The Grain Conference Keynote Speech by Dave Miller

Thank you all for coming and thanks to Clemence and the team here at Gourmandise School for asking me to speak.  I’m honored to be here

I remember the first grain fanatic I ever met.  I was managing a bakery in southern Wisconsin and one day, a fellow comes into the shop and buys a large amount of bread.  He had driven all the way from Illinois, a couple of hours drive.  I remember he was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans on a hot summer day.  After buying the bread, he launched into a detailed account of his diet.  He told me that in the summer time he ate nothing but home-made yogurt, cantaloupes he grew in his garden, and my bread, which he usually bought at a store near his home.  He then went on to tell me how he peed into mason jars and stored them on his back porch so that he could fertilize his garden with it.  Then, as if it was in the normal course of the conversation, he asked me if I’ve ever made spelt bread.  It took me a few seconds to erase the image in my head of hundreds of urine-filled mason jars sitting on someone’s back porch.

But once I was able to focus on his question about spelt, I had to say no, I had never made spelt bread.  This was 1989 and though I had seen it in Europe, I didn’t know of anyone in the U.S who baked with spelt.  He went on to say that he had read an article about an Amish bakery in Berlin, Ohio that made nothing but spelt bread.  And he wished that I would make it, too.

After he left, I got all excited, and I looked up that Amish bakery.  I found out where they got their spelt and started making spelt bread that same year.  It became a big hit for the bakery, and started me on a path.  You never know where your inspiration will come from.  A year later, I heard about another unusual wheat, Kamut, and the whole romantic story of a WWII American pilot who bought an urn of mysterious grains, supposedly found in an excavated pyramid, and brought them back to his family’s ranch in Montana to grow them out.  Voila’ Kamut.  Those were the first so-called ancient wheats I encountered in the U.S.  Then, in the 90’s, Thom Leonard, a baker from Kansas, in cooperation with Heartland Mills, started promoting a heritage wheat called Turkey Red.  Soon afterward, in the late 90’s, Monica Spiller, up in Palo Alto, raided the USDA seed bank and acquired about a dozen little packets of heritage wheat berries and asked a number of small growers in California to grow them out.  Varieties like Iraqui Durum, Ethiopian Bluetinge, Foisy, India Jammu, Wit Wolkering, and Sonora.  Then people like Glen Roberts of Anson Mills, in South Carolina, started finding and offering strange wheat varieties.  Eli Regosa of NY, UVM, Cornell, the Bread Lab in WA,  An explosion of interest in local grain systems, heritage grains, and breeding grains for flavor and nutrition.  What led to all of this?  I think a bit of history might help.

Normally, you’d find me in rural Butte County not too far from the city of Chico, where I sell my bread.  Chico was founded by a man named John Bidwell in the 1850’s.  He made a bunch of money mining gold.  In fact, he was a buddy of John Sutter, of Sutter’s Mill fame, where gold was first discovered in 1849.  Bidwell was actually at the mill, doing bookwork, when it happened.

He ran for governor, twice, unsuccessfully.  He was a leader in the Bear Flag Revolt that gave California it’s independence from Mexico.  And, he was a visionary when it came to agriculture.  While working as a surveyor for the new state, he came across a former Mexican land grant parcel of 22,0000 acres called Rancho del Arroyo Chico, bordered by the Sacramento River on one side and the Sierra Foothills on the other.  He liked the property so much that he bought it with his gold earnings.

He set out right away experimenting with hundreds of crops to see what suited his new land the best.  Every fruit tree you can imagine, vegetables, nuts, wine grapes…..and he grew wheat.  10,000 acres of wheat.  And it was wheat that would become his main source of income until he died.  In fact, John Bidwell’s wheat won the Gold Medal at the 1878 World Expo, in Paris.  I asked friends of mine at Chico State University, where there is a large section of the library devoted to Bidwell, if they could find out which variety of wheat was the winner.  I know that the three varieties he was growing at the time were Club Wheat, something called Chili Wheat, and Sonora.  Whichever it was, the judges at the Paris World’s Fair declared it the best in the world.

