Flour Power: California Revives Its Wheat-Growing Past

The hunt for better bread is minting a new generation of grain farmers.

(Photo: Taylor Orci)

Dec 2, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Taylor Orci is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on NPR and Slate.com and in New York Magazine and The Atlantic.

Jon Hammond leads me quickly past a vintage grain mill that’s been in his family since early last century. He’s showing me around his small farm in Tehachapi, Calif., walking past Hammond’s collection of vintage farm equipment parked picturesque barns, his happy Gloucestershire Old Spot hogs rooting and snorting in their pens for food, the mane of his white horse lazily waving in the breeze. I snap a picture of the grain mill, not yet completely understanding its importance. Next we go to another barn, assorted wagon wheels leaning against one of its faded red wooden walls. “And here’s where we repair our equipment,” he boasts. Old stuff in a barn? Snap. Finally, Hammond leads me to a large field of waving Sonora wheat. “Here it is,” he says proudly. And while I know this is why I drove three hours to be here, I admit I don’t quite yet appreciate the significance of what I’m looking at. I mean, it’s just a grain, right?

These days, however, there’s no such thing as just a grain. Our relationship with wheat is colored by a Madonna-whore complex, with the staple painted as either the staff of life or as the kernel of society’s health problems. And frankly, most of the time it skews toward the latter.

(Photo: Taylor Orci)

Thank the paleo diet and all the new gluten-free food at the store, thank the ephemeral gluten allergies, thank the newish awareness of very real allergies like celiac disease, but wheat appreciation isn’t really something that’s done out in the open. On the other (Madonna) hand, there are things like the fancy toast trend, which derives its price tag from the accoutrement slathered on the bread as much as (and maybe even more than) the structure and taste of the toast itself. But a third movement is taking shape, one that starts with the grain itself and stays right there, focused on the wheatiness of wheat.

“When I came to the U.S. to live in the '70s, I couldn't believe how terrible the bread tasted,” said Sonoko Sakai, a Japanese noodle maker and heritage grains advocate. Born in the United States, Sakai lived in Mexico and Japan before returning to the U.S. and finding, among other things, that the grains here were lacking compared to their counterparts overseas. “In the '70s and '80s, my mother would go back to Japan and bring literally a suitcase full of bread back for us.” This spurred a lifelong mission for Sakai that sounded deceptively simple: find quality flours in the states.

California grows a ton of wheat, boasting a total harvest of 33,900,000 bushels in 2013. However, nearly half of that grain goes to feed livestock. And the majority of the wheat that humans end up eating is commodity grain that’s milled from modern varieties grown with various chemical aids of industrial agriculture. So when Sakai’s search led her toward growing wheat, a problem arose: Who would do the farming?

She had the good fortune of getting seed donated by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina. Roberts himself shared the desire to cultivate heritage grain varieties for cuisine close to his heart, only instead of soba noodles it was a type of antebellum cuisine called Carolina Rice Kitchen. The two saw eye-to-eye, but geography posed a problem.

“Glenn donated five tons of seed,” Sakai said. “Now I had to find farmers to grow it.” That started a search that lasted more than a year and a half to find the right farmers to grow these heirloom varieties of grain, including Sonora wheat, Roman rye, and Red Fife.

But what is the big deal with these heritage grains? From an outsider's view, despite the evocative names, these varieties look like normal grain at first blush. Can you even tell the difference when you’re eating them? Or is it just a trendy way to make money after the write-up happens in New York Magazine?

“It’s like night and day,” says Roxana Jullapat, pastry chef at Cooks County in Los Angeles. She got a few pounds of Tehachapi-grown flour to experiment with, and after one bite, she was in love. “There’s a real flavor difference. The flavor and the structure, I mean it’s just impressively good.”

But that added flavor signals something more too.

“Your regular Gold Medal flour has been very processed,” Jullapat explained. “The seed cleaning, a lot of the germ has been removed, which is why its shelf life is so long, but it tastes like nothing.”

Flour like that serves as a blank canvas, with the quality ingredients come post-toast, as it were. The one plus side of conventional flours? The uniformity.

“With store-bought conventional flours, a cup is a cup is a cup. You follow a recipe, it comes out exactly like the recipe,” said Jullapat, but working with flours made from grain like Hammond’s Sonora wheat is different—part art, part gentle negotiation. “With one wheat variety, you know you’ll need an extra cup of water, or it might behave differently when you bake it. Bakers will have more of a learning curve.” But the payoff is delicious.

Jullapat also notes that as it stands right now, still in the test-kitchen phase, a pound of this stuff would go for about $40. “And that’s just not realistic for normal people,” she says. “In about five years I think we will have it so this can be affordable for regular people.”

In order to bring down the cost, farmers like Hammond and his neighbor Alex Weiser of Weiser Farms will need to figure the ins and outs of growing grain. They make it look deceptively easy, maybe because they help each other out—produce scraps from Weiser's farm help feed Hammond’s small drove of spotted pigs, for example. Now they’re working together to figure out how to revive the tradition of wheat farming that Hammond’s ancient mill belies.

“When Sonoko approached us with the idea, we saw a real opportunity. Because usually we use wheat as a cover crop—we’re lucky if we break even with a cover crop,” Weiser said when I visited him recently. A cold-weather crop of green and purple cabbages stand outs against a bright blue sky on a crisp autumn morning, the fields framed by a horizon broken up by Tehachapi Mountains. Both properties are idyllic like this—something out of a children’s book. “But if we can grow something in our crop rotation that can turn a profit, that’s great for us.”

Hammond also spoke of the convenient sustainability of heritage grains: “We dry farmed this crop,” he said while scooping a handful of harvested Sonora wheat and sifting it through his hands. That means this wheat-growing effort didn’t expend any of the ever-scarce irrigation water. “It takes very little out of the soil and it’s something you plant anyway. It just makes sense.”

But if you grow it, will they come? These farmers say yes, definitely. Weiser in particular has been front and center in what he calls, the “farmers market economy,” and has unofficially tracked the buying habits of these discriminating palates for decades. Weiser is always looking to diversify the varieties of crops he grows, looking for both new flavors and markets. “I remember when the choices were Red Delicious or Golden Delicious, iceberg or romaine, russet, or Idaho. Now farmers markets have this whole new group of consumers who want more than that. It’s exciting.”

Weiser doesn’t just want to grow a bit of Red Fife for the fun of it—he wants to build a grain hub in California, which is quite an undertaking. Hammond is lucky enough to have inherited some vintage equipment to process grains, but they are as novel as they are in need of repair. Still, it’s a connection to an agricultural history that isn’t too far in the past—and could provide them with a framework to build a future awash in organic Sonora wheat flour.

After talking to Sakai, Weiser, and Jullapat, I now understand the excitement in Hammond’s voice as he led me past his inherited equipment. They are all excited to see the labor of love bear fruit, no matter what. “It takes a lot of people to make this happen,” notes Sakai. “We had another farmer who donated his old combine to harvest the wheat, but it broke down in the middle of the field.”

So now there’s a combine to fix, as well as fields to harvest. It’s all part of creating a California grain hub: A network of hard-working people helping each other out to put old ideas that are new again to practice, using old grain equipment and even older grain varieties to develop a new market economy hungry for diversity, flavor, and change.