For those who attended CFSA’s 25th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference, you likely tasted at least one of the various baked goods made with NC grown wheat. The cookies provided for the mid-day break were from West End Bakery, made with Arapaho wheat grown by Fred Miller on Hilltop Farm in Wake Co, smack dab in the middle of the state. The bread presented at Saturday evening’s reception was from Farm and Sparrow Breads, made with Turkey wheat grown by John McEntire on Peaceful Valley Farm in Old Fort, at the foothills of our mountainous western region. And the rolls served with Saturday evening’s dinner were from Annie’s Naturally Bakery, made with Lindley Mills flour, from TAM303 hard red wheat, grown by Ben and Kenny Haines of Looking Back Farms located in Tyner, on the far northeastern end of the state.
For each, there was a story, each illustrating a different route to the same end: the revival of regional grain production and commerce. Three different varieties of wheat, each from a different time in agriculture’s history: a heritage wheat, Turkey; a modern wheat, Arapaho; and a regionally adapted wheat, TAM303.
Turkey wheat is a landrace grain, meaning that it predates modern breeding. Turkey arrived in this country in the early 1870s, brought to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants from the Ukraine, fleeing Tsarist persecution. Turkey wheat is, ironically, partly to blame for the death of the community stone mill. It thrived in Kansas, swiftly becoming the primary wheat variety planted throughout the Central Plains. It did so well, that it pushed forward the advancement of milling technology. But that’s a whole other story. What’s important for this telling is that Turkey was replaced in the mid- 1940s, by modern higher-yielding cultivars. Though a small group of farmers in Kansas have started a wheat revival project to bring back this wheat. And Slow Food has inducted Turkey into its U.S. Ark of Taste. Its mission: By promoting and eating Ark products we help ensure they remain in production and on our plates.
But how did bread made with Turkey wheat grown in NC make it onto our plates?
Enter Farm and Sparrow Breads. Farm and Sparrow is a small operation, a craft bakery run by owner and operator, Dave Bauer. Dave is deeply committed to his craft. He employs old world methods — cultures to leaven his doughs and wood to fire his massive masonry oven. Finding a farmer to grow his wheat was the natural next step. Dave befriended farmer John McEntire. John grows heirloom corn that he mills into grits that Dave uses in his heirloom grits bread. Dave acquired enough seed for four acres of Turkey wheat and John, whose daddy and uncle used to grow wheat, happily planted it.
Dave was able to acquire the seed because of that small group of farmers back in Kansas committed to reviving this wheat. The seed that grew the wheat that went into the rolls baked by Annie’s Naturally Bakery was thanks to a friendship between a farmer and a miller. Kenny Haines has been growing soft (pastry) wheat for Joe Lindley for years. The two met when Kenny, who also has a trucking business, arrived at Lindley Mills for a pick up, and they got to talking. At the time, regionally adapted bread wheat varieties were not even a possibility, but in 2002 the USDA-ARS launched the Uniform Bread Wheat trials to develop bread wheat varieties that can withstand the hot and humid climate of the southeast. The first of the varieties released was TAM303, through Virginia Foundation Seed. No one was growing out the seed stock though, so Joe and Kenny stepped up to the plate, purchasing all the seed that was available. The seed was treated, so it could not be planted on an organic farm, but Kenny had a conventional grower plant it, so there would be untreated seed to plant the following year. Which, the next year, is what Kenny and Ben did. And with the harvest from that planting, and Lindley Mills, and Annie’s Bakery, the rolls from Saturday evening’s dinner were made. And enough seed was held back so that this past planting (planting just ended), over 600 acres of TAM 303 were planted on four different organic farms in NC and one in VA. Kenny and his son, Ben, btw, also planted close to twenty acres of Turkey.
And the Arapahoe? Fred was curious about growing wheat, acquired some seed, not regionally adapted, but he got lucky, the weather behaved, he had 500 pounds to sell, and he called me up. We met in a Sam’s Club parking lot in Raleigh to make the exchange. Yes, a Sam’s Club parking lot.
Learn more about the North Carolina Bread Flour Project here.