The economic impact of agriculture is growing and it remains the largest private industry in the state. The Shenandoah Valley is still lush with fields of wheat. Almost none of that wheat is destined for the bread or cereal on your table, though. Some local farmers and bakers are working to change that.
You may think of flour as a neutral ingredient that takes on the flavor of whatever it's baked with. That's because that flour is milled from grains grown for the commodity market. And in that market, farmers are rewarded for yield and consistency. But Evrim Dogu, who co-owns Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond, remembers the first time he could taste the flavor of flour.
"It completely convinced me that I did not have a choice," Dogu said. "I had to make bread like that. Once you have something like that I would feel almost irresponsible at that point like I know that that's out there but I'm selling this other thing."
This flavorful loaf of bread was the result of an experiment in growing grains outside the conventional food system. Now it's something farmers are trying out in Virginia where bread wheat hasn't been grown in generations. It starts with someone like Daniel Austin, a grain farmer in Franklin County, who was frustrated with the lousy commodity market prices. "We started growing corn and soy. The price isn't very good with that," Austin admitted. "Economics is always my driver. That led us into growing grains, which is what we're trying to grow now."
Then it takes a baker who is willing to take on the challenge of baking with these unique grains for the sake of flavor. Heather Coiner bakes bread at Little Hat Creek Farm in Nelson County. "I am now transitioning to having all my rye flour come from Virginia, which is super exciting. It's delicious," Coiner raved.
Dogu and Coiner have decided the value of that flavor is way higher than your standard grocery store flour. "The baker will pay twice as much for a specialty crop. They'll pay up to 4 times as much for a really special product," Dogu said."
That's important because farmers are taking the risk of growing wheat outside the commodity market to get away from its price fluctuations. They're also small so the only way to make a profit is to take on the whole process of cleaning and processing the grains that a grain elevator would normally handle. Daniel Austin, the farmer in Franklin County, is counting on capturing profits that are usually reserved for those larger corporations in the commodities chain through these direct sales. "I'm sure you've seen the split of the American food dollar—what part goes to the farmer, the processor, to the marketer," Austin explained. "So really it needs to be each man needs to do his own thing as far as the marketing."
That marketing hinges on the superior flavor of these grains. And that flavor in turn depends on growing different grains each season as Pete Sisti, a farmer outside of Richmond well knows. "Crop rotation is probably what I struggle with the most and that is related to market opportunity," Sisti admitted. "The farm has to be able to have a saleable crop. But at the same time you can't say ok I'm gonna grow barley every year because there are a bunch of bakers that would love to have local barley and then all of the sudden one day now you're monocropping and you open yourself up to diseases and pests."
That means bakers have to work with several farmers to get the variety and quantity of grains they need. And farmers have to find bakers who are willing to take a new crop each season or find new bakers to buy each new crop. That's a lot of work on both ends until the local food production network gets bigger, or at least more connected. "Our focus has necessarily been making sure that we have a viable business so that we can use that as our base from which to build on the rest of the vision, which is building a local grain economy," baker Heather Coiner said.
Like Coiner, many farmers and bakers wish Virginia had an organization, like Carolina Ground in Asheville, North Carolina, that could match farmers' crop rotations with the flour needs of bakers and pool resources for all the required equipment. The premise of the organization was to move money out of the commodities markets run by Wall Street and onto Main Street, a goal baker Evrim Dogu agrees with. "I want to open a bakery that would be the kind of bakery that exists in the kind of world that I want to live in, that I want to bake in and so forth. If it fails, that's a good experiment," Dogu said. "The fact sometimes that we're not failing, maybe we're doing something wrong ‘cause I thought it was gonna be even more difficult to make a dollar this way."
It’s a new way, or really a resurrection of the old way, of getting grains to your table. And, if these farmers and bakers have their way, the results will be more delicious.