Story by WHITNEY PIPKIN; Photos by SCOTT TERRELL, Skagit Valley Herald, August 7, 2011
MOUNT VERNON — When Steve Jones heard that organizers of a conference focused on grain in Maine sought to replicate the event on the West Coast, he invited them to visit the Skagit Valley.
The organizers had planned to host the event, called Kneading Conference West, in Portland, but changed their minds after seeing Skagit.
“They fell in love with the area as soon as they saw it,” said Jones, director of the Washington State University Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, where the conference will be held Sept. 15-17.
The forum is expected to draw about 200 growers, millers, bakers and brewers to the area, not to mention a handful of experts who have “written the book on bread.”
Discussions will be centered on how to bring the local grains system full-circle again, from field to mouth — and how to overcome the many obstacles to that goal.
Jones said it wasn’t just the expansive research center that impressed conference organizers, but also the themes of sustainable agriculture that already were sprouting across the landscape here.
Besides directing the center, Jones is a wheat breeder who shares with the conference organizers a vision for fostering local grain systems, from field to mouth. He was a keynote speaker at the first conference five years ago in Skowhegan, Maine.
The first conference was organized to bring back some of the grain production that once existed in Maine but now resides almost entirely in the Midwest. Since its inception, the conference has drawn national media attention and inspired stakeholders across the grain industry to think differently about the process of producing grain-based food and drink.
What’s in store:
The event also has become a bit of a foodie affair, with almost anything that can be baked or brewed working its way onto the agenda.
The research center will temporarily turn one of its labs into a commercial bakery for the threeday event by installing a $20,000 steam injection oven.
The oven will be put to use during workshops designed to teach serious home bakers and cooks how to perfect their cinnamon rolls, pies and woodfired pizzas. They’ll learn straight from the scientists how to measure the quality of flour before throwing it into a batch of bread.
A wood-fire clay oven will even be built on site over the three days by the guy who wrote the book on building wood-fire ovens — literally. (Kiko Denzer’s book is called “Build Your Own Earth Oven.”)
One of the few millstone dressers left in the nation will be giving demonstrations on sharpening stones that have been used to grind flour by hand for centuries.
And let’s not forget the beer.
A grower and maltster from Victoria, B.C., and a researcher from Oregon State University will spend the three days displaying the brewing process, from barley to beer.
One of the main sponsors of both the East and West conferences is King Arthur Flour, a Vermontbased company that’s been in business for 220 years and now ships products nationwide. Jeffrey Hamelman, master baker and author from King Arthur, will be a keynote speaker at the local event, talking about the finesse of baking with grains from new growing regions.
Steve Voigt, company president, recently announced he’ll be coming as well. He said Jones “totally sold” him on getting a firsthand look at what’s going on in Skagit when the two met at the Maine conference last year.
For his company, the conferences are about getting the cutting-edge conversations going among players in the baking world.
“We think it’s really important to get the oven builders and farmers and home bakers all together talking to each other as to how they can get the best quality,” he said in a phone interview.
Quality is an important piece of establishing new growing regions, especially for wheat that will be baked into bread. It has to have the right protein levels — and the baker has to have the right touch — for the chemistry of baking to work.
Voigt said bakers probably knew how to make bread from their local varieties of grains a hundred years ago, but now most are accustomed to a certain quality of grain coming from a specific region.
King Arthur Flour buys its grains from the traditional Midwest sources for that reason, because the company knows it can get the quality that bakers expect from its flour.
“We can’t put flour in King Arthur bags that doesn’t meet our standards,” Voigt said.
But the company has begun testing what it can get from locally grown grains. Voigt said his firm’s Vermont store has started to sell some flour made from wheat grown in the state, and the company’s team of master bakers is always experimenting.
Voigt said he’s eager to see firsthand the growing, milling and baking trends emerging on the West Coast.
“In some ways you’re further along, and in some ways this is your first conference,” he said. “The more we can help each other, the better.”