Bidwell and his wife, Annie, built a mansion on one side of Big Chico Creek and donated a large piece of land on the other side of the creek for the new town of Chico.  In this mansion they played host to two sitting presidents over the years, John Muir would drop in on them, and a host of luminaries from California’s agricultural and political worlds.  His absolute favorite thing to do was to treat his guests to biscuits made from wheat grown on his farm that had been threshed, cleaned, milled and baked that same day.

During the years that Bidwell was growing wheat, he wasn’t alone.  There were many very large farms in the state growing wheat.  There was a farm across the river from Bidwell’s that was 50,000 acres, all planted in wheat.  Wheat was planted from Bakersfield to Red Bluff, north of Chico.  The entire central valley.

Ninety-nine percent of that wheat was put on barges on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers headed for San Francisco bay.  It was then loaded onto schooners that sailed all the way down the length of the central and south America, around Cape Horn and back up the length of the Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool, England. About 18,000 miles.

All of this is to say that California has never had a local grain economy.  What we are doing here at this grain conference isn’t going back in time.  We are here to explore what we want our future to look like.

Now, just as I say that, I want to go back in time, just a little bit, to spotlight a California baker who was decades ahead of her time, and had no qualms about ignoring the accepted way of doing things and working for a better future.

Also, if it wasn’t for Elsa Scharnhorst, I probably would never have wound up here in California.  Elsa and her husband were part of the underground in Oslo, Norway during WWII.  The Germans actually occupied their home as an officer’s quarters.  Meanwhile, Elsa worked tirelessly throughout the city helping Jews find a path to safety.  Before the war, she established the largest and finest clothing store in Norway before being forced to leave her homeland for the U.S. when the war got ugly.

Once in America, Elsa decided that the only thing more important than clothing people was feeding them.  She had trouble understanding the immense popularity of soft, white bread here, and opened what must have been an unusual sight at the time, a whole grain bakery, in Escondido, north San Diego County.  When it was brought to her attention what was happening to American agriculture after the war, she decided to do something about that, too.  She insisted on organic wheat long before there was such a term.  She wanted old-fashioned, traditionally grown wheat.  She spent hours every day preaching against white flour and chemical farming to her customers.

This was in the late 1940’s.  Seventy years ago.  I wouldn’t doubt if she was the first organic, whole grain bakery in the country.  Not only that, but Elsa was sprouting grains and using them in her breads.

She was a very strong person, which I found out when I first met her and she grabbed my hand to shake it.  I immediately had o pull out the file in my head labeled “What to expect from nice old ladies” and make a footnote “May possess enormous strength”.  She had a grip of steel.

I had just come out from Wisconsin where I had been managing a bakery that was part of a biodynamic farm.  Ready to strike out on my own, I had heard through friends that there was a bakery in San Diego County, fully-equipped and looking for a renter.  Since I had very little money to start a business, the thought of not having to buy any equipment appealed to me very much.  So, I took a trip out West to take a look around and to meet my would-be landlord, Elsa, in 1992.  Elsa was 85 then.  She had run the bakery until she was 82 years old.  Then, her son, Harald, tried running it for two years before he gave up and moved to Idaho.

So, the bakery sat there, empty.  It had a big revolving deck oven, which was the only kind of commercial oven you found in bakeries before the 90’s.  There was a Hobart mixer.  In the back room, there was even a mill.  Elsa milled all of her own whole grain flours, fresh.  It was a towering metal behemoth, about 8 feet tall.  The mill consisted of 4 sets of metal burs all stacked one on top of the other.  Turning it on sounded like an airplane taking off.   I hated being in that room when the mill was running.

