Nestled in the heart of the fertile Skagit Valley in Washington State's northwestern corner, with the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east and the San Juan Islands to the west, sits the center of wheat's flavor future: The Bread Lab.
Director Stephen Jones created this place to connect his wheat breeding program at Washington State University with chefs and bakers who turn the old and new varieties he creates into food. Jones' wheat is also sought out by maltsters, brewers, and distillers. In fact, his work is at the epicenter of a burgeoning local wheat movement from coast to coast.
Wheat was late to the table for the locavore feast. White flour's presence in our food, while pervasive, doesn't contribute to its flavor. Today's commercially grown wheat varieties were developed for growing in major wheat-producing areas like the Great Plains, where they've been optimizing for yield per acre, drought and disease tolerance, and the appropriate protein content for their intended use. Breeding varieties for growing elsewhere or selecting for flavor has, until very recently, not been considered a priority in wheat breeding programs.
Jones began breeding wheat in 1977, working with those large-scale varieties grown on millions of acres. Jones says, "I always questioned: Could there be more? More value for the farmer?" In 2008, when he became director of the breeding program at the research station in Mount Vernon, Washington, he saw the chance to respond to the needs and desires of local growers, whose average farm is only 120 acres, to grow wheat successfully.
The combination of science and craft - and of curiosity and commerce - is propelling the smaller-grains movement.
Jones' goal is to show the wheat and other "forgotten" crops can have a place in smaller areas. The Bread Lab, with its steam-injection ovens and equipment for testing dough quality, shows farmers and bakers the extra value these rediscovered or newly developed varieties can bring. The combination of science and craft - and of curiosity and commerce - is propelling the smaller-grains movement. The amazing flavor from these new, freshly milled wheats and grains only adds to the excitement.
People everywhere are seeking and finding ways to eat locally grown grains. Craft bakeries and chefs all across the country are baking from locally milled, most often whole-grain flour, which is dense with nutrients and alive with flavor. Regional grain-growing conferences from New England to the Pacific Northwest bring together farmers, millers, bakers, and local food enthusiasts to learn from each other. In doing so, they reestablish connections long forgotten, and collaborate on rebuilding an infrastructure that once existed in every part of the country.
In the mid-19th century, Vermont was one of the nation's breadbaskets, with nearly 40,000 acres of land producing wheat. Today, all of New England grows only about a twentieth of that amount. In this century, however, that figure is growing. Heather Darby, an agronomy specialist at the University of Vermont Extension, is working to restore grain production in northern New England (with Jones' help). Together, they're identifying and developing varieties suited to the hilly terrain, rocky soil, and humid weather of the area. Similar efforts are underway in the Southwest, the Southeast, California, Alaska, and all across Canada.
"I believe that once the local system matures, then it's back in place," says Jones. Nothing has been truly lost; certain varieties were simply not grown on a large scale. A stunning array of wheat varieties is resurging. Since 1840, there have been 165 varieties of wheat grown in the Skagit Valley. "We can grow 163 of them today," Jones boasts. Those varieties are being crossed to make new wheats, with better yields and disease resistance, and even better flavor. "But," notes Jones, "it all has to work for the farmer."
The popularity of today's farmer's markets shows the yearning we have to be part of the land community
This effort to rebuild local food-system economies offers hope for a kind of security that cannot arise otherwise. Jones believes good food of any kind should not be available only to those who can afford it. He sees family farmers as the center of this change. They are self-sustaining enterprises that reinforce our connection to the land and to each other. The popularity of today's farmer's markets shows the yearning we have to be part of the land community - even when our lives have taken us far from it.