The vision here:
The grain situation in the Northwest is different than on the East Coast, Jones said.
Oats were the first crop grown in the Skagit Valley when the farmers diked and drained it in the late 1800s. The oats, which do well in salty conditions, fed horses, workers and loggers for years. Then came potatoes, seeds, cabbage and other crops, and grains were slowly relegated to a role as a rotational crop.
Today, most Skagit farmers plant winter wheat in rotation with their moneymaking crops, like potatoes and tulip bulbs. The wheat is trucked to Portland and sold at commodity prices set by the large-scale bread-basket farmers. In a good year, local farmers break even on the crop.
“We want to help them lose less money when they grow grains,” said Jones. “That’s the point. It’s not even to increase the acreage of grains, but just to utilize more efficiently and more locally what we do have here.”
Seeing the potential for local agriculture, the Port of Skagit gave $5,000 to sponsor September’s event. Jerry Kaufman, chairman of the port commission, said the conference will help local farming remain viable longterm and “unlock some big opportunities for local farmers.”
Skagit County also is a sponsor of the event, along with Whole Foods and a number of West Coast bakeries and mills.
Jones and others are just beginning to tap the possibilities of local mills and markets absorbing the grain that’s already grown here. One of the first steps is convincing farmers to change the way they do things.
Dave Hedlin, owner of Hedlin Farms in La Conner, bought into the idea a couple of years ago and offered up some of his six acres of organic wheat for experimental baking.
Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, which moved to Burlington last year, milled some of his produce into whole wheat flour and sent the first batch to the Breadfarm in Edison for test-baking early last year.
The local trio, from farm to mill to bakery, paints a picture of what the conference would like to help establish on a larger scale. The three facilities will be part of a tour on the last day of the event.
Jones and other WSU researchers work closely with all three of the local facilities, backing up their efforts with constant research on new, heartier grain varieties.
The Mount Vernon research center is growing and testing 35,000 varieties of wheat and at least 2,500 varieties of barley to study which thrive the best in the Northwest’s marine climate.
The center has identified varieties that are resistant to stripe rust and other diseases that plague wetter environments. Researchers have done test-milling and baking, malting and brewing to determine which varieties taste the best, too.
There is one thing researchers didn’t expect to come from the trials — a sense of place.
Jones sent some flour made from wheat grown in the Skagit Valley to George DePasquale, owner of The Essential Baking Company in Seattle, for test-baking a couple years ago.
DePasquale, who’s been baking for 35 years, said the whole wheat bread he made from it was the best he’s ever had.
“I was amazed. The flavors were so deep and broad and beautiful,” he said. “Chocolate was the note I was really tasting, which I had never really tasted in wheat before.”
Scott Mangold, owner of the Breadfarm, had a similar experience when he was making a whole wheat starter from grains grown at Hedlin’s farm.
“When it was rising, it had a whole different aromatic characteristic from what I regularly use. It’s earthier,” he said. “We’re just curious about whether there’s something there.”
Though part of the taste might be attributed to the variety of grain, Mangold and DePasquale said the experience points to a bit of “terroir” showing up in the grains. The term is usually used to describe the specific characteristics associated with wines, coffees or teas from a certain region and climate.
There’s debate about whether grains can carry such qualities. If they can — if places like Skagit could develop their own version of the San Francisco sourdough — it could be a game changer, DePasquale said.
Jones’ face lights up when he talks about the possibilities.
“That is something we really want to capture is that uniqueness,” he said. “We do it with our berries, we do it with our ciders, with our wines. Can we take something as mundane as wheat and do it? And we believe we can.”
Scott Mangold (left), owner and head baker of the Breadfarm in Edison, kneads bread with employees on March 4 for baking that evening. Next to him is Jim Kowalski, and measuring each loaf for weight is Caryn Jarvis.
Steve Jones, director of the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, stands with some heirloom red wheat being grown at the center, which will host the Kneading Conference West next month.