Grain Elevator: In the Twin Cities, Artisan Grain Use Rises

June 24, 2019

James Beard Award-winning author Beth Dooley on AGC’s Minnesota Grains Gathering and the region’s artisan grains surge


Artisan grains are a vital and growing part of the Minnesota economy. In late March over 50 people—farmers, millers, bakers, makers, brewers, researchers, nonprofits, distributors, and other supply chain partners—came together for the Minnesota Artisan Grain Gathering held at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and organized by Renewing the Countryside, in partnership with Artisan Grain Collaborative, and with the support of a number of other organizations and individuals. AGC asked author and AGC member Beth Dooley, to write about the state of artisan grains in Minnesota and outcomes of the gathering. Below is an essay that has been adapted and updated from one that Dooley published March 27 for City Paper.

By Beth Dooley

Setting the Stage

Ask James Beard Award winning pastry chef Emily Marks of Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis for the secret to her croissants, and she’ll point to Baker’s Field Flour & Bread’s mill, just blocks from her ovens.

Just down the street, another JB Award winner, Christopher Nye, of Spoon and Stable, rolls Baker’s Field’s Bolles wheat flour into his seasonal pasta dishes. “It has the right percentage of proteins for our pasta dough and tastes better than commercial Durum wheat.”

Who can resist Baker’s Field’s tangy, naturally leavened miche, or Sun Street Breads’ nubby, dense Emmer wheat Vollkornbrot loaf, or Gigi’s golden biscuits, crafted from heritage wheat milled by Whole Grain Milling Company in Welcome, MN? Red Wagon Pizza, reached national audiences with Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives; its award-winning crust relies on Sunrise Flour Mill, Cambridge, MN.

Flavor is Key

Fresh and flavor… these are not adjectives typically associated with flour.

But more and more, local millers, bakers, chefs, university researchers, and farmers are rising up in a battle against spongy bread and tasteless pasta. In mid spring, they, along with local brewers and distillers, gathered at the first Minnesota Artisan Grain gathering to craft strategies for working together to grow, process, mill, bake, distribute, and market baked goods and alcoholic beverages that incorporate more local artisan grains.

The first such gathering in the region, once known as The Bread Basket of the World, featured panels, a Q&A, workshops, and a networking reception with food highlighting locally grown and milled artisan grains provided by Minnesota based companies. It launched a series of follow up meetings among wheat geeks determined to return us all to the grindstone, and real daily bread and beverages. In the next month, panel participants will be meeting with wheat breeders and food scientists to discuss breeding wheat for flavor and digestibility. Marrying heritage knowledge with today’s technology, they hope to consider naturally breeding wheat that is good for us, for the land and wildlife, and nutritious!

At a time when headlines about climate are grim, artisan grains are a key to growing a delicious and vibrant local food system. Rye, oats, barley, heritage wheat varieties, and buckwheat are grains that once covered the region’s farms before soy and corn became king. These grains provide continuous cover to retain topsoil, stem erosion, replenish soil nutrients, nurture wildlife, protect pollinators, and capture carbon. Tiny but mighty, they are our first line of defense against climate change.

But that’s not the primary reason they’re the only grains and flours Kim Bartmann prefers for her nine restaurants.

“Flavor is our priority,” Bartmann says. “The ecological services that heritage grains provide are critical to our decision, but really, Turkey Red wheat from Sunrise Flour Mill performs beautifully in baked goods.”

Gathering to Grow Artisan Grains

“The bread dough of freshly milled, heritage wheat is very responsive,” says Darrold Glanville, who co-founded Sunrise Flour Mill with his wife, Marty. “It springs up as it hits the oven’s heat, and the loaves rise evenly and develop beautiful, firm crusts.”

(Bakers call that “bounce.”)

A “Baking and Specialty Foods Value Chain” panel participant at the grain gathering, Glanville credited bakers and chefs for making headway with artisan grains. Marty, also on the panel, offered that consumers now are interested as much in the process that brings these small grains forth as they are the end product. Because of this, she offered, “The small, local mill is coming back.” The quest for health got the Glanvilles into the milling business. Suspecting that commercial wheat was causing health issues, Darrold began milling heritage wheat to bake his own bread, and soon, his chronic pain and digestive ailments disappeared. By sharing their story at their Mill City Farmers Market booth and teaching baking classes, the couple is creating a community of home bakers and chefs. Red Wagon Pizza, I-Noni, Lucia Encora, Dough, the Bartmann Group restaurants, and Sun Street Bakery are among their best customers.

Ben Penner of Penner Farms sat on the panel with the Glanville’s, along with Brady Barnstable of Seven Sundays, and Dr. Don Wyse of Forever Green at the University of Minnesota. An organic wheat farmer, Penner offered that he sees a great deal of hope in the future for artisan grains: “There seems to be a moment happening right now and the Minnesota Grain Gathering is an example of this success.”

