Since the first domesticated grain, Einkorn wheat, was cultivated in the Fertile Crescent over 12,000 years ago, grain has been the foundation of the human diet. Two-hundred thousand varieties of wheat are grown around the world, though you would not know from browsing the baking aisle of your local grocery store, where your only options for wheat flour seem to be a generic white “wheat” or a slightly browner “whole wheat” with no discernible origin, dozens of flavorful, nutritious grain varieties are being successfully grown by small farmers in California.
The California Grain Campaign, founded in the fall of 2016 by a small group of farmers, millers, and bakers, seeks to change the air of anonymity present in California’s grain economy. Consumer concern for transparency in the food system is marked by a rise in the popularity of farmers’ markets and CSA programs, and the market for local, organic meat, eggs, dairy, and produce in the state has become all but saturated. Yet how many vendors at the market are selling breads and pastries made with locally grown grain?
According to Dave Miller, a baker from Yankee Hill and one of the founders of the Grain Campaign, the answer is next to none. “Out of the 800 markets in the state, only a handful are using local grains.” Which means there is a lot of room for growth there, and a lot of potential to bolster the regional grain economy and support California’s small-scale grain farmers.
To this end, the California Grain Campaign has launched the 20% by 2020 Campaign, an initiative that works with farmers’ market organizations to require that grain-based vendors use at least 20% locally grown whole grains by 2020. 20x’20 was inspired by a similar initiative implemented by Greenmarket, an organization that manages markets in New York City. Greenmarket’s Regional Grain Project was successful in getting fifty NYC markets to require a minimum of 15% local whole grains in their products, and the resulting boost to the local grain economy has been significant, said Miller. So far, five farmers’ markets in California have adopted the policy: Mar Vista, Beverly Hills, La Cienega, Torrance, and Santa Monica. If more markets adopted 20x’20, it would provide small-scale grain growers with a new level of security in their businesses and would make healthy whole grain products more accessible to consumers.
The work of the Grain Campaign is broad in scope and far-reaching in its audience. “The Grain Campaign tries to talk to everybody,” said Mai Nguyen, a small-scale grain farmer based in Sonoma and another founder of the Campaign. “20x’20 does education for vendors, bakers, chefs and market managers on how to procure grain, how to use different varieties, and how to use whole grains. We want to help farmers have a secure market.”
The Campaign also hosts educational Roadshows for consumers at farmers’ market venues, where they work on educating the public about why it’s important to eat whole grains and why people should care about eating local. Much of this information can be found on the Campaign’s website, californiagrains.com.
“We’ve seen over seventy years of industrial grain domination, where what’s mattered has been calories or pounds produced per acre,” said David Kaisel, a miller and grower based in the Capay Valley. “[In the push for local heritage grains], we’re seeing a shift in values and a return to what matters in feeding oneself: transparency, nutrition, flavor, sustainability, and variety.” Economically, we’re seeing a shift from the industrial focus on producing large quantities of food as cheaply as possible to visibility of the true cost of production, without the hidden environmental and nutritional costs of processed food.
Industrial grain has bred mistrust among consumers, and grains, especially wheat, have come to carry a bad reputation among the health-conscious. This reputation is not entirely unfounded, as common modern commercial wheat varieties have indeed been bred to withstand maximum amounts of synthetic fertilizer and are often treated with pesticides. And when whole wheat is refined to make white flour, it is stripped of all that makes it nutritious, and it becomes harder to metabolize.
“Grain has sustained people for over 10,000 years, and that’s been possible because they were eaten as whole grains,” said Mai Nguyen.
A wheat berry is comprised of four main parts: the endosperm, the germ, the bran, and the aleurone layer. The endosperm is the center of the berry and the part that contains starch and gluten. The germ contains essential oils, folic acid, B-vitamins, and antioxidants. The bran covers the endosperm and the germ. It is made up of insoluble dietary fiber and contains the flavor, aroma, and color compounds of the grain. The aleurone layer is just underneath the bran, which is rich in soluble fiber, proteins, minerals, and B-vitamins. To create white flour, the wheat berry is stripped of the bran, aleurone layer, and the germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm (source: Wheat Q and A).
Part of Miller’s impetus for starting the Grain Campaign and popularizing heritage grain varieties kept in their whole form is to absolve wheat of the reputation that industrial production and processing has granted it. “When we started making white flour, grain for flavor went out the window, and the only marketing for flour had to do with how white it was. Now we have growers wanting to grow for flavor,” said Miller, who is particularly excited about baking with Einkorn lately due to its ancient history and its flavor “unlike anything you’ve ever had.”
“You can’t paint wheat with one broad stroke,” he said.
