Farmer Ground Revives New York's Flour Power

Bulk - News

By Kristie Snyder,
GreenLeaf Editor

wheat_Weizenfeld_Anfang_Juli_2009Eating locally is a noble goal, but any Ithacans baking bread with Farmer Ground Flour, grown and milled locally, may not realize how good they have it. Finding local flour is all but impossible in most of this country, and Canada, too. When a Vancouver couple decided to spend a year eating only food grown within 100 miles of their home, flour became their holy grail. Authors of the 2007 book, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon spent eight months deprived of pasta, bread, crackers, pizza and all the other delights that ground wheat can provide. While a previous search yielded nothing but a tubful of weevil-infested wheat berries liberally sprinkled with mouse droppings (which was, reluctantly, discarded), they did finally locate a supply of wheat flour grown within 100 miles of Vancouver. A baking frenzy ensued.

“We were back in the familiar world of carbohydrate loading, and yet it was not the same. I had never imagined the difference fresh flour would make,” wrote MacKinnon. “Everything we made we ate simply, letting the flavor of the wheat stand alone. It tasted -— ancient. We would sit together to break the bread. A sacred act.”

Fans of Trumansburg’s Farmer Ground Flour know what he’s talking about. A collaboration between Erick Smith, of Cayuga Pure Organics, and Thor Oechsner, of Oechsner Farms, who grow the grain, and Greg Mol, who mills it, Farmer Ground has been producing organically-grown, stone-ground flours for the past year. Their offerings include many varieties of wheat flour, along with cornmeal, polenta, and buckwheat, rye and spelt flour. Now the largest producers of local flour in New York state, they produced 15,000 pounds in May alone.

The milling takes place in Trumansburg in an old Agway feed grain facility, which was until recently the site of the Regional Access food distributor. Bulging sacks of various grains line one wall. Mol pours them, by bucket, into an electric mill housing a pair of granite millstones. From there, the flour is blown through a series of slightly Rube Goldberg-esque pipes, tubes and hoppers, along the way being sifted and sorted of bran and overly large particles.

Two-thirds of the end result is distributed via Cayuga Pure Organics’ marketing network to Greenmarket farmers markets, restaurants and bakeries in the New York City area. The rest is sold via GreenStar (look for it in the Bulk Department), the Ithaca Farmers Market and Regional Access, which distributes it to other upstate co-ops and bakeries. You will also find the flour in any of GreenStar Bakery’s breads. Our Bakery Department Manager, Lisa Marsella, plans to work with Farmer Ground to incorporate even more of their products into new baked offerings.

“The demand is way bigger than what we’re producing,” said Mol. There are plans to expand the offerings slowly but surely, keeping the quality high.

Oechsner, who has been farming since his teenage years and currently grows 620 acres of certified-organic grains in Newfield, once grew crops mainly for animal feed. He is looking forward to growing solely food-quality crops as Farmer Ground expands. He’s particularly excited about emmer. Known in Italy as farro, emmer is a wheat variety that has been grown since 7,000 BC. It is literally “the mother of all wheats,” Oechsner said, and it makes “the best pasta I’ve ever eaten.”

Erick Smith, of Cayuga Pure Organics, has also transitioned from feed crops (for animals) to food crops (for humans). “We started Cayuga Pure in 2003, and expected to grow feed crops for organic dairies. Around 2005, Joe [Damiano, GreenStar’s Bulk Department Manager] came to us and asked if we could do organic dry beans.” Five years later, they are growing exclusively food crops. “I love that what we’re growing is going directly to feed people,” Smith said.

Because grain, like any growing thing, varies due to differences in location and growing season, Farmer Ground’s flour is less uniform than commercial flour. “It’s like wine,” Oechsner explained. “It varies from year to year. So a baker has to understand how to work with it.”

One baker who does is Mecklenburg’s Stefan Senders, who plans to open a CSA later this year offering brick oven-baked bread and pasta made with Farmer Ground’s products. “Thor suggested I try this flour, and I loved it,” he said. “When you use a local flour, it really does directly support the local agriculture and economy. And the wheat reflects the flavor of the region. I think it’s a terrific flour for the home baker.”

Senders’ test batches of emmer pasta, made for friends, have resulted in pleading phone calls asking for more. “We’re kind of cheating,” he laughed. “We’re using eggs warm from the hen -— the ingredients we’re using are so good, it’s hard to go wrong.”

Farmer Ground’s success is part of a larger effort to restore grain growing to New York state. While now thought of as dairy country, upstate New York once grew so much grain that Rochester topped the nation’s flour production in the mid 1830s, giving it the nickname “Flour City.” (A later rise of nursery businesses changed that moniker to “Flower City.”) Via the Erie Canal, that flour was shipped to New York City and beyond.

Oechsner and Smith have both worked closely with Elizabeth Dyck, of the Organic Research and Information Sharing Network, which seeks to reintroduce wheat growing to New York state, reviving the old varieties that were traditionally grown here and finding new ones, too. Dyck is combing through wheat varieties, be they ancient, heritage or modern, and working with farmers like Oechsner to identify those that grow well in New York’s challenging climate, and, just as importantly, also taste great and bake well.

“I grew a wheat variety called ‘Warthog’ and we did a tasting with some bakeries in New York City — they went ballistic,” Oeschner said. Like other foods, “the flavor has been bred out of wheat,” he explained, in favor of yield and uniformity. “Growing the old wheat varieties is like growing an heirloom tomato.”

“Farmer Ground Flour is really making a difference for other farmers,” said Dyck. “They’re a great example of farmers banding together to put needed infrastructure into place, in this case a milling facility. They deserve enormous amounts of respect.”