Two weeks ago I was at Cascadia Grains Conference, eating whole grain challah and barley biscuits. The breakfast treats were made in a class taught by OSU’s cereal scientist Andrew Ross and Sea Star Bakery’s Annie Moss. I blamed my appetite on being three hours ahead, but my hunger was also excitement.
More than 300 people were gathered in the Pacific Northwest to talk about what I was tasting: how to get grains of known origin in our food system – and beer and liquor systems too! I wanted to gobble up the whole day and savor it as well.
I love the connections this event is making. I came to it first when I was researching my book, and I still feel thrilled to be in the room, and see who these people are. The challenges farmers face in Eastern Washington are not what’s keeping farmers from Northeast from hopping into the market for regional grains; the I-5 Corridor has a very different climate and consumers — yet similarities exist, and everyone in this revival of regional grain production can learn from each other.
This year, the conference brought June Russell in as their first keynote speaker. June is an all star in the Northeast, where she developed the Greenmarket Regional Grains Project for GrowNYC. Greenmarket runs 54 farmers markets, and the organization’s interest in getting their baker members to support regional agriculture built supply of, and demand for, grains.
June spoke about the work, detailing the partnerships required for this kind of systems change. Greenmarket collaborated with land grant universities, independent agricultural projects, state agencies, and entrepreneurs to build a network of suppliers and resources. In 2010, once they felt there was an adequate flour supply to support the initiative, Greenmarket required its farmers market bakers to use a minimum of 15% regionally grown and milled flour.
This has been a powerful tool in changing mindsets and use. Having a regulating body set conditions on sourcing was critical in developing markets for flour, and this model could be used to support re-establishing other local foods. Greenmarket gave businesses reasons to make the tough choice to spend more on ingredients. Imagine if other entities nudged change. How about food companies preferencing crop rotations from their suppliers? (This is happening, and I’m working on a story about it.)
June Russell sat on a panel with farmer Mai Nguyen, who started The California Grain Campaign after learning about Greenmarket’s plan and success. In California, the campaign is run entirely on volunteer fuel, without any organizational backing. They are doing a lot of education at farmers markets, and asking markets to require their vendors to use 20% local grain and flour – all whole-grain, all Californian, by 2020.
Farmers markets are great places to convey information about the differences between average flour and grains and these specialty crops and products. Shoppers are ripe for conversation. In other venues, like bakeries, the exchange is not expected to be as conversational. But some people are doing a great job of transferring information, like Rob Salvino and his Damsel & Hopper bakery In Seattle.
I love how he names the grains, just as you would name the fruit in a certain tart or danish. There isn’t room on the tiny placards to announce where the grain was grown or the flour was milled, but I know that Rob knows this and that by putting grain names on the labels, he is setting the customer up to ask questions.
More talk can lead to more action. As we make staple crops visible, as we give them names and talk about the places they come from, more customers can ask other bakers to find ingredients that have an identity and flavor.
So tell me, and show me on Instagram, signs of these great grain times. I want to see how people are identifying the flours they’re using. Bakers and eaters, take pictures! Tag me in a post, send me an email, and let’s make some phone-sized the billboards advertising the change that’s happening, and is possible in grains.