100% whole wheat. Will your test kitchen be working on this? I am hopeful!
    Sally you will be happy to know we published a great book “King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking” with many whole wheat recipes and information on how to work with many different whole grains. Also we have many recipes on our web site for whole wheat. Just go to our recipe section and use whole wheat as your search word. JMD @KAF

    Reply
  11. Valerie Holcomb

    I am in the process of creating a local access TV show called Food Talks w/ Valerie. One of my main goals for this show is to open a dialogue that will encourage interest in local foods and all that phrase means. I plan to create a website that will link to blogs such as this one. The thoughts of many can become the plans of a few.

    Reply
  12. Lish

    My husband and I actually toyed with the idea of planting some wheat in our garden, but with all the other projects we decided against it this year. Maybe next year. And he is building me an outdoor wood fired hearth oven/smoker/stove/grill. I am very excited about it. This blog has actually made me want to research growing my own wheat again, for next years garden. I love buying local food, and growing my own. I have actually already harvested some early leaf lettuce. It is so wonderful! I am thrilled that more people are jumping into this way of thinking, and kudos to KAF for supporting it.

    Reply
  13. Sue

    Rick Bayless started and has funded the Frontera Farmer Foundation to support local, organic farmers near Chicago. I tried to find the old newsletter that talked about one of the grant recipients that found (with great difficulty) heirloom grain and is trying to grow it commercially. They could only get enough for a small tract the first year (less than an acre) and saved all the seed. I think they figured that this year, after 3 years, they might have enough to be able to sell some. I’d love to get some. Oh well. Like KAF, others in other parts of the country are trying, too. They deserve our support!

    Reply
  14. Tinky

    It means a lot to cooks like me that KAF is exploring these issues. It’s one of the reasons (aside from quality) that I always use your flour and always recommend it. I’ll be in Virginia during the conference but hope you all will report back.
    Check out their web site for all the details: http://www.heartofmaine.org/kneading/ Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  15. Arlene

    This is such a terrific idea. If there were the same in the Midwest I would go in an instant. Thanks to Tod and the rest of you for being such visionaries. Let me know when the Midwest event will be planned. Or email me and I’ll help you plan it. :)

    Reply
  16. Michael

    Great piece and a great attitude. King Arthur’s support of the Kneading conference is such a boost to all of us looking to make good bread. Bread made with a combination of good, high quality wheat, like KAF, and locally grown grains is the best of all worlds. Whether baked in a hearth oven or a household oven – baked by you is the key. We also look forward to hearing from Jeffery Hamelman at this year’s conference.

    Reply
  17. Mary

    Supporting local is great, but it’s hard to get excited about Maine farmers coaxing wheat out of the wet Maine soil when it grows so easily and abundantly in Kansas (my home state). Kind of like Kansas getting excited about trying to grow pineapples. Nonetheless, love the photos and the passion.

    Reply
  18. Susan Schnur

    Borealis Bread uses Aroostook wheat in one of its breads. Nothing about that flour would fail to live up to KAF standards! Their bread is great.

    Reply
  19. Dorothy

    Why did I not see a mention of Nebraska in this article and the comments following? I grew up there on a farm that produced wonderful hard red wheat. My father ground his own flour, and made his own toasted wheat cereal which was delicious. We called him “the little red hen.”

    Here in New Mexico, lots of pueblo villages have outdoor ovens (hornos) in nearly everyone’s back yard. The town I live in, though not a pueblo, has two hornos on the front lawn of the town hall/library, and bread baking is included in nearly every town celebration, with the help of women from the pueblo down the road. Now if I could just convince them to use your whole wheat or white whole wheat flour ——.
    Nebraska does produce wonderful wheat and we are all very apprecative. How nice to have memories of your father grinding his own flour and making his own toasted wheat cereal. Baking bread as part of town celebrations in outdoor ovens is truly a wonderful tradition. JMD @KAF

    Reply
  20. EdgeWiseInAnnArbor

    I have found West Wind Mill in Michigan to produce whole wheat flour using local varieties at times indistinguishable from KAF. It’s falling numbers and protein are frequently spot on. They sell their flour green (e.g. earlier than the time KAF waits), but wait much longer to mill their wheat than KAF (for kernels to have uniform moisture). I’m not sure why they don’t appear quite as consistent as KAF. Maybe just a smaller operation. I’ve not tested their other flours.

    Reply
  21. Liliana Szachury

    Hi there:

    I would like to say “Outstanding” the bread in the photos, really some day I would like to bake bread like those ones, it is something incredible and beautiful!!! my dream come true, I am in love with baking bread, and I hope some day “King’s Arthur Flour” come to Canada and teach us to do these wonders here!!! or at list close to Dryden Ontario….. some day, I have a hope…

    Reply
  22. Amber

    I’m sure it sounds crazy to someone from Kansas that Maine is growing wheat. Our recents efforts actually, are a revival of wheat growing. In my central Maine county alone, 239,000 bushels of wheat were produced in the 1830’s. The trend to revive lost crops is an effort sweeping New England and other eastern states.

    Reply
  23. BakerRN

    This conference promotes whole grains, home baking, local foods, and community. I would love to see KAF moving more in this direction. KAF has a large following, and can be a leader in education about these issues. I was thinking lately that KAF had gotten away from promoting whole grains, but maybe this conference proves otherwise.

    Reply
  24. barbloki

    I am so excited to hear that KAF may get it’s wheat from Maine. I always try to buy products from New England to support my local economys. I hope this is a great success for all parties involved.

    Reply
  25. Anna JJ

    This is exciting (says a girl in Maine)! I am reading lately some theories that the massive increase in celiac disease could be related to use of wheat bred from the 1960’s or so onward that was intended to have a much higher yield, therefore helping to aleviate world hunger. It was somehow crossed with dwarf strains and I don’t know all the details, but anyway — it’s got more chromosomes than older wheat did. It potentially aggrivates diabetes, celiac, and a variety of other symptoms. Who knows how much is alarmist and how much is true, BUT it seems a good idea to grow a variety of types of ANY crop so you have options should a blight come. And growing crops locally is wise for the same reason. I’d be all in favor of locally grown, heirloom wheat flour! In the meantime, I’ll use KAF whenever I can. Since from here, Vermont is practically local compared to other mills, and at least it can be milled ‘close’ to home. (:
    Thanks for sharing about what you’ve been reading. You’re right, it is very hard to know what is proven science and what is media-hyped. You sound like you are definitely doing the right thing by reading, reading, reading and getting educated on what is going on. Keep up the good work! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  26. Karen

    I am very excited about the work you are doing locally! I am also very interested in the old strains of wheat. My understanding is that they contain much less gluten than the current standard wheat. It would be spectactular to have a nationally know chain do a little research and development in this area so that G/F foodies like me might be able to use a gluten-light “regular” flour. Thank you for all you do!
    Thanks for the encouragement Karen. Happy baking and good health to you from us. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  27. Jenny

    People follow different methods to grow wheat plant depending on its purpose and uses. Although, it is consumed as a food material, but it is now been popularly grown to extract wheatgrass juice as well.

    Reply

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