Thursday, June 18, 2009

NC-Grown Organic Wheat- from field to bread

Wheat harvest in NC is fully underway, most of it soft wheat, with some hard wheat, and the hope to see more and more hard wheat grown throughout the state. Soft wheat-- wheat with lower protein used for pastries, cookies, biscuits (usually not bread)—is the wheat traditionally grown east of the Mississippi. In 2007, 560,000 acres of wheat (most all of it soft) were planted in NC and over 24 million bushels were harvested, used mostly for feed, with a small amount going to food-grade mills. Hard wheat, aka bread wheat, has not traditionally been a successful grain in the Southeast due to our humidity that causes disease in the field which affects both yield, and performance quality in the bakery. But beginning in 2002, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service began a program to identify and breed wheat having hard (bread wheat) quality for production in the humid environments of the eastern U.S.. For the identification phase of this program, varieties and advanced breeding lines were obtained from breeders in the Great Plains (principally Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado) and tested in Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Several hard wheats were identified that had the yield, disease resistance, and grain quality needed for production in the eastern U.S. From those wheat trials, TAM 303 (Texas A&M 303) was the first of the hard wheats to be released. This year two more varieties-- a hard red and a hard white—will be released.
A couple weeks ago, on Thursday June 11th, a group made up of mostly interested growers with a few bakers thrown in the mix, gathered in Waynesville, NC, at the Mountain Research Station to view the wheat trials of UDSA wheat breeder, Dr David Marshall. Presented as part of the “New Marketing Opportunities for NC Farmers” grant proposal funded by Golden LEAF Foundation and administered by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in conjunction with NCSU and USDA, this event, the "NC-Grown Organic Wheat- from field to bread” enabled the pubic to both view the trials and hear from Dr Marshall, as well as Dr Chris Reberg-Horton, organic crop specialist and Assistant Professor, NCSU, and (me) Jennifer Lapidus, Project Coordinator of the NC Organic Bread Flour Project.
Dr Marshall began his talk by pointing out why we are able to gather in this field and view wheat, that public breeding still takes place with small grains—wheat, barley, and oats—as opposed to corn and soybeans, which are controlled by private corporations. Both federal and state tax dollars are used to support breeding of small grains and variety development is done through public institutions. Coupled with my last blog entry that linked to the press release—“Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Wheat Rejected Globally: Groups Respond to Industry Plans for GE Wheat” – one begins to understand the crossroads by which we find ourselves. In the last fifty years a lot has changed in agriculture. Public sector versus private sector is a significant piece of the puzzle. If/when Genetically Engineered (GE) wheat is approved certain genes can then be patented and our public breeders will no longer have access to these genes. We are lucky to have Dr Marshall, and these trials of wheat here in NC.
Dr Marshall’s rows of wheat contain both old and modern varieties, soft and hard. Old varieties such as Federation and Red Fife grow next to newer varieties such as Dual, Hondo, ARS03-3806 and ARS505-1234. Traits that he is observing in the field include disease resistance, maturity time, lodging (this is when the wheat falls over, making it impossible to harvest mechanically) and yield. The bakers want flavor and performance, something that cannot be detected in the field (except if it rains too much right before harvest, which can cause sprouting in the field, which in turn can affect performance by causing an increase in alpha amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch. But the weather is something we cannot control...)
Dr Chris Reberg-Horton discussed the challenges we face getting the grain from field to bread. Beyond the growing of the wheat, there is the cleaning and storing of the grain. Growers that have already been growing soft wheat in NC and would like to grow hard wheat for a better price point, may have harvester thresher combine equipment, but may not have proper grain storage. Most of the wheat grown in the state has traditionally gone to the feed mill; quality wheat and quality grain storage is essential for food-grade wheat growing. These are the pieces that I am looking at as well, as i try and forge relationships between growers and bakers-- what does it take to get that grain from the field into the bakery? Wheat is harvested in June and must be stored in the hottest most humid time of the year. Grain stores better if it is clean. And if we want to create a truly NC flour, we need to be able to store NC wheat separate from imported wheat-- mills traditionally store grain by grade, not locality. My job is sort of all over the map-- talking with everybody-- trying to connect the dots...If only wheat from field to bread was as easy as apples to apple sauce...
Dr Reberg-Horton also addressed the challenges and benefits of growing wheat organically. Organic wheat demands a much higher price, but what about weed control and fertilizer? Chris has been conducting organic trials throughout the state looking at green manures and roll-kill/no-till methods for building soil fertility organically.
This talk amongst row of wheat in Waynesville, surrounded by mountains, generated questions about possible wheat growing in WNC. Most all of the wheat in the state is grown everywhere but the western region, because acreage in the mountains is much smaller and to own the harvest threshing combine equipment for less than 30 acres may not be cost effective... But what about the remnants of old grain mills scattered throughout these mountains? People were growing wheat here, on smaller plots, and the smaller equipment to harvest and combine, Dr Reberg-Horton explained, are those strange pieces of equipment gathering dust, covered in cobwebs, tucked back in the back corner of many barns...

Dr Marshall's wheat has been harvested. The next step will be sampling these trials. Samples of TAM 303 and the other two varieties of hard wheat that have been approved for release this year- Nuese East and Appalachian White-- will be sent to mills for lab testing and to bakeries for bake tests. I am coordinating between Dr Marshall, the local bakeries, and Lindley Mills, located in Graham, NC. These local bakeries are a pilot group located in WNC that have agreed to test the wheat: Annies Naturally Bakery, Farm and Sparrow Breads, Westend Bakery, Flat Rock Village Bakery, and Loafchild Bakery. Other bakeries throughout NC have also expressed interest and I am hoping to get samples to these bakeries as well. I will be milling the sample wheat varieties for the bakeries in my mill, stone-ground, whole grain and Joe Lindley, of Lindley Mills is hoping to provide these bakeries a more refined sample to try. After baking and lab tests, the next true test for the grain will be beyond the fifty foot row trials-- into the field-- how will the wheat do in 30 acre and up plots... The TAM 303 has done well thus far on large plots and performs well in the bakery. Thanks to Dr Marshall, we have two more varieties to work with.
So, this is the the formal realm-- agencies, institutions, etc.. the informal realm is what is going on in the community, and on the farms with wheat. I will try and address this somewhat in the next entry.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

on a side note: News on GMO wheat

Small-scale regional grain initiatives continue to spread throughout North America and beyond, with many looking back to the older varieties of wheat-- landrace and heritage -- for genetic traits that show resistance to disease, and also, from the bakers perspective, to these varieties that present flavors and texture not found in modern wheat. Trial plots of wheat, from the USDA'a Agricultural Research Stations to non-profits like Monica Spiller's Whole Grain Connections, academic research such as North Carolina State University's North Carolina Organic Grain Project and Cornell's trials at Willsboro Research Farm, to Eli Rigosa's Northeast Organic Wheat, and those 100 bakery customers in Massachusetts's that planted trials in their backyards, and the work being done at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas-- the list goes on...trials of heritage, landrace and modern wheat, classical breeding, no-till, cover crops, inner plantings-- this is all taking place. And then, on the other side of the coin are multinational agricultural biotechnology corporations such as Monsanto, who continue to strive to introduce Genetically Engineered (GE) wheat. Fresh in the news: Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Wheat Rejected Globally: Groups Respond to Industry Plans for GE Wheat