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There Will Be Bread: The Newest Development in Food Culture Is Also the Oldest 

Wednesday, Nov 27 2013
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Three years ago, Marin baker Craig Ponsford switched to local whole-grain flour and hasn't looked back. Ponsford was formerly co-owner of Artisan Bakery in Sonoma, which sells thousands of its baguettes, ciabatta, sourdough loaves, and other white breads a day. But he was concerned with the health benefits and hooked up with Community Grains, and now sells his whole-grain bread, pastries, and pie crusts at his San Rafael bakery, Ponsford's Place, open only two days a week. "I'm the only bakery that I know of that is 100 percent whole grain. I jumped off the cliff," he says.

But Ponsford is upfront about the fact that the science is just not there to back up the health benefits he feels are there in his gut — it's such a new field that the studies just haven't been done yet. He's working with the Children's Hospital Research Institute in Oakland, part of the Community Grains group, to test the benefits of whole-grain versus whole-wheat flour. But he says he's seen results. Some of his customers have diabetes or wheat intolerances. "People [in my bakery] are having really good experiences when they eat whole wheat," he says. "So I have instincts around that, but that's not science either." He also admits, wryly, that people are brainwashed easily enough when it comes to new health fads in their diets.


One of the many ironies of this "new" field is that it's actually one of civilization's oldest. Humans have been crushing grains between stones for 9,000 years, but the past 150 years of industrialization severed the basic line of communication between farmer, miller, and baker necessary to create a local grain ecosystem. It's taking some doing to bring it back.

At a point in the not-too-distant past, all this infrastructure and knowledge existed in California. The Native Americans cultivated grains, and the missionaries brought soft Sonoran wheat to the area along with wine grapes and olive trees for oil-making — the necessary foods of sacrament. In the mid- to late-19th century, California was a national leader in wheat production, most of it shipped from San Francisco Bay to Great Britain. The Central Valley farmers fighting against Southern Pacific Railroad in Frank Norris' seminal California novel, The Octopus, are wheat farmers. Napa and Sonoma and Mendocino counties grew wheat before they planted orchards and then wine grapes.

But in the late 1800s the Midwest figured out how to grow hard red wheat, ideal for making white bread, and had a lot of land to grow it on. California developed irrigation, enabling farmers to grow more lucrative crops like fruit, nuts, and greens that the rest of the country couldn't. Wheat became an anonymous commodity crop, bought and sold on the market like soybeans and cattle, and industrial wheat farming got bigger and faster, abetted by improvements in fertilizer and herbicides. Slowly but surely, the local grain culture died in California. The state still grows about 750,000 acres of commodity wheat, most of it exported internationally, but local farmers and millers looking to do things on a small scale are having to learn about one of the world's oldest crops by trial and error.

Wheat isn't a lucrative crop for California farmers, but there are reasons to grow it anyway: It's a good cover crop for field rotation, it doesn't require irrigation, and there's a certain romance to it. At least that's what drew Peter Buckley to wheat-growing. He bought Front Porch Farms in Healdsburg as a late-career shift from consulting, and ripped out 60 acres of underperforming vineyards to make room for an orchard, a vegetable garden, and 20 acres of grains. "There's something about a field of wheat that is ... it's beautiful, but somehow it makes me feel wealthy. But it's a funny idea of wealth," he says. "It just seems like such a miraculous thing, you plant these seeds and then pretty soon you see a field that's golden and you can see the wheat heavy on the plant, and it's amazing."

Buckley has a mill, and grows six varieties of grain that he supplies to Community Grains and local restaurants, including an Italian durham for pasta he's trying out specifically for Klein. (He also tried growing einkorn for Robertson at Tartine, which didn't work very well — the varieties they've tried to date just don't grow in Northern California — but he's imported some seeds from southern France, where it thrives, and is trying again this fall.)

A major reason that Buckley, and people like Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards, who is growing six acres of wheat on his 120-acre Dry Creek farm and winery, are able to experiment with growing wheat in small batches is largely thanks to a neighborly obsessive named Doug Mosel. The nearly 80-year-old farmer heads up a 5-year-old CSA-like grainshare called Mendocino Grain Collective, and owns the necessary equipment, like vintage combines, grain drills, seed cleaners, and so on, to process grains on a small scale.

Mosel's on a single-minded mission to revive the local grain economy in Mendocino County, and grows a variety of his own grains in the Russian River Valley while helping small farmers process their own. He's willing to harvest as little as an acre of wheat for an enthusiastic tinkerer, and has lately been working with winemakers to experiment with growing wheat between the vine rows (a smart dual use of valuable land).

This kind of infrastructure-building is also very much on the mind of Klein as he works to build a statewide system. "I think of Community Grains as fundamentally an information company," he says, and talks about things like a recent "sensational meeting on [grain] cleaning and storage" he hosted at Oliveto with the fervent enthusiasm common to the wheat community.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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