NYC Food Detective: What Wheat Where?

wheat sheafby Ed Yowell, Slow Food NYC

On January 11, 2010, at the International Culinary Center (ICC) on Broadway in SoHo, an historic conference on the state of wheat in our New York foodshed was sponsored by The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), The Northeast Organic Wheat Project, and Greenmarket.  Farmers, millers, bakers, and distillers got together to talk about the state of New York wheat production, with a view to starting a New York State wheat Renaissance.  Once New York State was a major wheat producer; however, according to the USDA, in 2009, 2.22 billion bushels of wheat were produced in the United States.  Of that, about 6.83 million bushels were produced in New York State, making it 32nd in American wheat production, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. 

Back in the 17th century, Long Island was the first New York breadbasket.  While wheat is not native to the Americas, having originated in the Fertile Crescent, it was brought here by Europeans - the Dutch and the English contributing their respective favorite varieties.  According to Tracey Frisch, in her article entitled, “A Short History of Wheat” in the February 2009 issue of “The Valley Table,” by the mid to late 1600s, local farmers were growing wheat for milling into flour and for selling in nearby New York to be transported to the West Indies.  Sandy Long Island soils were soon played out by repeated wheat mono-cropping and production moved to the flats of the Hudson River.  There wheat flourished until the late 1700s when the Hessian fly began to devour it, the fly having arrived in the colonies with the Hessian mercenaries hired by the British to quell our revolution.  The Hessians ceased to be a military threat when Washington whipped them at Trenton; however, the flies remained an agricultural threat and wheat production moved west, out of the way of the Hessian fly, to more fertile lands in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys.  From there, as Revolutionary War veterans moved further west, wheat production moved to the Genesee Valley region, encompassing the Finger Lakes and the shores of Lake Ontario. It is there that most New York wheat is produced currently.

But, even with this expansion, through the early part of the 19th century, wheat was still a regional crop that was milled in small scale near the source.  Flours exhibited distinct baking characteristics based on wheat variety and local terroir.

In his January 2010 article, “America’s Agricultural Angst” (www.newgeography.com),

Joel Kotkin wrote, “Back in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American farmers viewed their holdings more like capitalists than [European] peasants.  ‘Almost all of the farmers of the United States,’ he (Toqueville) wrote, ‘combine some trade with agriculture, most of them make agriculture itself a trade.” Nineteenth century New York “capitalist” farmers’ agricultural successes were fostered by the opening in 1825 of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton’s Erie Canal.  “The effect of the canal was immediate and dramatic and settlers poured west.  In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo.  By 1837, this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million,” (www.nyscanals.gov).

Following the Canal, railroads pushed west, opening the plains to more settlement and more wheat production.  According to Karen Hess, in her 1994 Smithsonian symposium address entitled, “A Century of Change in the American Loaf: Or, Where Are the Breads of Yesteryear,” agribusiness was born with western expansion.  And, “the relationship of wheat grower to consumer was forever changed...And the first victim was our bread..With agribusiness, wheat became a commodity..and every aspect of its production, especially its milling, became increasingly industrialized...(producing flour on a large scale, striving for consistency and product longevity, and therefore ridding it) of every last fleck of bran, every suspicion of wheat germ, the single most important life-giving element of wheat, thereby removing every last bit of flavor.. the golden fragrant flour of yesteryear was transformed – almost overnight – into chalky, lifeless dust, so lifeless that yeasts refused to thrive in it and bakers took to hyping up the dough with sugar, as well as excessive amounts of yeast.”

In New York State agriculture, wheat is not significant commercially, often being grown as a rotational crop.  According to a wheat industry report (www.business.highbeam.com), “The Eastern part of the country produces wheat on a much smaller scale than the rest of the country and also generally produces inferior wheat of a softer texture and lower protein content.  The majority of the wheat in this region...is grown as part of a complex crop rotation system on farms that specialize in other agricultural products.  However, the farming methods used on these smaller farms have often resulted in higher wheat yields than those recorded in the major wheat regions.”  According to the USDA, in 2009, the New York State wheat yield per acre was 65 bushels as compared to 44.4 bushels per acre in the rest of the nation.

