In 2012, TVFC started some informal conversations and investigations about wheat. We started by hosting some gatherings where, for the first time in recent memory, bakers, farmers, researchers, and eaters all talked about what it would take to have locally-grown wheat in a loaf of bread.
Beth Rasgorshek is an organic seed farmer in Canyon County – she owns Canyon Bounty Farm. Several years ago, Beth started experimenting with growing wheat. Her success led to a small hand milling operation, producing flour in very small quantities (currently 200-225 pounds/week). In a couple of years, she was milling enough for local bakers to start experimenting with the flour. Subsequently, Beth entered into conversations with three professional, local artisanal bakers about the prospects for a local milling operation of commercial size. The bakers’ stated objective was to use local flour in their breads and pastries: unbeatable freshness and taste are what they want.
Knowing that the Treasure Valley Food Coalition was pursuing a new crop-based strategy to raise awareness of local food issues and potentially spur economic development through various types of food processing, Beth approach TVFC with a request to help explore possibilities. A group formed in late 2011 that included University of Idaho extension people, professional bakers, farmers, and members of TVFC.
Meanwhile, Beth pulled some other farmers into her wheat-growing experiment. Two big organic farmers in the Magic Valley joined field trials of various wheat varieties, including Green Revolution and Turkey Red, both heirloom varieties. Additionally, informal surveys of organic farmers at two statewide conferences in 2012 and 2013 revealed that there were in fact several Idaho farmers with an interest in growing wheat. Farmers have estimated it would take approximately 350 acres of wheat to meet an annual demand of about 235,000 pounds of flour. There are currently about 100,000 acres of wheat grown in the Treasure Valley, the Boise food shed (2011 number).
The group started exploring recent new milling operations in the Pacific Northwest, visiting two mills and engaging in e-mail conversations with others. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that any new local mill would be producing whole wheat flour; the milling necessary to produce white flour comes from rolling mills whose size, output, and expense make their consideration completely out of the question. The demand for whole wheat flour falls well short of what it would take for a local mill to be viable. Currently, the demand we have assessed, based on actual demand ONLY from bakers who have come to the TVFC group and are currently participating, is 15,000 pounds per week, but only about 15% of that is for whole wheat flour. Annual total flour demand for the baking operations approaches 1 million pounds year.
The wheat group faltered, realizing that what was possible was not what the bakers had in mind, despite their interest in producing more wholesome, nutritious products. Whole wheat flour results in dense bread and pastry products, an outcome that is not consonant with the light textured breads and pastries produced by top-notch bakers – and much desired by the public. Among children, there is also the issue of color: the dark color of whole wheat bread has been shown to be a significant negative factor in getting children to eat whole wheat bread in school settings.
However, before conceding defeat, the group started looking into a micronizing mill. Micronizing mills do not grind flour, rather grain is pulverized by rotating blades. The mill produces powdery flour that still has all the whole grain nutrition. Flour produced this way is subjected to less heat than a grinding process, which improves both taste and shelf life. But of greater interest was the particle size. It is the sharp particles in ground whole wheat that cause the dense texture: the sharp pieces burst the CO2 bubbles that make the bread rise. Micronized flour has the potential to make “fluffy” bread that would appeal to consumers. Further, our farmers are willing to trial hard white wheat. If hard white wheat can be successfully grown in Idaho, and fluffy light-colored bread products can be made with it, demand could support a local mill. Mill output is between 1500 and 2500 pounds per hour.
The Unifine Mill was developed in Washington State, and has gone through two engineering iterations at WSU over the past 70+ years. A regional distributor of local and organic foods, Azure Standard, has been using four of these mills for many different types of grains since the mid 1990’s. They acquired one of the original half dozen mills built in the late 1940’s, reversed engineered it, and built three others; they have operated for over 10 years without breaking down. Azure Standard sells Unifine whole wheat flour, as well as several other flours (barley, millett, etc) milled using the Unifine, and distributes the flours in the Pacific Northwest.
Another positive aspect of building a milling facility using a Unifine Mill is the cost. The mill itself is a unitary operation (one step), with a potential sifting extension currently being engineered; estimated total cost for the equipment is a modest $200,000. Further, the mill can be housed in a quite limited area, thus eliminating the need for a sizeable investment in mill space.
The decision was made by the wheat group to buy flour from Azure Standard and start various baking experiments with both professional and home bakers to evaluate the potential of micronized flour. Those experiments in 2013 and early 2014 were quite successful, although it seemed that the most successful products in the marketplace would probably come from a micronized flour/white flour combination. The goal was to see if desirable products could be developed using a high enough percentage of whole wheat flour to create sufficient consistent demand for the output of a local mill. We used 60% as a target number for the percentage of whole wheat flour to white flour across the range of products.
As the year of baking came to a close, Beth Rasgorshek started milling an heirloom wheat, Turkey Red, available to limited professional bakers – they were greatly pleased with the flavor and began experimenting with different loaves. At the end of the trial period with the home bakers, the final round required use of 100% whole wheat micronized flour. To everyone’s surprise, the bakers and tasters agreed it was the best – better than the whole wheat/white flour combinations. So we added one last round of baking, this time using 100% stone ground Turkey Red. The breads were delicious, but the home bakers recognized they could not get the same rise that they had come to expect from the micronized flour. Eventually, the conversation returned to color – was the darker color of the Turkey Red bread a deterrent to getting children to eat it? All of the home bakers agreed: the multiple children they had offered it to were indifferent to the color and liked the bread. Results pointed squarely in the direction of expanding our marketing efforts using 100% micronized whole wheat flour.
We are now moving into the next phase of the project. TVFC will contract in December with three organic wheat farmers to grow four acres of Turkey Red, have it milled in Oregon at the Azure Standard Mill, make it available to both professional and home bakers, then weekly feature the baked goods at the Boise Farmers’ Market beginning late spring 2016. The goal is to assess (and develop) demand for a delicious, totally local product by naming the farmers and the bakers together, along providing a steady output of nutritional information. We will also develop an enterprise budget, recording all costs of production, to carefully calculate the market break-even price. We can then assess market demand based on that price.
Simultaneously, we will approach institutional buyers and create two or three events featuring breads and rolls made from micronized, local Turkey Red wheat.
Stay tuned for further developments.