Baking with Fresh Whole Grains: Anatomy of a Grain Boom

Lancaster Farming | February 18, 2012

As reported by Anne Harnish, in the Lancaster Farming  February 18 2012 (view the article on-line):

”  STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — “Grains have gotten a bad rap,” said farmer and baker Mary-Howell Martens recently, “But this area (Pennsylvania) used to be considered the bread basket of the U.S., especially out in western Pennsylvania, until (grain growing) moved farther west.”Martens talked to a packed audience about the importance for health in cooking and baking with fresh grains on Feb. 3, during her presentation at the annual Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Farming (PASA) conference at Penn State. Earlier in the day, she and other farmers, who are part of a new grain-producers network in the MidAtlantic region called the Value-Added Grain Project, held a grain-tasting event at the conference, where they asked attendees to rate foods such as breads, pastas, cakes, cooked grains and other foods made from grains they had grown.

“It’s a better-quality product,” Martens said, of fresh grains and especially of heirloom or “heritage” grains that are now being grown in the region, mostly in Pennsylvania and New York. And, according to several people at the grain-tasting event, at which they rated qualities like taste, texture, aroma, flavor and other characteristics on a survey, the amazing flavor was “unbeatable.” The formal tasting was one aspect of this grain-growers network’s process of learning which grains made the best foods.

At Martens’ presentation, she said that when commercial grains are made into flour, they are stripped of their most flavorful and nutritious aspects — the grain’s germ and the bran — to make them shelf-stable so they can be stored and sold for a long period of time.

“You lose oils, vitamins, fiber and all the good stuff that gives the flavor and makes them healthy,” Martens said.

For home cooks wanting to experiment with using fresh ground grains, Martens said it’s as easy as finding a source, and possibly buying a small home grinder if people prefer to grind the grain themselves instead of buying flour. Though Martens favors grinding flour at home in small amounts (a cup of wheat berries produces a little less than 1-3/4 cups of flour), she is often busy and understands that many people don’t have time to grind at home each time.

“It’s a lifestyle choice whether you use a grinder or buy flour,” she said. A variety of home grain grinders are available on the market, including from places such as Lehman’s Non-Electric catalogue, according to Martens.

Freshly ground flour must be stored in the fridge or used within 2 weeks, Martens said.

When trying new grains, “develop a palette and repertoire to know what your family likes,” Martens said. Flour from fresh grains can be used in recipes just like any other flour for the most part.

“Fresh ground grains are slower to gain water, so you must experiment to get the correct ration, and expect it to take longer time to mix the liquid with the flour,” Martens said.

The hard wheats are rich in gluten and are therefore mostly used to bake breads. The soft wheats are most commonly used in pastries. Martens uses a bread machine for kneading dough as a time-saver, and said it does as good a job or better than a person.

“It’s not cheating,’” she laughed.

Pre-fermenting is important, Martens said, noting that many of the artisan-style bread recipes often mix the ingredients together and then let them set for at least 1-3 hours prior to kneading. Then the dough becomes tastier and easier to work with, she said.

She makes her apple pie crusts with freshly ground spelt or wheat flour, piecing together the crust since it can be more crumbly.

Durum-type wheats such as the ancient grain emmer and kamut are typically made into semolina for pasta, according to Martens. She also shared recipes for using fresh oats, barley, rye and open-pollinated corn.

Value-Added Grain Project

Martens and her husband, Klaas, farm 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans and small grains such as wheat, spelt, barley, oats, triticale and peas for mostly livestock feed at their farm, Lakeview Organic Grain, in Penn Yan, N.Y., but she’s also been experimenting with growing and baking food-grade grains, such as spelt, off and on for 15 years.

The Martens and other farmers are part of a larger group of farmer, millers, bakers, ag groups and consumers working to develop an infrastructure of locally grown grains in the Mid-Atlantic region. The USDA-funded Value-Added Grains Project, has been underway for several years, guided with the help of Elizabeth Dyck, from the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN) as well as June Russell, of Greenmarket in New York.

There is currently strong demand from bakeries and consumers in the area for a steady year-round supply of locally grown, organically produced heirloom grains, according to the group.