So, a few months later, I moved into the bakery Elsa built and started my business.  Three years later, a bakery in Chico came up for sale.  It was called Ponce’ Bakery, they made the type of bread that I was making, whole grain sourdough bread, since 1985.  One of only a handful of bakeries doing this work.  The only one in the West.  I wound up moving to Chico, buying Ponce’ and inhabiting yet another pioneer, whole grain bakery.  Three years after that, I built my present bakery, adjacent to our home in the foothills east of Chico.

The farmer I had been working with and whom I worked with for the first 10 years of my business was a man named Dan Thomas, a biodynamic farmer from North Dakota.  He was someone I met while I was in Wisconsin.  When I arrived in California, I never it never entered my mind to search for California wheat for the bakery.  I had never heard of wheat being grown in the state.  Then, once I learned that, yes, indeed there is wheat grown here, I was told that it wasn’t very good quality.  Since that went along with my pre-conceptions, I didn’t question it.  But then, in 2002 Dan Thomas retired.  And, right around that time my friend Alan Scott, who made a name for himself building brick bread ovens all over the country, and who lived in Marin County, was trying to get me interested in buying from a grower he discovered way up in Siskiyou County, near Mt. Shasta.

He assured me that the quality of the wheat he grew up there was very good and he was right.  It was very nice quality wheat, and I wound up using Gary Black’s wheat for the next 9 years.  Good quality hard red spring wheat, year after year.  He had no interest in growing other varieties.  What he grew worked for his farm, and that was the important thing, so I didn’t push it.

Although I’ve worked with exceptional farmers, for the majority of my baking life, I’ve had very few options to choose from when it came to truly unique varieties of wheat.  But seed for a broader range of both new and heritage varieties wasn’t available back then.  I want to stress how full our cupboard is now, in comparison.  In the last 5 or 6 years, an abundance both of newly bred wheat and rediscovered old wheat varieties are being grown in California because they work as whole grain flours.  They nourish, they satisfy, and they taste great.

These two growers, Dan Thomas and Gary Black, were growers who had grown wheat for decades, in fact, they were generational, their fathers and grandfathers grew wheat.  The majority of farmers I’ve worked with in the past six years are in a different category.  Many of the pioneers of the heritage grain movement are not generational wheat farmers. Each farmer’s situation is unique.  Some own their land.  Most do not, they lease.  Some have a mix of crops, some high-value crops that they grow alongside their grains, or in rotation with their grains.

Learning how to do anything well, takes time.  Learning how to grow wheat well with the countless variables of proper seed selection, soil type and quality, cultivation practices, weather, and all of the mistakes you make along the way that are necessary to building an understanding, takes time.  And with farming, you only get one crack at it per year.

Thanks largely to the work of the California Wheat Commission and UC Davis, and some private breeders, there exists a stock of well-researched, well-tested varieties of wheat that have been proven to perform well in the major wheat growing areas of the state.  There haven’t been any organic trials to speak of, yet, but there are organic growers who have also had success with some of these varieties.

But what the growers of heritage varieties are taking on is much riskier.  There have been no studies to gauge how this variety of spelt, or that variety of emmer, or that heritage red wheat will fare in our climate and growing conditions in an organic system.  So, the experiments are going on in the field, with each crop these farmers are growing.  One thing that I’ve already heard from a few farmers working with heritage wheat varieties is a renewed appreciation for what more recently developed wheat varieties offer.

Growing older, taller, wheat varieties can be tricky, especially if you are trying to grow them as bread wheat, with just the right balance of gluten proteins to facilitate the rising of bread.  Gluten protein development depends largely on enough fixed nitrogen in the soil.  The tricky part is that too much available nitrogen can produce even taller, less-sturdy stalks which lead to lodging, or the falling over of the plant so that the heads are lying on the ground which leads to problems come harvest time.

