Green Mountains and Amber Waves
By: Cheryl Bruce
Over the past few years, many Vermonters have embraced the local foods movement. Farmers’ markets are thriving, community supported agriculture shares are growing, and local grass-fed meat, pastured poultry, farm fresh eggs, and other products have become more widely available. But one of the challenges the local eater finds is the limited availability of some staple foods not widely grown in Vermont, such as nuts and seeds (which are pressed into cooking oil) and grains and flour. The eater may ask, ‘Why doesn’t my local bread have more local flour?’
Randy George of Red Hen Bakery in Duxbury, who purchases local organic grains for his breads, says there are significant challenges in place that prevent a Vermont business like his from making bread entirely from local organic wheat. One challenge, he says, is that the production of local organic grains is in an early stage and still evolving.
To illustrate this, George said Red Hen has been purchasing organic, whole wheat flour from Ben Gleason of Bridport for the past seven years. Gleason grows organic wheat and other grains and has a small on-farm mill where he processes grains into flour. George estimates his bakery buys about 15,000 pounds of whole wheat flour from Gleason each year. Depending on the bread, Gleason’s flour can make up 10 to 25 percent of a finished product, but for the rest, Red Hen must turn to out-of-state growers to meet its flour needs. When George can source locally, though, he does. Late last summer, he connected with Tom Kenyon of Charlotte, who planned to grow a test plot of wheat and, depending on the results, may grow some for the bakery next year.
King Arthur Flour, arguably Vermont’s most famous flour company, is also thinking of selling some locally-sourced flour, most likely at its flagship store in Norwich. According to the company’s media relations coordinator, one reason King Arthur has not used local wheat in its products is because it believes that most Vermont wheat, as it is grown today, would not be consistent enough to meet its standards. (Having a high level of consistency from one batch of flour to another is necessary for making quality bread.)
Reading this, then, the local eater may ask, ‘Why don’t farmers just grow more wheat and aim for consistency to meet demand?’ Wheat, however, is a challenging crop to grow in Vermont. Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, who plants over 20 acres of wheat, notes that the crop is a heavy feeder and needs a good soil with good fertility. (As an organic producer, Lazor relies on a legume and clover plow-down crop to put the needed nitrogen back into the soil.) The other challenge, Lazor notes, is the fungal disease Fusarium. The risk of the disease infecting grain crops increases greatly during wet seasons. In addition, seed selections for cereal grains are often very limited for Vermont’s growing conditions. The available varieties are adapted for areas of the country that have much hotter and drier climates and different soils.
To address these production challenges, Lazor and Dr. Heather Darby, an agronomist with the University of Vermont Extension, applied for a sustainable agriculture grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to breed new varieties of wheat suitable to local growing conditions. They were awarded the grant, and this past spring Lazor and Darby planted 19 varieties of spring wheat at Butterworks Farm and evaluated the positive and negative characteristics of each variety. Based on these evaluations, they decided which varieties to cross breed.
To learn how to do this, Lazor and Darby, along with Seth Johnson, a farmer from Glover, traveled to Washington State University to study with one of the country’s premier wheat breeders. They took the skills they learned there back to Vermont. Darby notes that the breeding didn’t go quite as well as they had hoped it would this year. Perfect weather is needed at the time of pollination, and this year’s wet and humid mid-summer days negatively impacted the ability to make successful crosses. But Darby says valuable information on breeding was nevertheless gained and that next season they will re-trial the varieties for more potential crossing. If all goes well, those crosses will produce a seed. Those seeds will then be grown out and those next-generation plants will be evaluated. The hope is that these new varieties may yield a selection adapted to growing in Vermont, with both disease resistance and a good yield.
While this project may seem like a novelty to many people, it’s interesting to note that Vermont was once known for its wheat production. In the mid-1800s, approximately 40,000 acres of wheat were in production from the Champlain Valley through Orleans County. In fact, at that time, the country’s premier wheat breeder, Dr. Cyrus Pringle, resided at UVM. Dr. Pringle developed three varieties of wheat, each of which were planted as part of the Butterworks variety trial in 2007.
Many people might not realize that all wheat is not the same. To start, there is spring wheat and winter wheat. As the name suggests, all the planting for spring wheat is done in the spring, ideally as early as April. Winter wheat is planted in the fall. Fall planting allows the wheat to become established before going dormant, which gives it a jumpstart on the next season. Lazor says winter wheat has better baking qualities but spring wheat has the better flavor.
Wheat is also classified as white or red and hard or soft, plus any combination of each. For example, there is soft red wheat, which Lazor notes makes up most of the commercial wheat on the market. He prefers soft white wheat, and said that although it is the most disease prone, it makes the best-tasting pastry flour.
Through continued evaluation, selection and breeding, wheat varieties may be developed that thrive on Vermont’s farms. It’s possible that wheat may again become a significant crop in the state, leading to its increased availability as a local product.
Cheryl Bruce works for Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), the certification branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.