There is no flour shortage in America.
Outside the taut supply chains of industrialized food, small flour mills are working double-time to fill fresh flour orders for dedicated fans and a new crowd of bakers. And while these local millers have been around for generations, it took a pandemic to reveal them as alternatives to the dominant grain system. Today, having a relationship with nearby grain farmers seems like a more secure route to bread than it was just a month ago
Industrial milling and factory baking set the standards for what gets grown, and the global marketplace sets the price. Farmers are servants to massive debts they’ve had to take on to purchase equipment, and each year they borrow more money just to pay for inputs, labor, and other expenses.
The Trump administration’s trade wars tanked commodity prices, but agricultural economics have been fragile for decades. The price for a bushel of wheat in November 1980 was $5.34. Right now, it is $5.40 a bushel—and falling steadily.
Outside of this industrial baking complex, there exists a world of farmer-cultivated grain systems that not only address the limited choices farmers face inside the conventional system, but also produce delicious, fresh flour, which is generally stoneground and full of the fat and flavor that industrial processing strips away. And it is as different from its supermarket cousin as a tree-ripened peach is from a can of cling peaches.
From my first bite 10 years ago, the flavor of whole-grain, stoneground flour was so vibrant that I was compelled to investigate. I learned about Farmer Ground Flour, a mill started by two farmers in Ithaca, New York, who wanted a place to sell their crops. I visited Maine Grains, a mill built in a former jail, started by a group of neighbors who wanted to create opportunities for farmers to rebuild the Maine breadbasket. I wrote a book about these projects, and am a cheerleader for the regional grain movement, as evidenced by the 75 pounds of flour I just got in the mail. (This is a normal amount for me, not apoca-shopping.)
People who are just awakening to the promise of regional grains will be surprised to see just how many exist, how well-rooted they are—and how they’re ready to supply you with grains that will change your life.
Amber Waves of Regional Grain
There are many community grains, produced, processed, and distributed within local and regional value chains that remain intact despite the pandemic. Community Grains is the brand name of a Northern California grain system, and the informal term adopted by other grain pioneers, including legendary Montana farmer Bob Quinn and beginning farmers Halee and John Wepking.
By adapting food systems to a regional scale, farmer-leaders like Bob, Halee, and John are taking risks to better support and care for the land they steward from the ground to the bank. They’re giving consumers an opportunity to buy staple crops that invest in soil health, water quality, and carbon sequestration while offering skilled jobs that employ local folks—on the farm, at the mill, and in craft bakeries.
The WSU Bread Lab breeds wheat for taste and place, not the demands of the industrial food system. Director Stephen Jones speaks of growing grains outside of the grain belts, and of keeping farm products and dollars circulating within a region. Globally, groups are working to rebuild grain farms and grain-based enterprises rooted right where they are. One of these groups, the Colorado Grain Chain, describes it as “community, not commodity.”
A few projects in the major wheat-growing region of eastern Washington illustrate these two faces of grains. Most of the state’s crops are sold at harvest and often head for the Asian noodle market, but direct-marketing alternatives also exist. One of these, The Grain Shed in Spokane, is a bakery, mill, and brewery that started with a single farm. A few larger farms are selling some of their production in the standard fashion, but have built cleaning and storage facilities to sell some grain directly to customers, ton by ton.
The pandemic is creating opportunities to strengthen emerging local supply chains, in grains and every other food sector.
That may sound like a lot, but in the grain business it’s a drop in the bucket. And although providing (relatively) small amounts of barley and wheat to brewers and bakers in Seattle and Portland may be a pricey trickle of their output, these farmers find it worth the trouble—and a way to avoid at least some of the punishments of the uncontrollable markets and invisible consumers the commodities market has created.
The Rise of Regional Mills, Everywhere
More mills are answering such insecurity. Existing companies like Meadows Mills, Osttiroler Getreidemühlen, and Jansen Grist Mills are already serving community-scale grain systems, and so are two new ones. The Danish company Quartzmill has a handful of mills built or already in the works in America and Europe. New American Stone Mills, a Vermont company that started in 2015, already has 77 mills in North America, Australia, and Europe, as well as eight more underway. Right now, they’re getting daily inquiries as bakers watch the existing supply chain falter.
The pandemic is creating many similar opportunities to make changes that will strengthen emerging local supply chains, in grains and every other food sector, too. Empty supermarket shelves have meant less surplus bread, and food pantries have been out of this basic food for weeks. In response to this crisis, as we’re seeing in every corner of the food system, bakers’ groups are stepping up.
For instance, the Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC) recently launched a bread donation project Neighbor Loaves, which gives eaters the chance to purchase extra loaves of bread for food pantries. The bread is baked with flour from neighbor farms and mills, and fills in some of the holes in the currently gutted food system.
The bakeries offering Neighbor Loaves are charging full retail price for the donation bread. This ensures that these businesses will be able to pay rent, staff, and most critically, be able to afford the more-expensive flour from local mills, which supports nearby farms. The program is two weeks old and has already resulted in production of more than 3500 loaves, establishing temporary security for all layers of the local grain supply chain. AGC is working on launching a local tortilla donation program, too, and groups in the Northeast, Northwest, and Mid-Atlantic are starting their own Neighbor Loaves platforms
You can help, too: Join the fresh flour revolution! Order a bag of flour from a small mill or milling bakery, and make some pancakes with your family. (I keep a running list of mills on my website, and Grinder Finder offers another, international list.) Ask your local bakery if they want to start a Neighbor Loaves program. Buying from, and getting your local baker to support, regional mills and farms will keep these essential businesses going strong—and will drive home the fact that flour, just like other fresh foods, can come from nearby.
Top photo: Sparrow Bush Farm’s Neighbor Loaf. (Photo courtesy of Sparrow Bush Farm)