Exploring Wheat with Shepherd's Grain

What's the opposite of gluten-free?

Yeah, that's me. Gluten glutton.

I could write a soliloquy about William's twice-baked almond croissants. And if you get a chance, you must try Ethan's pan-fried gnocchi--pillowy on the inside, crispy on the outside--they're a strong contender for my last meal on earth.

Earlier this week, I was thrilled to see Columbia City Bakery announce their new CSB program. What's that? Think: Community Supported Agriculture...in the form of artisan bread. (Community Supported Bakery). A weekly ration of artisan bread....Genius, no?

So, you see, my love for wheat runs deep.

When wheat cooperative Shepherd's Grain invited me to come out and meet their farmers, I jumped at the chance! Before this trip, I knew very little about growing wheat (read: nothing). I took pages of notes and frankly, my mind is still swimming. One part travelogue, one part brain dump, this post is an attempt to compile notes from a life changing experience.

Long before dawn, I boarded a bus full of bakers and settled in for the 4 hour trek to Eastern Washington.

On the ride over, Shepherd's Grain co-founder Fred Fleming gave us the lay of the land. As the miles stretched on, the type of crop shifted from irrigation-dependent crops like corn and potatoes to dry land crops, including wheat, barley, mustard, and canola. A stunning piece of environmental trivia: in the valley, every 10 miles, annual rainfall increases by 1".

While Seattle is famous for rain (155 days a year), east of the Cascade Mountains, you'll find a high desert. Rainfall is scant and crops near the mountain range rely on irrigation. (Arms of the irrigation apparatus stretch across the entire frame of this photo.)

Hay harvest, drying in the sun.

This hay has already been baled. Note: The hay must be absolutely dry. In a rush to store the hay? Bad idea. Not only is spontaneous combustion is a very real risk, rising heat levels cause a significant loss of protein. How does hay spontaneously combust? Chemical reactions and microbial growth in hay occur because of the change in availability of moisture, oxygen, and pressure to create heat to the point of ignition and fire. (Read more about that here.)

Winter wheat, already in the ground. Tiny shoots surface before the first snow fall. An unusually cold summer meant an overlap between harvest and planting. Farmers on the western side of the Columbia River had their crop in the ground, while on the eastern side, farmers were still bringing in the harvest.

Crossing the Columbia River. Multiple dams on this river provide cheap hydro-electric power to Washington state residents and irrigation to surrounding farmland. The dams are also responsible for the significant loss of salmon, which historically, migrated up the Columbia River to spawn. Migration routes are now blocked by dams and poorly designed fish ladders, driving many salmon runs to extinction.

Of all the factors involved in farming, one element I never considered was wind. With few trees to shield the momentum, fierce winds whip across the dry plains. Annual fires spread rapidly under these conditions and during the wrong time of the year, a hard rain and violent winds can wash priceless topsoil into the Columbia River. (It's dredged frequently for this very reason.)

Wheat is harvested 8 inches from the ground, leaving fields of "stubble." Between harvest and the next planting season, "stubble" keeps the topsoil intact.

The distant mountains beckon in shades of purple. In this area "wind" is a four-letter curse word and now I know why. Wind drowned out any reasonable attempt at conversation and erratic gusts whipped my skirt to the point of indecency.

Shielded by a knoll, I took advantage of a welcome respite and succumbed to the hypnotic tango between wind and wheat. Immersed in a rhythmic ocean of grain swaying in the wind, I paused just to listen.

Bit of trivia: As humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer society, wheat provided an important and stable food supply. By 4,000 BC, wheat farming had spread to Asia, Europe, and North Africa.

Innovation is at the heart of Shepherd's Grain. Their direct seed program is a game-changer Western Washington wheat farming. They tell it best:

By direct-seeding we no longer have to invert the soil with a plow. Our plants are seeded directly into the residue of the crop that came before it. Direct seeding is a complete change in the way a farmer grows his crops. The change from conventional seeding to direct-seeding is a major change requiring new equipment as well as a new approach to weed and disease control. Although the direct seed system has many challenges that the farmer must deal with it also has many advantages.

Soil erosion is reduced, reducing soil runoff into streams and rivers.

Less fuel is burned than conventional tillage. Reducing the amount of exhaust fumes being released into the air.

The amount of carbon in our soils is increasing. Conventional tillage releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where direct seeding traps the carbon in the soil, increasing organic matter and building a healthier soil structure for creatures that live in the soil such as earthworms.

By direct-seeding we've taken a more holistic approach to crop disease and pest management. We use different crops in a rotation so that diseases and pests don't build up in the soil and have to be treated by using chemicals.

Commodity wheat prices, 2005 - 2010. (Source: International Monetary Fund)

Opting out of the commodity grain market is another important factor in the Shepherd's Grain business model. Crop prices are driven by market demand, which can create wild price fluxuations, as seen in this graph. Life was good if you sold your crop at the peak of the market in March 2008, yet just 1 year later, the prices had dropped a whopping 47%. (Click here for a closer look at the graph.)

Not only are farmers impacted by commodity price turbulence, but for large-scale buyers of wheat--commercial bakeries, hospitals, and supermarkets--wild price fluxuations wreak havoc on budgets.

As an alternative, Shepherd's Grain locks in the price for a period of 6 months, guaranteeing a more stable cost structure for both farmers and customers.

Wheat farmer Tom Zwainz and Shepherd's Grain co-founder Fred Fleming.
Pictured at Tom's farm, Davenport, Washington.

Our tour stopped at 4 different farms. We learn that profitable modern farms rely less on labor and more on technology. This combine costs $400,000. Data is downloaded into a laptop on the rig, and a GPS ensures straight, even rows. GPS efficiency eliminates planting gaps and overlap, saving on fuel and seed cost.

Once the wheat is harvested, it's stored in these silos until it's sold and shipped to a mill. The wheat can be stored for up to a year. At this point, it's important to monitor moisture content to prevent mold and other issues.

Learning about different grains: hard wheat, winter wheat, spring wheat, etc.

Portland, OR chef, Cathy Whims. Her James Beard-nominated restaurant, Nostrana, makes fresh bread in house.

Distinctly different: soft white and hard white spring wheat.

While the bulk of Shepherd's Grain flour is sold comercially, their retail product is packaged under the banner of Stone Buhr's All-Purpose Flour. (Other flours in the Stone Buhr line are sourced elsewhere.)

Want to learn more?

Check out their website: http://www.shepherdsgrain.com/

The Best Bread: Shepherd's Grain Flour (via @Gastrognome)

Find the Farmer (via Food on the Brain)