Many people don’t know that Austin’s beloved Barton Springs was once home to a three-story, spring-and-dam-powered gristmill that processed locally grown grain. Although William (“Uncle Billy”) Barton’s mill was destroyed by a fire in 1886, the losses of similar gristmills over the last century—such as Johnson City’s James Polk Johnson Grist Mill, built in 1880—were the result of other circumstances. Construction of canals and railroads, for example, allowed faster, more efficient transport of commodities such as wheat, and the transition from stone mills to more modern technology—such as the steel roller mill, which encouraged large-scale industrial agriculture—led to the demise of small regional mills throughout the U.S.
David Norman, head “dough-puncher” and partner at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden, points to this lack of mill infrastructure as one of the reasons for our void of locally grown grains. It’s similar, he says, to the challenge faced by small ranchers. Without regional slaughterhouses, for example, a rancher is forced to scale up operations to make the longer travel distance necessary to process meat worth the time and expense.
Also, in order to provide the grains that many locavores want, area farmers must source nearly extinct and expensive seed, and purchase specialty equipment such as combines and storage facilities. In addition, mills require seed cleaners, sifters and scales. The larger mills also offer pricey, high-tech equipment that can generate data that’s useful to bakers, such as gluten content and levels of water absorption (though they can’t necessarily test for flavor)—keeping them highly competitive. “Wheat is fairly easy to grow,” says Josh Raymer, chef and baker at Bakery JoJu in Fredericksburg, “[but] it can’t compete with many vegetables for profit.”
Central Texas farmer and rancher, Jim Richardson, has taken on some of these challenges by growing and milling multiple types of grain on 45 acres dedicated to the pursuit. Richardson wisely sought the advice of South Carolina-based Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts, the man responsible for saving numerous heirloom grains from extinction. Richardson now grows hard white-winter wheat, turkey red (a high-gluten wheat variety), triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid), white sorghum for flour and a different variety of sorghum for syrup, along with white, yellow and red corn. (He’d hoped to plant emmer wheat or Abruzzi rye, as well, but the unusually wet conditions of late 2015 prevented it.) While the weather has been a challenge, Richardson says he’s never had any pushback from chefs on the variables of his flours—which can differ from season to season—only on their price, which can be high, compared to grains that are grown and milled afar. In order to grow more crops, then, it’s essential for local grain farmers like Richardson to get a commitment from buyers who are willing to pay their prices. Otherwise, it’s just too risky.
Despite the various challenges these farmers face, the interest in locally grown and milled grains is definitely on the rise. Norman explains exactly what he’s looking for: “What’s important to me is the variety of grains—especially the variety of wheat—that is available. Most of the contemporary American hybrid wheats have been developed for yield and high protein level, often at the expense of flavor. Also, as a baker who mostly concentrates on European-style hearth breads, too-high protein levels are not desirable, as they often make for a dough that is too elastic and not extensible enough to create the crumb structure we’re after. There are varieties of wheat—some heirloom—with a more medium range of protein that have the baking qualities and better flavor that I’m seeking.”
It’s true: Most of the modern, mass-produced wheat evolved by way of seed breeders who selectively cross-pollinated plants in order to produce higher yields, uniformity, disease resistance, drought tolerance, higher protein levels and faster proofing and baking times. Unfortunately, along with these modern “gains,” we lost other vital qualities, such as biodiversity, complex flavors, nutritive benefits and a connection to our grain growers. Dr. Stephen Jones is a pioneer in reversing these losses, by breeding modern wheat for flavor and nutrition. His work at The Bread Lab at Washington State University is written about extensively in Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate” and Amy Halloran’s “The New Bread Basket.” Both Raymer and Norman attended The Bread Lab’s annual conference in Washington State in 2015 and learned much about the current wheat landscape. “We have very old wheats that came from Europe,” explains Raymer. “You have the landrace wheats that, for the most part, came from breeding in the field. You have modern wheats that are developed by university breeding programs, but then released to Monsanto, et al., to grow them out and sell them. At The Bread Lab, we tried one heirloom variety—everything else was modern. Every baker there was interested in older wheats—how they perform, flavor, etc., Dr. Jones tried to coax us into the future. I think he’s right, as far as, if the market demands variety and flavor, we will see progress on this front. Look to this as the future: some modern, some heirloom—similar to how a farmer grows tomatoes, a mix of new and old.”
