In the first post of The Root’s “Local Grain Economy” series we focused on the farmers. This week we are looking at the scientists whose research the farmers, bakers, and millers involved in reestablishing a local grain economy in Maine and Vermont, are acutely tuned into.
Ellen Mallory of the University of Maine and Heather Darby of the University of Vermont are the project directors of The Northern New England Local Bread Wheat Project, a USDA funded initiative intended to help local farmers increase the production and quality of organic bread wheat.
Northeastern wheat growers, such as Tate McPherson and Matt Porter, who are the primary producers of grains for the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, Maine recognize the importance of the project’s results, determining which wheat varieties to grow based on Mallory’s variety trials.
Mallory, a sustainable agriculture specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, has worked with grains (wheat, barley, oats, spelt) for most of her career as an agronomist including projects in Wisconsin, Washington, and Pennsylvania. This is the first project, in which Mallory’s research is focused as much on the human consumption end (taste, cooking and baking) as the growing (crop yield).
Here, Mallory discusses the need for this research, how varieties of wheat are chosen, and deciphering test results.
What drove you to create the Local Bread Wheat Project? Have you always had an interest in grains?
The impetus for the project came from seeing a disconnect between a growing demand for locally grown, organic bread wheat in our region and the amount and quality of wheat being grown. Much of the wheat produced in the earlier years didn’t meet the quality standards that millers and bakers need for good bread flour. My colleagues and I felt there was a real need for agronomic research specific to our region on which varieties perform well under organic production and what growing practices produce the best yields and grain quality. As well, we felt there was expertise in regions similar to our own that we could tap into, hence the trips to Quebec and Denmark. And finally, we wanted to build and strengthen the communication and network among the farmers, millers, and bakers within our region.
How do you choose the varieties you are going to test?
We’ve trialed primarily hard red spring wheat and hard red winter wheat. Hard red wheat is preferred for bread flour (as opposed to soft wheat that are used for cookies and cakes). To select the varieties to include in our trials, we talk with researchers and seed companies from the northern tier states and Canada (with similar growing conditions to our own) to get their suggestions, and we favor varieties that are commercially available or soon to be released.
What comprises successful test results, and how is this managed?
To produce a profitable crop, the three most important aspects that farmers must pay attention to are yield, grain protein, and DON levels (DON is the mycotoxin produced by the Fusarium fungus). Variety and growing method influence all three of these. (Check out this fact sheet Mallory co-authored for information on these quality parameters and how farmers can influence them.)
When we evaluate varieties, we focus on the varieties that consistently show low DON levels because this is such an important issue for our region, and that have acceptable grain protein levels. We then pass these varieties on to bakers to test. A group of bakers in Maine and Vermont have developed a bake test based on whole grain flour and artisan baking methods. They evaluate baking performance and then a number of us have joined in on taste testing.
While variety is an important aspect of wheat production, yield, test weight, and grain quality are also strongly affected by fertility and weed management practices. Low yields mean low returns for the farmer, and grain that doesn’t meet protein levels required by millers and bakers will receive a discounted price or has to be sold into the lower-value feed market. For this reason, we’ve done a number of trials looking at different options to successfully manage weeds, and fertility strategies that organic growers can use to produce grain that meets the protein standards required by millers and bakers.
Northwest Wheat – Flavor Profiling
Though separated by thousands of miles, the grain-based information being developed in New England is intimately connected to that of veteran plant geneticist Stephen Jones, who runs the wheat-breeding program at Washington State University. Jones heads a program that teaches farmers how to breed varieties of wheat that are best suited to their individual ecosystems and climate.
The Plant Breeding program at NWREC (Northern Whatcom County Nursery) concentrates on crops that fit into diverse annual and perennial rotations on small and mid-sized farms. Farmer participatory approaches and other innovative methods are utilized to improve crops such as small grains. Research is prioritized to favor producer groups and crops that are not being served by conventional research programs and approaches.
In any one year, Jones said, the program could have 40,000 different varieties of wheat growing.
“We put in a Bread Lab so that we can run taste tests as well as check the quality for bread and other uses,” said Jones. “We work with ciders here and have had our cider person help us out on flavors that we are picking up but most of work is directly with craft bakers (including Jeffrey Hamelman, Bakery Director for King Arthur Flour in Vermont, and a tester for the New England variety wheats) and serious home bakers. We also do a lot of tours and we rely on school kids to help us describe things like spicy, grassy and brightness, which are all real common. We do only mild sourdoughs with just starter, salt, flour and water, nothing else. We also used very freshly milled wheat, sometimes within hours of milling it has been mixed.”
An hour north of Seattle, it is the first public laboratory designed solely for the testing and development of products and techniques for the craft baker.
The two best-flavored wheats, Jones said they have tested are Ronan, a recent French wheat used on organic farming. and Red Russian, a wheat that was grown in the Northwest in the 1800s. Both, he said are incredible.
The Bread Lab also is a centerpiece for the annual Kneading Conference West (modeled after, and supported by the original Kneading Conference held annually in Maine), that brings together more than 200 professional and serious home bakers each September.
Images provided by Ellen Mallory.