In the 1980s, for the first time in decades, people started baking their own bread instead of relying on white-sliced, manufactured Wonder Bread-esque products. In Los Angeles, the opening of Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery in 1989 marked a culinary milestone; it was one of the only places that sold handmade bread. Silverton initiated an artisan bread renaissance in Southern California and soon, other people started to follow suit in a movement dubbed “The Bread Revolution.” But now, it’s not enough to be baking your own bread. Bakers have been gravitating toward locally grown wheat, and some of them are taking it a step further by growing their own wheat, milling it themselves, and then baking it.
Some people started out of obligation. New Vineland, a winery, bakery, and farm in Lompoc, began growing their own wheat to comply with regulations at the Santa Barbara farmers’ market. They were not able to sell their bread when they were buying flour because the market requires that most of the ingredients are grown buy the artisan.
For others, it’s passion project. Andrea Crawford of Kenter Canyon Farms in Sun Valley started seed-to-loaf baking in 2013. Crawford has over 30 years of baking and farming experience under her belt.
She maintains there is a huge, huge flavor difference between standard store-bought flour and freshly milled, whole-wheat flours. That difference can be traced to the production method. Whole-wheat flour includes the entire kernel, but most milling companies still separate the bran and germ – the most nutritious parts of the grain – from the endosperm, mill them separately, and recombine them at the end to blend a whole-wheat flour. At Kenter Canyon, they mill the whole kernel, which some researchers say has a synergistic effect and the benefits of these minimally processed flours are greater than the sum of their parts.
“People so often overlook flour but it is the most important ingredient,” Crawford said. “The nutritional and taste benefits will add a lot to any recipe.”
Each type of flour has a distinctive taste; Crawford prefers White Sonora wheat. “It’s nutty and naturally sweet with a beautiful golden color,” she said.
The strain was introduced to the mountain plains of Sonora, Mexico by Spanish missionaries in the 1600s and spread upwards into California. Though it was common on the west coast for many generations, it has not been used for mainstream commercial production since the 1950s. It was replaced by Sonora 64, created by an agronomist named Norman Borlaug who used White Sonora wheat as breeding material. Sonora 64 outpaced the White Sonora due to its higher yield. But with the resurgence of heirloom varieties and focus on local food, more and more farmers are propagating their fields with White Sonora wheat and similar historical strains such as Red Fife.
“I want to make available this product that is very scarce,” she said. “I hope the community at large will adopt it.”
Joining her in this seed-to-loaf movement is Nate Siemens at Fat Uncle Farms, who also uses the White Sonora variety. Siemens has been an almond farmer for years but started growing wheat three years ago. He comes from seven generations of wheat farmers from Germany.
“My grandparents started growing almonds because of wheat and we got into wheat because of almonds.” Siemens said. “Wheat and almonds are symbiotic because almonds need a cover crop and wheat can have trees growing up beside it so they work well together in traditional agricultural settings.”
He currently mills the wheat with a small motorized mill, but will be moving to a stone mill later this year. The wheat is transformed into flour, and the flour is transformed into gorgeous tortillas, breads, and even miracles like whole wheat sour-dough glazed doughnuts.
Growing wheat is not without its challenges, however. Crawford cited the increased people power and machinery needed for harvesting, cleaning, and storing as a significant stumbling block. The wheat harvest and post-harvest is a community effort for many farmers. Siemens has been helping Alex Weiser at Weiser Farms harvest his crop and many co-ops have formed to share information, experience, and machinery. Furthermore, even though White Sonora is drought-resistant and uses a quarter less water than most modern hybrids, the current drought has still affected these farmers.
Tom Shepherd of Shepherd Farms lost his entire wheat crop this year – 15 acres of heirloom varieties – because of the tight water restrictions on his land. Though his White Sonora did better than the other strains and did eventually sprout, it still was not enough to save his crop. Another common problem is wildlife, particularly ground squirrels, which plagues many organic farmers. Crawford lost the first two years of her test plots and had to move locations before her successful harvest in 2013 and Shepherd is planning on moving his crop as well.
But despite the challenges, demand is on the rise and more farmers are happily breaking into the business.
“Wheat is really fun,” Siemens said. “I’d rather do stuff that I enjoy and I love. If people see that as a new way of doing things or an old way that we can reinvest ourselves then that’s great but I’m just happy to do my own thing.”
Whether their motives are sustainability, personal enjoyment, or growing a practical cover crop, these seed-to-loaf producers are adding an important feature to an already vibrant local food movement. And with Sieman’s White Sonora glazed doughnuts now available at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, I think everyone will be happy with this addition.
New Vineland’s breads are available at the Piedrasassi tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and at the Santa Barbara farmers’ market on Saturday. Kenter Canyon Farm products are sold at the Wednesday Santa Monica market and at the Hollywood market at Sunday. Fat Uncle Farms sells their baked goods at the Wednesday Santa Monica market. (Full disclosure: Their doughnuts will be included in next week’s Out of the Box Collective’s Real Food Boxes and many of the above-mentioned products are routinely included in boxes. Order here.)