Lessons from the Front Line: Building a Local Grain Economy

A couple of weeks ago, a farmer, a baker and a community grains maker gathered at Oliveto in Oakland, CA to give the Kitchen Table Talks audience the low down on local grains.  Doug Mosel of The Mendocino Grain Project, Craig Pondsford of Pondsford’s Place Bakery & Innovation Center and Bob Klein of Community Grains taught us about the industrial grain economy, the local alternatives and the current barriers to expansion.  There were, it seems, three big take-aways:

  1. The industrial grain system is highly concentrated and is feeding you, more or less, milled starch.
  2. The local grain economy is in its infancy, and needs some serious infrastructure to grow.
  3. Local grains taste better and are probably better for you.

Our presenters explained all of this in greater detail. We’ll try to summarize for you here.

The Industrial Grain Economy

The industrial grain economy is dominated by just a handful of players. Per our speakers, only about 5 companies mill most of the flour in this country. With the advent of the roller mill in the 1880s, industrial millers were able to turn out a cheap, shelf-stable, homogenous product. To do so, they had to separate the endosperm (starch) from the bran (fiber and fatty acids) and germ (fatty acids, nutrients, and protein). The bran and germ are utilized in other products and so what you are left with in industrial flour is milled endosperm. Or, “a big bag of starch” as farmer Doug Mosel puts it. This product has its benefits (it is shelf-stable and cheap) but is also fairly devoid of nutrients and flavor. Industrial “whole grain” products aren’t much better. Industrial whole grain flours are produced in the same manner as white flour, but the bran is added back in after milling. This leaves you with the whole grain flour used to make those heavy, cardboard tasting whole-grain pastas and such that many consumers complain about when they say they don’t like whole grain products. Bob Klein told us about the complex taste and the superior quality of true whole grain products. With Community Grains, Klein has been developing whole grain pasta, flour and more using the entire grain–the endosperm, the bran and the germ. The resulting products are light and flavorful and have been a big hit with restaurant customers and grocery store shoppers alike.

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Local Grains Need Local Infrastructure

Klein’s company, Community Grains, is dedicated to building the supply chain from local producers to local consumers.  There is a definite need for grain processing infrastructure.  Post harvest, grains need to be cleaned, milled and stored properly.  There are very few facilities in Northern California for a small-scale grain farmer to take their product. As grain farmer Doug Mosel can attest, even the few small, local mills have minimum quantities.  It can be a challenge for very small producers to meet these minimums. Mosel and other farmers in the area are working to develop a North Coast Grains Network to pool their resources and energy and develop the necessary processing infrastructure, but it is challenging as there is very little small-scale grain processing equipment out there for sale since most grain processing these days takes place in large facilities. There is, however, plenty of demand for local grains, which is encouraging Mosel and other farmers to expand their acreage.  He has been successful selling shares of the Mendocino Grains Project not only directly to consumers, but also to natural foods co-ops and local bakeries.

Local Grains Tastes Better, and May Be Better For You 

While accessing local grains can be a difficult, it is well worth it. Craig Pondsford of Pondsford’s Place talked about the pleasure of working with local, heritage grains. Heritage grains offer unique flavors that simply cannot be found in industrial flours. They also do not “perform” the same as industrial flours- working with heritage grains is more art than science, for a baker. To do so, however, requires a unique business model for a bakery. Pondsford’s Place is only open a few days a week and bakes a small quantity of products. In order to devote the time and patience required to work with heritage grains, Pondsford says you can’t be churning out hundreds of loaves of bread, seven days a week. But, he says it is well worth it–the flavor of heritage grains is far superior. Mosel thinks grains that are grown more slowly, in tune with the land and natural water availability could be better for you than grains that are force-fed nitrogen fertilizers and watered heavily. Kind of like the difference between dry-farmed tomatoes and irrigated tomatoes–stressing the crop produces more complex flavors and nutrients.

All in all, it was a great afternoon at Oliveto and a unique chance to learn from those so deeply involved in local grains. We have a long way to go towards building a local grain economy, but our three speakers demonstrated that there is a lot of passion and energy devoted to grains right here in the Bay Area.

Photo: Sunrise over a field of grain, by Shutterstock

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  1. Monday, July 2nd, 2012
    Great article! I had no idea how the processing of grains worked where they basically strip everything into parts, even for Whole Grain wheat! No wonder why grain sensitivities are soaring.

    I'm just loving the idea of local grains and will definitely support them in every way I can from here on out. Thanks!