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What comes to mind when someone mentions “local food”? Chances are, it’s not the grain that went into making bread, even if you buy the loaf at a farmers’ market. In the modern consumer mind, grain exists at several removes.

The Artisan Grain Collaborative, which came together in Chicago in 2016, plans to change that. “Bringing grain into the local food conversation is a game changer,” declares Karen Lehman of Fresh Taste, a member. As a dynamic advocate for regenerative agriculture through the cultivation and consumption of small grains – including barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, rye, spelt and wheat – the Collaborative connects breeders and farmers with millers, bakers, urban chefs and consumers across the Upper Midwest. One such grain, grown, milled and baked by several Collaborative members, stands tall.

Turkey Red Wheat

Turkey Red Wheat first came to the United States in the 1870s, when Ukrainian Mennonites packed their best seed into trunks and migrated to Kansas. By the end of the century, this hardy winter wheat had transformed the Great Plains into America’s breadbasket. Millions of Americans took for granted the distinctive, nutty taste of Turkey Red Wheat, which has higher protein levels and a more complex flavor because parts of the wheat berry (or kernel) are left in after milling. But progress being progress, the ‘amber waves’ of Turkey Red were bred into shorter, higher-yielding varieties, and the original disappeared from our pantries.

But not completely. Thanks to the efforts of small grain farmers such as Ben Penner, of Collaborative member Penner Farms, Turkey Red did not go extinct. At the Minnesota Artisan Grain Gathering organized by Renewing the Countryside in March 2019, Ben explained his predilection for a grain that once appeared on pennies: “I farm wheat organically for my kids and their kids; it’s the best way to care for the land. My Ukrainian ancestors planted Turkey Red when they settled in this region.”

But it’s not just about heritage, as Harold Wilkens of Janie’s Farm can testify. Harold, who made the switch to organic farming years ago, cultivates Turkey Red along with buckwheat, spelt and rye. Bakers gravitate to Turkey Red for its exceptional flavor – and a premium taste, after all, commands a premium price. Heritage and profit is a great combination.

The small grain value chain is about human relationships, too. The Artisan Grain Collaborative is built upon relationships of trust. Diversifying the grains market beyond mass-produced, all-purpose flour is challenging. Introducing a new crop to a regional farm often requires a partner like a university research program, or a buyer like a bakery, who will commit to seeing the farmer through the research and development phase of the heritage grain. This can take years of working together, and a handshake may mean more than a signed contract.

The Power of the Baker 

Outreach to culinary professionals and consumers is vital to closing the loop. The Collaborative offers courses in how to bake and cook with heritage grains, as well as a Bread Camp, where students learn how to use flours from varieties such as Turkey Red in baked goods. Members appear at events like this summers’ book club with Slow Food Chicago, which has listed Turkey Red on the Slow Food Ark of Taste – a catalog of delicious and distinctive food ingredients that need a little help to stay “in production and on our plates”.

The Collaborative was also involved in the Food Forever Experience in Chicago in July 2019 – presenting the case for small heritage grains, as well as baking with them. In addition to Turkey Red, this Experience highlighted several heritage grains and cereals and brought attention to the chefs who are celebrating them in their bakeries. Chefs such as Ellen King of Hewn Bakery and Greg Wade of Publican Quality Bread are well-known in the region for championing ingredients like Glenn Wheat, roasted Iroquois corn and einkorn wheat. Ellen’s roasted Iroquois country bread and Greg’s sorghum sourdough danish with nettles showcased the unique tastes these local products can bring to the table.

There are many reasons to revive heritage grains in local food systems. Diversity adds texture, flavor and nutrients to our diets, as well as choice for those of us who suffer from gluten-sensitivity or other allergies. Varieties like Turkey Red can also form part of a critical response to climate change: they can be grown without pesticides, farmed regeneratively to add nutrients back into the soil, and can support the livelihoods of small, independent farmers. Today, corn and soy production used mainly for the feed and fuel markets still accounts for over 30 times the acreage of cropland used to grow small grains in the Midwest. But the story of Turkey Red demonstrates how we might turn the tide – and get a tastier slice of bread into the bargain.

A baker’s dozen of hot ‘new’ grains and flours for baking aficionados 

  • Red Fife Wheat (Janie’s Mill, IL)
  • Yellow Flint Polenta (Meadowlark Organics, WI)
  • Spelt Flour (Meadowlark Organics, WI)
  • Organic Hullless Oats (Brian Severson Farms)
  • Bloody Butcher Red Dent Cornmeal (Brian Severson Farms, IL)
  • Blue Hopi Cornmeal (Brian Severson Farms, IL)
  • White Sonora Heritage Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (Sunrise Flour Mill, MN)
  • Turkey Red Heritage Pizza Flour (Sunrise Flour Mill, MN)
  • Einkorn Flour (Meuer Farm, WI)
  • Emmer Flour (Meuer Farm, WI)
  • Buckwheat Flour (Lonesome Stone Milling, WI)
  • Organic Whole Grain Rye Flour (Lonesome Stone Milling, WI)
  • Cornbread Mix, organic yellow flint corn & hard red winter wheat (Lonesome Stone Milling, WI)
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