There are good reasons wheat was bred to be shorter.  There are good reasons wheat was bred to give higher yields – the farmer is more likely to be able to make a living.  I’m not someone who feels that modern wheat is evil. Most years, the bulk of the bread I make is made with modern wheat varieties.  At the same time, I truly love many of the ancient and heritage varieties, and I’m thankful that  courageous farmers are doing all of the difficult work that it takes to grow them, many taking substantial risks to do so.  I have to include in that, the mills that have popped up to support local growers.  Their risk is just as great as the farmers’.  We have to be patient in all this, and realize how new it all is.

What I see happening in California is bakers and chefs acknowledging a need to connect with the source.  To connect with the piece of earth that grew the food.  To connect with the people who grew the food, and to learn their stories.

The stories I hear are really interesting to me, and I’ve always felt that it is important to be able to relay those stories to my customers because at least some of them are looking for the same connection to the source that I’m looking for.

And there seems to be at least as much interest among farmers to connect to us as we are to establish some sort of relationship with them.  If you care about your work, you want to see what happens to it.  We all want to close the loop.

I can see it when I read about John Bidwell taking so much delight in feeding his guests with freshly prepared biscuits from wheat that he’d grown, because 99% of what he grew was whisked away to England.

A lot of any future success hinges on the creation of markets; markets for local grains, and markets for the products many of us are making with local grain.  The California Grain Campaign was created with this in mind.  Our inspiration came from GrowNYC which is an organization that runs 50 farmers markets in New York City.  They made a decision several years ago to gather the bakers who sold at their markets, and to ask them to support the grain growers in their region by incorporating a % of locally grown and milled grains in the products they sold at market.  They set a bar of 15% local.  After a few years of resisting, griping, complaining and finally considering and experimenting, they complied.  And it has given the local grain economy a big boost.

Seeing the growing interest in locally grown grain here in California, we wondered whether the New York model could work in our state.  That’s when we launched the 20 x ’20 campaign.  20% California-grown by 2020.  Right away, six farmers’ markets in the LA area expressed an interest – Diana Rodgers of Mar Vista, Greta Dunlap of Beverly Hills, the Torrance, La Cienega, Santa Monica, and Ventura markets.  Our hope is that market directors all over the state will adopt the 20% standard.  It will depend on how much motivation market directors have and ultimately, how much motivation bakers have.

As soon as we started this work, it was clear that growers don’t just need a market for their crops.  They need access to appropriate scale harvesting, cleaning and milling facilities.  The infrastructure isn’t quite there for smaller-scale grain growing.  And they need an opportunity to learn from other growers and share experiences.  They also need access to research through the universities.  One event we put on was a small grains field day last spring at Open Field Farm with a great list of speakers including Mark Lundy of UC Davis, Jared Zystro of the Organic Seed Alliance and Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms, among others.  It was very well-received and we hope to organize more field days.  There are a lot of needs and honestly, we’ve been spread quite thin working to address some of these needs.

The California Grain Campaign is very young, less than a year old.  And there’s no telling where it will go from here.  None of us are paid to do this work, which will be a problem long-term unless we find a funding mechanism, either through grants or private funding.  This needs to be someone’s job.  We already have jobs.  I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, and if we continue to address people’s true needs, and we continue to be a helpful resource for the grain community, then we have a future.  In the meantime, we can use help.  Grant writers, graphic designers, help with our website, outreach, event planning, help with our educational farmers’ market roadshow booth.  There are a number of ways people can help if you are so inclined.  And a number of you have already helped us and I thank you for your generosity.

Actually, there are lots of things we can all do to help this effort.  If you are a farmer and you are basically attempting to direct-market your grain, learn as much as you can about possible end uses.  Then research what the various end users are looking for.  Talk to as many people as you can.  Honestly, if you are targeting bread bakers you are targeting the hardest group of people to please.  We are as picky as it gets.  We need the gluten just so, we want our breads to be big and beautiful and voluminous.  We are very price sensitive because flour is basically our only ingredient.  A dollar more per # in the cost of grain means a dollar or more in the cost of our bread.  Whereas, a baker making pies, tarts, cookies, scones don’t need a strong gluten, plus it’s much easier to bury the effects of higher cost flour because portions are smaller and there are more expensive ingredients that go into the product than the flour. An increase of $1/# in the price of the flour may only mean an increase of 10 or 15 cents in the final product.

