Tobacco Farmers Are Earning Their Daily Bread Growing Grain for Artisanal Bakers

North Carolina’s restaurants and bakeries are getting local wheat from an unlikely source.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 10, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Kaitlyn Goalen is a writer, editor, and cook based in Brooklyn and Raleigh, N.C. She is the editor and co-founder of Short Stack Editions, a series of single-subject, digest-size cookbooks, and has contributed to a variety of national publications.

It can be complicated to argue for the upside of tobacco, for obvious reasons: The infamous nightshade’s main use leads to, among other things, death. But in North Carolina, certain tobacco farms are associated with an entirely benign, even beneficial outcome—artisan bread.

Yes, you read that correctly. In a roundabout way, the cigarette industry and the local-food movement have common ground. It’s a connection almost impossible to fathom when faced with the gorgeous boules at La Farm bakery, in Cary, North Carolina.

Though his boulangerie is in the heart of American tobacco country, French baker Lionel Vatinet uses locally grown grains almost exclusively in his shop to bake his beloved breads. The signature sourdough loaf is a five-pound stunner, with a dark, yeasty crust and an earthy interior. Just about the only thing it would appear to have in common with tobacco is its burnished color.

Baker Lionel Vatinet, Jennifer Lapidus, and Billy Carter discuss their partnership. (Photo: Jennifer Lapidus)

The paradox is in keeping with North Carolina’s overall relationship with tobacco, which has for centuries been characterized by deep ambivalence. The state was the seat of tobacco farming and manufacture in the United States for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the biggest cities, including Durham and Winston-Salem, were constructed largely with tobacco money. Just as tobacco created in North Carolina, so too did it destroy: As the domestic market began to shrink starting in the 1960s because of emerging health concerns, cigarette companies began to downsize and shift operations overseas, leaving entire counties out of work and former tobacco capitals in decades-long recessions.

Tobacco is still the dominant crop in the state—with 182,000 acres planted in 2013—but the economics of its production have shifted considerably. With a 50 percent drop in American smokers between 1965 and 2006, the domestic market for tobacco has dwindled substantially. Furthermore, price supports and cash subsidies for farmers dried up when the federal tobacco quotas program ended in 2004. The move led many smaller farmers to cease tobacco cultivation altogether and move into different crops, such as sweet potatoes. Middle- and larger-scale farms made up for the monetary loss caused by cut subsidies by increasing their acreage by buying up smaller farms such that the average size of North Carolina tobacco farms has quadrupled in the last decade.

This shift in the state’s dominant ag industry resulted in some fantastic bread, thanks in large part to Jennifer Lapidus, founder of Carolina Ground, a local artisan grain mill in Asheville that supplies flour to restaurants and bakeries across the Southeast.

Burned out after spending 14 years as a baker, Lapidus was ready to hang up her apron in the late aughts. But then she heard about a new varietal of hard-bread wheat being developed in Raleigh by the USDA, one that could grow well in the Southeast. The only wheat grown for production on the Eastern Seaboard until that point had been soft pastry wheat, and the thought of bread made from locally grown wheat lit a spark.

“I had always felt this huge gap between bakers and their most essential ingredient. I was inspired to fill the void,” she said.

(Photo: John Dickson)

Lapidus got on the phone to call the public wheat breeder, David Marshall, who had been conducting the wheat trials in conjunction with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Raleigh since 2002. After trying a sample of the wheat in question, the sexily named TAM 303, she knew that it needed to be available to bakers like her. So she wrote a grant proposal seeking funding for a program that would link local farmers to this seed and create a network of local buyers. “The proposal was basically connecting the dots. I wanted to close the gap between farmer and baker, create a market for these wheats, get bakeries to change their buying habits, get growers to plant this seed,” she recalled.

Lapidus passed the grant around to wheat breeders at USDA and NC State University, and it ended up on the desk of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, an organic agriculture advocacy group, which hired her to take on the project under the umbrella of its organization. With the assistance of the CFSA and its director, Roland McReynolds, Lapidus went after ag grants and other resources, many of which, in North Carolina, have ties to tobacco.

In 2008, she received funding to start the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project from two entities: the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company. The commission directs funds paid out by major cigarette companies as part of a large settlement deal in 1998 in which 46 states sued the four major tobacco companies for health and economic damages caused by their products. It awards grants to programs that assist current or former tobacco farmers and those displaced from tobacco-related careers. Santa Fe Natural Tobacco, which owns American Spirits, came on board because the company works with the CFSA to support initiatives in crops that work in rotation with tobacco, which, to be certified organic, can only be planted every third year, according to USDA standards.

With funding and a coalition of support that included Marshall at the USDA-ARS, a team of wheat breeders at NC State University, and a handful of local bakers, Lapidus set about finding farmers who would be willing to grow some of this new wheat.

Billy Carter, a third-generation tobacco farmer from Eagle Springs, N.C., was one of the first growers to sow fields of TAM 303 for Lapidus. His father, who had lived on a tobacco farm with his uncle growing up, had a small farm that supported a family of seven children with tobacco crops. “It used to be that there were lots of small tobacco farmers,” Carter recalled. “A small acreage of tobacco would support your family. You could even send your kids to college. It wasn’t a bad living.”

By the time Carter, 53, entered the family trade in 1983, that was no longer the case. The land he farms is very sandy and requires lots of irrigation to even produce lower-than-average yields. Compounded with tobacco’s declining market, Carter knew the margins on conventional tobacco crops would be too slim. So he did two things: increased the size of his farm to 1,500 acres, and, starting in 1998, began transitioning pieces of it to certified organic practices. When the quotas program ended six years later, Carter was pulling a higher price for organic tobacco grown on larger acreage.

By the late 2000s, with half his land certified organic, Carter was put in touch with Lapidus while he was looking for organic crops that he could rotate between his tobacco plantings. He was the perfect candidate: The high price fetched by his organic tobacco—about twice as much as what he made per pound for conventionally grown tobacco—the majority of which he sold to Santa Fe Tobacco, meant that there was room to experiment, a luxury afforded to few farmers.

Also, wheat and tobacco are phenomenal partners in the field; most farmers, organic and conventional alike, grow commodity wheat in tobacco fields as a cover crop. “Because tobacco is a high-value crop, we tend to treat it as well as we can,” said Carter. “It gets lots of organic fertilizer, and there’s always nutrients left after the harvest. Wheat is an excellent scavenger of that; it’s very good at mining the nutrients that tobacco leaves behind.”

Meanwhile, Lapidus focused on filling in the remaining pieces of the food supply chain to ensure that Carter and others like him had a premium market for the crop. She organized pilot programs with bakeries and, in 2012, launched Carolina Ground, a mill to process the wheat and sell the flour in larger volumes. By this point, two more hard wheats conducive to growing in the Southeast, NuEast and Appalachian White, were both released by Marshall. Lapidus also convinced farmers, including Carter, to plant rye and some food-grade (as opposed to the more commonly planted feed-grade) soft wheat for pastry flour. Last year, Carter harvested about 150 acres of organic wheat and 100 acres of organic rye, with the bulk of it earmarked for Lapidus.

Lapidus has brought more farmers into the fold, sponsoring the expansion of a new seed variety with additional grant money and connecting other buyers, such as the Riverbend Malt House, an ingredient supplier for microbrewers in Asheville, to this local grain economy. She also sells her flour online and to a growing group of bakers. Rob Segovia-Welch of Chicken Bridge Bakery in Pittsboro, North Carolina, uses Carolina Ground flours for bread, scones, muffins, and pie crust.

“They’re amazing grains,” he said. “They’ve truly changed the character of our breads.”