Heritage versus Hybrid Wheat

A Baker’s Field farmer, Penner says, “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.” The toasty scent of freshly ground Turkey Red flour perfumes Baker’s Field Flour & Bread as the mill grinds 900 pounds of organic wheat each day. The wheat varieties are identified on Baker’s Field’s bags of flour and loaves of bread.

Turkey Red, a tall, burnished wheat variety, inspired “America the Beautiful’s” amber waves of grain line, and its sheaves were minted on the backs of pennies until the late 1950’s. It was the wheat milled by Washburn Crosby Flour Mill, the predecessor to General Mills, considered the “World’s Best Flour”.

But when Dr. Norman Borlaug, a University of Minnesota agronomist in the early 1950’s, crossed this older variety with a low growing Japanese wheat variety, it became a much different plant. Modern wheat was hybridized to be more productive than the older wheat. Modern wheat has been bred to grow low to the ground to be easy to harvest and when given tremendous amounts of chemicals, their yields are very high. “But wheat shouldn’t need chemicals to grow,” says Dr. Abdullah Jaradat an agronomist and wheat historian, University of Minnesota, Morris. “Wheat is one of the most adaptive plants in the world. It will grow in a variety of climates in different conditions. You can grow the older, adaptive varieties of wheat just about anyplace. “But the modern hybridized wheat is a a ‘lazy plant;’ it won’t grow unless we feed it toxins.”

The Commercial Viability of Artisan Grains

The question of commercial viability is often used to discredit growing artisan grains. Corporate farmers are invested in the equipment and chemicals to grow commercial wheat. Is it unrealistic to expect them to plant sustainable, healthier, more flavorful grains?

“Yes,” answers Dr. Wyse. “The responsibility of a land-grant institution is to address the key issues of our time—the most pressing being the environmental crisis and climate change related to industrial farming practices. Farmers are running a business, and if we expect them to grow food that is good for us and for the planet, we have to provide them with a profitable alternative.”

That’s why Dr. Wyse, with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute (a nonprofit agriculture research group in Salina, Kansas), has been developing perennial crops such as Kernza. Kernza is an intermediate wheat-grass with a robust root system. It grows well organically and produces grain every year as well as forage for livestock.

“Perennial crops increase the productivity and profitability of a farm, creating new economic opportunities while enhancing our environment,” says Jacob Jungers, a University of Minnesota ecologist. Pioneering organic wheat farmer Carmen Fernholz from Madison, Minnesota, agrees. “Kernza is a game changer,” he says.

“Kernza flour reminds me of rye,” says chef Marshall Paulson, of Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis. “It’s dark, slightly grassy with notes of molasses.” Paulson tosses the cooked grain into waffles, pancakes, and grain salads, and he bakes the flour into crackers and tortillas. Last summer, Birchwood Cafe created wildly popular Kernza-focaccia BLTs for the Farmers Union Café at the State Fair.

Buckwheat, rye, and Kernza star in Dumpling & Strand’s award-winning prepackaged pastas, too. As a company, there’s a shared belief that the food you buy on shelves should be made in a way that supports healthy farmlands and fields. But again, here, co-founder Jeff Casper creates pasta with sustainable, and often local, grains because of taste.

“Our noodles are not a blank canvas or carrier for other foods; they’re equal partners on the plate,” Casper says. “Take our buckwheat soba noodles; they’re different from soba noodles made with imported Japanese buckwheat. We want people to appreciate the particular flavors of this particular place.”

A Sense of Place

Place is the key to growing an alternative to commodity crops. The second panel at the gathering focused on the Brewing and Distilling Value Chain and looked at how brewers and distillers in Minnesota might collaborate to introduce a sense of regional terroir. Featuring moderator Greg Bohrer, Environmental Initiative; Connie Carlson, University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships; Christopher Abbott, Sprowt Labs; Randy Clay, Imminent Brewing; Mark Schiller, Loon Liquor Company and the Minnesota Distillers Guild; and Luke Peterson, Peterson Farms, the panelists discussed how brewers and distillers are excited to collaborate with farmers to use artisan grains even though the outcome is not guaranteed and that opportunity is rooted in clusters of people who innovate together to test new grains.

“This work takes us beyond ‘organic’ Luke Peterson, organic wheat farmer, commented. “Transitioning to organic was the first step towards regenerative agriculture. This has allowed me to farm without GMO’s, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers, to serve the ecosystem. When we serve the ecosystem, we serve not only the environmental aspects but also the economic and social aspects,” he says. Peterson’s comments were taken to heart by two of the dairy farmers who had driven several hours from Burnett Dairy Cooperative, Grantsburg, Wisconsin, looking to this gathering for viable economic solutions to relieve the economic pressures they are currently suffering. “We need to know there is a market for alternative crops,” said Jon Schmitt, Burnett Dairy Forage Agronomist.

“We are talking about regenerating our communities, our local economies, and the nutrient density of our food, not to mention the soil, climate, and the environment, Peterson says. “Regenerative agriculture is a work in progress.” One that produces beautiful bread, and also delicious beer and spirits.