Also, if you are a farmer and you do want to sell your wheat as bread wheat, have it tested by the California Wheat Commission.  Personally, I will always get a sample to trial when I am considering whether or not to buy from someone.  But it helps enormously if I have some data to give me a starting point; how long do I mix, how much water do I add, how long of a fermentation does it need?  I really appreciate knowing what the gluten’s properties are and how enzymatically active the flour is before I test it.  A test called the Alveograph does the best job of indicating the gluten properties, above a simple protein %.  Just knowing the protein content is not that informative.  Protein quality is much more telling, and the alveograph gets to that.  Something called the falling # is the best indicator of how enzymatically active a flour is.  This helps me to set starter percentages and ferment times.  It costs a little more to do these tests, but it is the kind of information that helps me do a successful trial run with a new flour that I am testing.  I don’t have to start blind.  You can talk to Claudia Carter and Teng Vang about these, and other, tests, they are super helpful.

If you’re a baker and you’re having trouble getting access to the locally produced grains and flours that are out there, band together and let your mill or distributor know.  This was a tactic they used in New York.  Get several different bakers to approach a distributor they all use, and request that they carry local flours.

Another thing bakers can do is give honest feedback when they have the opportunity to talk to their mill or their farmer.  Don’t be afraid to tell whomever it is that it’s not working for you and be as specific as you can be about why, in a kind and helpful way.  And when it is working, communicate why and how it is working. None of us are going to get just what we want overnight.  Remember how new this all is and think long-term.  We all need to learn from each other.

Bakers, please don’t push to get any of these whole grains turned into white flour.  As soon as you do that, you’ve de-valued it.  As soon as you sift out the bran and germ from these precious grains, they’ve lost their identity, their healing properties, their aroma and their flavor.  These grains have a much higher value if they are kept whole.

Last year, I did something with a wheat I’d just received from a grower near me.  It wasn’t a heritage wheat, but it’s aroma and flavor were unlike anything I had experienced up to that point.  Sweet, grassy, spicy, really unusual, and I’m always excited when I come across really unique qualities in wheat.  By the way, when this happens it can sometimes reflect the general characteristics of a particular variety of wheat, but it can also be a result of whatever was happening on that farm and in that soil on that particular growing season.  In other words, it may not necessarily be replicable.  Which makes it all the more precious when it happens.

Anyway, I brought some of it down to Teng at the Wheat Commission and asked him to make white flour from this stuff.  I wanted to see how much flavor and aroma was still around in the endosperm after the bran and germ were removed.  I half-expected there to be some residual flavor and aroma left over, but there was none.  I had succeeded in doing what our milling industry does to 90% of the wheat grown in this country.  I took away the wheat’s identity. Please keep the flour whole.

If you are neither a farmer or a baker what can you do to help?  If you are a market manager, get your bakers using California grown grains, join the 20 by 20 campaign.  If you’re a chef, incorporate local whole grains into your dishes, and talk about them to your diners.  If you’re a writer, write about local grains and the people who grow, process and eat them.  If you are a talker, join us on our Road show stops at farmers markets, educating the public about the value of buying local grains.  If you are an average citizen, let your local baker or brewer or restaurant know that you would prefer it if they sourced locally.  Maltsters, brewers and distillers are now showing an interest in sourcing locally which is important.  Collectively, we need to develop a range of markets for local grains if we’re to be successful.