The mix is a good idea because of course, heirloom and native varieties of any plant often have much to offer. Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute—a science-based organization dedicated to advancing perennial grain crops and polyculture farming methods—and a co-speaker (along with poet and agrarian, Wendell Berry) at Edible Austin’s 2011 Eat Drink Local Week, wowed the audience when he unveiled a striking and unexpected photograph. Displayed side-by-side were two life-size profile images of wheat—both the stalks above ground and the root systems below. One plant was a modern wheat variety that requires annual planting, the other a perennial prairie wheat that was bred to have many characteristics of a native wheat; the latter’s impressively deep, thick and strong root structure indicated the potential for significantly reducing erosion and growing crops without having to till the soil.
Inspired and encouraged by his Bread Lab experience, Raymer has been buying seed for area farmers to reduce their risk and expenses. He’s also commissioned Texas farmers to grow hard, red winter-wheat varietals such as Fannin in Rio Medina, and Tam 113 in North Texas, while another farmer in Dripping Springs is testing older, heirloom wheat varietals, such as Sonora, Red May, Quanah, Harvest King and Westar. Raymer hopes to eventually build a solid demand for this lesser-known wheat. “This summer, I’m going to start doing breads with these wheats,” he says. “I feel that there will be a market. When I have a pallet of wheat that I can mill for flour, it means we also have wheat that I can get into a farmer’s hands if they are willing to give it a shot.”
Raymer’s also scouted out a third-party seed cleaner and grain storage facility in North Texas, and is actively recruiting additional organic farmers to plant more grains. He does supplementary research by reading old Department of Agriculture crop reports to learn about heirloom varietals, and he believes that long-term planning is the key to creating a local grain economy. First, area farmers should start with small test crops, he notes, to determine what thrives in our climate, then they should save the seeds, eventually breeding new crops that are unique to Central Texas. By summer, Raymer hopes to build a small stone mill in the Hill Country. A baker who also mills has its advantages: Whole grains store longer than flours, and purchasing whole-grain in bulk is more cost-effective. In addition, most bakers prefer the aroma and flavor of freshly milled flour, just as one might prefer freshly ground coffee beans before brewing—the flavor is more pronounced. Until his proposed mill becomes reality, Raymer continues to be a devoted customer of the Homestead Gristmill in Waco.
It’s not just chefs and bakers cheering on a local grain and milling movement. Also interested are the oft-overlooked makers of alcoholic beverages. Blacklands Malt in Leander, for example, set out to source Texas barley for malt—a key ingredient in beer that craft brewers had previously been buying from around the globe. But for owner Brandon Ade, it wasn’t as simple as placing an order and getting to work. He had to help develop a supply of barley by collaborating with Texas A&M on barley trials, and convince farmers growing barley varieties suitable for animal feed to convert to those used in malt production. And the rise of the farm-to-glass movement among craft distillers is adding to the demand for corn, wheat and rye, as well.
Of course, for any local grain-growing and milling economy to develop and thrive, there has to be collaboration among farmers, seed breeders, millers, bakers, chefs, maltsters, beer brewers and spirit distillers. Communication, persistence and faith in an old-yet-new system have led to success for communities in other states—both the Maine Grain Alliance and New York City’s Greenmarket Regional Grains Project have made significant strides toward reviving regional grains in the Northeast, for example, while mills such as Hayden Flour Mills in Queen Creek, Arizona, Community Grains in Oakland and Grist & Toll in Pasadena are improving access in the West and Southwest. With supporters leading the way here in Central Texas, progress is starting to germinate.
by Valerie Broussard • Photography by Melanie Grizzel
More About Grains
Local Bread Programs
Bakery Joju (Fredericksburg, Texas)
Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden (Austin, Texas)
Emmer & Rye (Austin, Texas)
Miche Bread (Austin, Texas)
Grain Farmers and Mills
Anson Mills (Columbia, S.C.)
Blacklands Malt (Leander, Texas)
Community Grains (Oakland, Calif.)
Grist & Toll (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Hayden Flour Mills (Queen Creek, Ariz.)
Homestead Gristmill (Waco, Texas)
Richardson Farms (Rockdale, Texas)
Grain Research and Education
The Bread Lab (Burlington, Wash.)
Greenmarket Regional Grains Project (New York, N.Y.)
The Land Institute (Salina, Kan.)
The Maine Grain Alliance (Skowhegan, Maine)
“The New Bread Basket,” by Amy Halloran
“The Third Plate,” by Dan Barber