Different varieties of wheat (winter or spring, hard or soft, red or white) are suited to different growing environments (drier vs. wetter, colder vs. warmer) and practices (conventional vs. organic).  Typically, harder wheats prefer a drier climate and softer wheats prefer a wetter climate, like that in New York.  As for the quality of these different wheats (in terms of hardness and protein content, for instance), in her aforementioned talk, Karen Hess said, “hardness is not the only criteria for wheat, nor the most important one, although to read American works on bread, one would be given to think so.  At the French government bureau concerned with the quality of grain, I was dumbfounded to learn that their prize bread wheat strain...produces flour running from nine to ten percent gluten (protein) content; American bakers,” she went on to say in her 1994 talk, “consider such flour virtually unworkable for making bread, 12% being given as a minimum. But..(a French) maitre boulanger (master baker)...explained, ’It is not so much the quantity of gluten as the quality.’”

Presenters at the January conference included Eli Rogosa of the Northeast Organic Wheat Project, Elizabeth Dyck of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and Mike Davis, of Cornell University.  Cornell conducts grain performance trials, including heritage wheat trials, to identify varieties that, under real New York growing conditions, will yield high percentages of protein, between 11.6% and 15%, and low incidences of undesirable traits.  NOFA and the Northeast Organic Wheat Project are focused on identifying heritage wheat varieties that exhibit a complex of traits that include: high yield and robust health, nutritional value, and baking quality and flavor, the latter being a quality not often mentioned in the industry.  Replicated heritage wheat trials, as noted by Elizabeth and Eli, indicate that the highest yielding varieties in conventional systems are not the highest yielding in organic systems...18 heritage varieties having yielded higher than the best commercial wheats grown in the Northeast.  Further, according to Eli and Elizabeth, heritage wheats tend to be higher in nutrition and complex flavor than modern wheats.  The goal of NOFA and the Northeast Organic Wheat Project, for the sake of our regional farm and food economy, biodiversity, sustainability, and taste, is to put heritage wheat back into our regional food system, to “Bring our regional farmers and land back into the bread we eat.” Eli stated during her talk.  Conference panelist, farmer, Klass Martens, of Lakeview Organic Grain in Tompkins County, New York, said, “[Demand  for high quality organic wheat will] change the farmer’s model from producing the highest quantity of lower quality wheat for the lowest price to producing higher quality for a better price. As [organic] soils become healthier again, the taste of the product improves. [By restoring heritage wheat varieties we will increase] biodiversity, like creating a palate of different colors for an artist.  The different varieties of wheat we are growing will offer bakers different taste characteristics.”    

According to conference organizer and host, June Russell of Greenmarket, increased demand for regional wheat and flour will make it feasible for regional farmers to put more acres into production and for regional millers to produce flour that is more traditional in character and fresher on delivery.  And better flour can help restore the “breads of yesteryear,” as Karen Hess called them.  Greenmarket, to help increase that demand, has implemented a new requirement for Greenmarket bakers.  Effective with the spring of 2010, typically, 15% of the flour used in baked goods sold at Greenmarket will be produced from wheat grown in our region. 

Bakers attending the conference weighed in.  Maury Rubin of City Bakery said, referring to the prospect of regionally produced flour, “People are ready for a better way to grow and make food.”  In a post script after the conference, Jim Lahey, of Sullivan Street Bakery, wrote to Greenmarket, “I have since contacted all of the millers on the contact sheet (provided at the conference) as I am attempting to purchase all my wheat ‘locally.’”  When asked to comment after the conference, baker Jessamyn Waldman, founder of Hot Bread Kitchen, stated, “We are on the verge of a sea change when it comes to grain – the conference was a testament to the fact that there is demand for the same traceability in grain that we have seen in produce and meat.”             

And, can New York State farmers meet rising demand for their wheat?  Farmer Klass Martens said, “If the market is there, farmers in Western New York can bury New York City in organic wheat.”  It’s just too bad it can’t get here via the Erie Canal instead of in fossil fuel burning trucks, but it’s a start.

If you want to see why notable New York City bakers are excited about regional flour, you can buy it from Cayuga Pure Organics at the Saturday Union Square (Manhattan), Grand Army Plaza (Brooklyn) and McCarren Park (Brooklyn) Greenmarkets and from Wild Hive Farm at the Friday Union Square Greenmarket.  Cayuga Pure Organics flours, whole wheat, ½ white, and whole wheat pastry, are milled from locally grown wheat in Penn Yan and Trumansburg, New York and are packaged under the label, Farmer Ground Flour.  Wild Hive Farm flour is milled locally from wheat grown in Duchess County.