I wanted to talk a little bit about value.  How do we place a value on the wheat being harvested on these farms?  This is a personal decision, and the more you value, the more difficult your decision is.  If the only thing you value is low cost, your decision is easy- you buy the cheapest grain or flour available.  Or maybe you have two things you value – low cost and high performance.  With wheat, these aren’t necessarily in conflict with each other, we can generally find hi performance wheat for reasonable prices.  Now, let’s say you value good farming practices, or organics.  You value proximity, you like that you can buy grain from your general region, within a few hours drive.  Or maybe you value having some kind of relationship with your grower or miller.  Maybe you’re aware of our shrinking pool of farmers and want to reverse this trend by supporting young farmers who are just starting up.  Or you may value loyalty to a particular farmer.  I just listed all of the things that I value, and I find that I weigh each one a little differently every year to make my decision of whom to buy from.

Each one of us has our own set of values, and we make decisions based on those values.  They develop over time, and they can’t be dictated.  It doesn’t work to tell bakers that they have to pay more for their flour than they are comfortable with.  At the same time, I would like to encourage all of you to be willing to step out of your comfort zone, because, as I see it, this is unprecedented.  We have a growing number of local farmers inspired to grow for US and grow what WE are asking for; grains both old and new, that are meant to keep their identity, keep their unique flavors, aromas and nourishing qualities. What we are all trying to accomplish here in California; create a transparent, thriving local grain economy, is not business as usual, it’s a little messy, not very efficient at first, or convenient, and it’s costly.

Personally, I had to step out of my comfort zone to pay what I’m paying for wheat in the last 5 or 6 years.  When I started calling around for local grain sources and getting quotes for double and triple what I had been paying previously, I was upset.  I wanted to buy local, but this was too much.  What I saw were a bunch of start-ups, basically.  Well-meaning people getting into grain growing without the right equipment, without a lot of experience, without a lot of land, and I saw them making some mistakes.  I felt it was unfair for them to ask me, and others like me, to pay their start-up costs.  Half of me wanted to go back to North Dakota (where I grew up, by the way) and look for one of the many outstanding organic wheat growers there.  I actually started making calls.  First, to the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag. Society, a great organization at the center of organic farming in the northern plains.  And I called the NDSU organic research extension office in Carrington, ND to get the names of growers growing interesting varieties.

But, before I actually called any farmers, I stopped myself.  It just felt wrong.  If growers are here in California taking risks and willing to do the hard work how can I not support them, experienced or not?  I decided to come back home.  First, I raised all of my prices so buying grain at a higher price didn’t essentially mean that I had to take a pay cut.  And no one blinked.  Customers were absolutely fine with it.

Anyway, I would encourage all of you, if you haven’t already done so, to step out of your comfort zone.  We’ll all need to in order to develop and maintain a diversity of options here in California.  I left my comfort zone when it comes to price of grain.  I’m mostly out of my comfort zone when I’m doing work for the California Grain Campaign.  And I’m definitely out of my comfort zone standing up here and talking to a large group of people, even a great group like you all.

As bakers, we have the luxury of working with these grains and we need to do everything we can to support the growers who grow them and the millers who mill them for us.  We aren’t building an industry, that’s what we are leaving.  We are building a culture.  As bakers we know you can’t mix flour and water and let it sit for two months, without interruption, and expect to find a vibrant, stable, living sourdough culture on the other end.  It needs to be fed and cared for.  This grain movement needs the same thing.  We need to feed it and we need to care for it.

If Elsa Scharnhorst could find a way to be successful back in the 1950’s and 60’s, at a time when no one even knew what the heck she was talking about – organic farming, freshly-milled whole grains, sprouted grains – with no contemporaries, no one else to lean on or confide in, or to help her in any way.  If Elsa could be successful, then we have no excuses.  I certainly don’t.  The public is with us on this.  They want to support a local grain economy.  Let’s do what we can, individually and collectively, to create one.

This room is filled with energetic, creative, resourceful people. I trust that all of you will use your unique gifts to feed and care for this thing.

Thank you.

Dave Miller