Monday, March 31, 2014

And another post!!

If you've been following this blog for awhile, you already know a good bit of our backstory-- that Carolina Ground Flour Mill (and it's predecessor, the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project) was very much a response to the fact the we suddenly had bread wheat varieties that could be grown in the Southeast. Dr David Marshall of the USDA-ARS based in Raleigh, began the Uniform Bread Wheat Trials back in the early 2000s and by 2008, the first varieties of bread wheats were being released, exhibiting strong disease package and yield in the field, and good performance in the bakery (see post). Dr Marshall is a public breeder and the Uniform Bread Wheat trials is a public breeding project. In a world of agribusiness where private breeds have become the norm-- GMOs taking this to a whole other level-- the ability to work with a public breeder, old school breeding (no GMOs), to launch a flour mill, and begin connecting farmer with baker-- existing outside the global commodities market/ finding real and sustainable pricing-- is a pretty extraordinary thing. Because of this mill and other similar efforts nationwide, bakeries are changing/expanding their buying practices. For us, the push to launch a regional flour mill came from our bakeries here in the Carolinas, and our story continues to unfold. The bakers have had great results with our flours. Extraordinary looking (and tasting) breads have been produced as a result of this mill (AND our growers and the fine work of our bakeries). 

But what about pastry wheat?  

North Carolina grows more soft wheat (soft wheat is pastry wheat; hard wheat is bread wheat) than any other Southern state. Most of it lands at the grain elevator, blended into obscurity, and from there, the majority heads to the feed mill. What is traditionally grown in the Carolinas is a soft RED wheat. 

We are a food grade market interested in variety, flavor profile, and performance (in the bakery). We stone grind, and so even our most sifted flours are relatively dark in color. Some months back I asked Dr Marshall about soft WHITE wheats-- lacking the tannin (and resulting bitterness) of red wheats, and he encouraged me to call Dr Paul Murphy, a soft wheat breeder at NCSU (another public breeder).  And bingo--Dr Murphy did produce a variety of soft white wheat but he said there was no market for it. I told him WE ARE A MARKET. He sent me a sample of which I shared with Riverbend Malt House. We were both satisfied, so Dr Murphy sent the 40lbs of seed he had to the Rocky Mount research station to be grown out as foundation seed. We convinced Dr Daryl Bowman of NC Foundation Seed to not spray down the seed with Storicide post harvest so we could get the seed in the hands of an organic grower. If all goes well with harvest, Looking Back Farms in Tyner, NC will get the foundation seed of this soft white wheat come June, and plant 14 acres to produce a double certified seed-- that is, certified seed that is also certified organic-- this will be a seed source for 2015 planting season. 

I was asked by Dr Murphy if we want this to be a private breed or public breed. I said definitely a public breed. It's not just about the market-- Carolina Ground-- but about the growers having various markets and that various markets decide to buy from our growers instead of importing from the Midwest.  

And so from that simple loaf of bread and our intention to close the gap between farmer, miller, and baker, we now have this. We will have expanded seed varieties that grow well in the Southeast and work well in a food grade application-- as bread, beer, spirits, miso, a pilaf... They have offered to allow us to name the variety too, so if anyone has a great idea, send it my way: 

Once last thing-- we-- Carolina Ground-- are having a fundraising event dinner Saturday, April 12th at All Souls Pizza. This event is partly to raise the funds to pay for the foundation seed (that soft white wheat with no name (yet)) . Should be a great event. Click on the pig for more info and to buy tickets!! Please come.

from the ground up,

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

An Update: What we've learned thus far...

Yes, it has been far too long since my last post. I have not written since wheat harvest of 2013. At that point, there was not much to say beyond the fact that it was a terrible harvest. It was one of the latest harvests on record, and a very wet one at that. There was sprouting in the field, high levels of mycotoxins, and crops that simply did not get harvested because the ground was too wet. Our wheat breeder, Dr Marshall, lost a good bit of his test plots. He said it is to be expected that once every ten years, there will be a bad harvest. This was that year. And yet, we are still here, milling forward.

And so, what we've learned thus far....

#1 Grain that looks vibrant, often is (and vice versa). 

We were lucky with our 2012 crop.  It convinced us that we could do single variety milling (most modern mills blend to spec) maintaining the provenance of the grain, variety, etc. Out the gate we had wheat that could stand alone as a whole grain or sifted product. 2013 wasn't nearly as straightforward. 

#2 Specs don't often equate.  

There are certain defined parameters that most flour mills exist within. We have milling quality standards-- lab tests reveal protein, falling numbers (a test that indicates potential sprout damage), and test weight (average weight in pounds per bushel (weight to volume))-- but regardless of what the lab numbers say, the tell-all for us is the bake test. This past harvest we had lab results that simply fell off the page, and yet some fine loaves were still produced. 
Turkey Red, TAM 303, NuEast hard red wheat harvest
Looking Back Farms, Tyner, NC

#3 Plan to have enough of the previous year's harvest on hand to buy oneself enough time to sort through the new harvest. 

I assessed the harvest available to us-- the brunt was coming from the Sandhills-- Billy Carter's farm in Eagle Springs. Lab results were okay and it performed well enough as a sifted flour, but it lacked the strength to stand alone as a whole grain flour. The grain coming off Looking Back Farms in Tyner had terrible lab results but seemed to perform well, and yet the harvest was minuscule-- not even a full truckload. I thought this would be the year we'd have to import from the Midwest. I called farmer friends in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and contacted the Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative, whose span reaches from Tennessee to Wisconsin. All the while, we were milling what grain we had. We were still working through what remained of 2012 crop. Our 2013 rye crop was in good shape and arrived just as we were finishing up 2012 rye. When we milled the last of our 2012 wheat, we shifted gears. The best of the lot-- Looking Back's wheat-- was devoted solely to whole wheat flour; Carter's crop would be used for our sifted flours. This was the plan until Looking Back's wheat ran out. And at that point, no solid plan was in place. I just wasn't ready (or quite willing) to commit to importing wheat. 

I literally found myself counting the totes while counting down the weeks... and then the days. I knew I needed to make a decision. Do we import? Carter Farms still had two more truckloads of wheat in the bin--  about what we needed to make it through the year, but could the bakers work with this wheat as a whole grain flour (the brunt of what we mill)? 
Ive always felt that beyond connecting our farmers with our bakers, our charge has been to produce the highest quality product-- fresh flour, cold stone milled-- a flour of provenance AND of quality. Quality has to exist, or we may easily find ourselves in the ranks with other 'local' products we all secretly wish were coming from California (Napa Valley, that it..).
I finally milled some of Carter's wheat into whole wheat flour and distributed samples amongst some of my favorite local bakers-- Dave Workman of Flat Rock Village Bakery, Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Bakery, Dave Bauer of Farm and Sparrow Bakery and Cathy Cleary of West End Bakery to perform bake tests  All four bakers came back with the same feedback which equated to a resounding thumbs up! This flour had received a thumbs down a few months earlier, so we-- including grower Billy Carter-- were all very excited to witness the improvement.

#4 Yay! Grain improves with age!

Stickboy Bread Company, Boone, NC
Chicken Bridge Bakery, Pittsboro, NC

Independent Baking Company, Athens, GA
La Farm Baery, Cary, NC