As a reflection of this, the California Grain Campaign publishes an annual Grain Catalog, which features an impressive variety of grains harvested throughout the state each growing season. The 2017 catalog included twenty-three varieties. Kaisel’s favorite this year was Sonora, a soft white wheat described as “light and buttery.” The variety has its roots in the Sonoran Desert and there is a rich history of growing it in California.
“The history of grain growing in California goes all the way back to the beginning of statehood. Before the gold rush, wheat was the only commodity cash crop a farmer could grow with a guaranteed market,” explained Miller. During the Industrial Revolution in England, the demand for wheat was huge, and that’s where the majority of California wheat was sent. According to Slow Food USA, nearly three million acres of wheat were planted in California by 1800, and Sonora accounted for the majority of that. The large wheat flour tortilla, and thus the burrito and the chimichanga, owe their conception to Sonora wheat.
Originating from the desert, Sonora is naturally drought-tolerant and can be grown in California without irrigation. It is one of the most disease resistant varieties of wheat and produces a crop with lower soil fertility than modern wheat requires. Like many other heritage varieties, it grows taller than modern wheat—tall enough to shade out many weeds, thus reducing the perceived need for herbicides and making it a great choice for organic growers looking to delve into heritage grain.
With the rise of industrial grain came the fall of Sonora’s dominance in California. By 1950 it was almost impossible to find commercially, and this trend reflected a broader one in California’s grain economy. In Butte County alone there were six mills milling local wheat in the early 1900s, now there are none. And this brings us to the challenges the California Grain Campaign faces in their push for 20×20: hardly anyone remembers what it was like to use those whole grains, and as they became more and more scarce so did the infrastructure required to produce them.
“There is going to be a lot of pushback from bakers. They’ll have to completely change the way they do things,” said Miller. For one, it would mean an increase in the price of a baker’s main ingredient, flour. The shift from a commodity grain-dominated market to a local one means a shift from the subsidized cost of industrial-scale production to total transparency in the true cost of grain production.
The difference in cost between commodity and heritage wheat can be as much as six to ten cents per pound versus $1-1.25 per pound, said Kaisel. Making this switch could mean bakers may need to raise prices, which is risky if they don’t know how their customers will respond. In a speech Dave Miller gave in late 2017, he talked about his experience in deciding to support local grain growers and the effect it had on his business. “I raised my prices so buying grain at a higher price didn’t essentially mean that I had to take a pay cut. And no one blinked. Customers were absolutely fine with it.” Miller explained, too, that the 20x’20 rule is designed to have some wiggle-room for bakers to mitigate risk. It could mean that one item that comprises 20% of their sales be 100% local whole grain, or it could be spread out across their items, with several containing a fraction whole grain.
While the Campaign’s educational outreach programs work to address bakers’ concerns, the lack of infrastructure poses perhaps a more daunting challenge.
“The situation we have now is that we’re trying to grow out these varieties that are not in large volume compared to the scale that grain cleaners are used to receiving products from,” said Nguyen. For example, while a farmer on Nguyen’s scale might produce 5000 pounds of a variety, grain cleaners are set up for processing batches of 500,000 pounds. Nguyen’s wheat would get lost in the equipment. Most scale-appropriate equipment for harvesting and cleaning grain is old, expensive, and these days can only be found in the Midwest.
Nguyen is trying to tackle this problem by creating farmer owned cooperatives to collectively purchase equipment. “We need to cooperate in order to meet the demand, or else bakers and vendors will look to commodity grain and we won’t have a foothold in the market anymore,” she said.
Furthermore, there are simply not enough regional mills milling local grains, which is a niche Kaisel is trying to occupy with Capay Mills.
“I am in the process of scaling-up to try and meet more of these infrastructure needs,” Kaisel said. “I need to be able to buy wheat in bulk so that I can supply small bakeries and restaurants.” He is also planning to address the bakers’ concerns by milling and selling blended flours comprised of 20% whole grain heritage wheat and 80% modern hard white wheat, which would allow bakers to meet the 20% requirement at a still relatively low cost. It would also provide more predictability in the behavior of the wheat, as growing organic heritage grain in California is by nature experimental and weather and soil conditions can affect a grain’s baking qualities.
The path that Greenmarket paved with their Regional Grain Project has provided the California Grain Campaign with insights into how to make 20x’20 a success. Central to Greenmarket’s success was getting bakers to urge regional mills and distributors to supply them with local grain. There is headway being made on this front in California, as influential bakers are indeed making these requests. In order for them to do this, though, customer demand needs to be there, too.
“Change won’t happen until you ask for it,” said Miller. “People have to start asking for it. That’s what gets things going.”