The project is simultaneously building a farmer-grower network along with creating the markets for the grain, with the goal of linking food-grade grain farmers to end-users through a local distribution system. Each year the Mid-Atlantic acreage being planted in bread grains is increasing exponentially, as more farmers become interested. But, according to OGRIN’s website, the needed equipment and processing facilities are still scarce, high-quality seeds can be hard to find and much of the knowledge base for food grain growers has been lost and must be re-created.

The project seeks to find the types of heritage wheat and specialty grains that grow the best in the region, and in an organic management system. So far, a few of the grains being grown in the Mid-Atlantic region include Red Fife, Warthog and Maxine (all winter wheat varieties for bread), emmer and spelt (for whole cooked grains), and Frederick and Buckwheat for cake-baking, but there are others being developed or tested too.

According to Marcy Tudor, whose husband, Dale, and son, Nigel, operate Weatherbury Farm in Washington County, in western Pennsylvania, the farm started growing grain in 2009 because they needed straw to bed their cattle. The grain itself was “just a byproduct,” said Tudor. But one day when Marcy saw a Kitchen Aid attachment at the store for grinding grain, something clicked, she said, laughing. She and her son became interested in adding value to the grain they were already growing for its straw, by developing a food-grain product.

Today, Weatherbury Farm grows a range of edible grains on 35 certified organic acres, including varieties of hard and soft wheat, buckwheat, rye, open-pollinated corn and the heirloom wheat called emmer or “farro” in Italy. They plan to expand to 100 acres and grind flour themselves for sale, using a new East Tyrolean grain mill that Nigel purchased from Austria and shipped to the farm. This special stone mill can grind approximately 165 pounds of flour per hour. In addition, the Tudors have recently looked into acquiring a peanut wagon which they discovered is a low-cost way to dry large amounts of grain at their farm. The peanut wagon should be able to dry 300 bushels at a time.

The small-scale processing equipment should pay itself off soon, since, according to Nigel, organic wheat is bringing approximately $20 per bushel wholesale, but up to $60-90 per bushel for the same wheat sold as unbleached white organic flour. He said the demand for large amounts of the flour is growing strongly among local Pennsylvania bakeries.

The Steigman family in Halifax, Pa., brings years of experience to the Value-Added Grains Project, since their farm has been growing organic spelt and contracting with other organic spelt growers for more than a decade. They process the spelt at their farm, Small Valley Milling, and sell thousands of pounds of spelt flour to mostly bakeries and buyers in New York.

Martens said that there is a difference between growing livestock grains and food-grade edible grains. She said many grain growers are accustomed to growing grain for livestock feed in a system where they harvest in the fall, load the crop on a trailer and are basically done with it at that point. She pointed out that most farms do not necessarily have the infrastructure on their farms for handling and storing food-grade grains, so there is some investment that has to be made to grow edible grains. Food-grade grains have a higher demand for quality and sometimes a producer’s grain won’t meet that level and then other outlets must be found for it. The food market requires grain to be cleaned, stored properly, processed if needed (such as dehulling or drying) and delivered on a schedule when a bakery wants it, for example, usually throughout the year.

Additionally, special care in growing and storage of grains is of high importance since mycotoxins can develop on grains and can be a serious concern for human health.

“It is not impossible, but it’s a serious learning process,” Martens said. “Some farmers are disappointed when it’s not as easy or profitable as they thought. … There is a learning curve for new farmers, and (the industry) needs people who are more attentive to detail.”

She believes there is a good market for locally produced grains, but only if it is a high-quality product. She said the majority of the grain market will come from bakers as the end-users. The secondary market will be local mills.

Why does the Mid-Atlantic region need locally grown grain? For consumers, said Martens, there are many health benefits as well as a quality in flavor and taste in products using fresh grains. A local grain market would also strengthen the local economy, she believes.

Many bakeries in New York and Pennsylvania have already been discovering how much better their bread tastes if they use freshly ground flour from heirloom grains.

“A lot of the bread bakers consider themselves to be artists,” Martens said. “And a lot of them are.”

“I want consumers to value what the local farmers are trying to accomplish,” Martens said. “We’re working very hard to bring these grains to consumers.”