A cadre of New England wheat growers and artisan bakers who proudly call themselves “grainiacs” are creating some of the best breads in the country.
By Rowan Jacobsen
Aug 24 2017
Prepping loaves on the belted loader in front of the custom-built wood-fired oven.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
The day I learned I’d been eating dead flour all my life came last summer when I wandered into my local co-op and picked up a loaf of hearth bread still warm from its oven. It was dark and crusty, with an ornate wheat pattern cut into the top, and it smelled like a hot field in August. It was called Vermont Redeemer. I bought it because of that smell, which was unlike that of any loaf I’d encountered, and because it was made entirely from organic Vermont wheat, which I’d not thought possible, and especially because the bottom of the bag had something else I’d never seen. It was stamped with the name of the farm that had grown the wheat: Rogers Farmstead, Berlin, Vermont.
As I drove home, it was all I could do not to tear into the loaf. My mind chewed on the conundrums. Vermont wheat? All the wheat I’d ever heard of came from the Midwest. New England’s hardscrabble farms were too hilly, too small, and too wet. Yet clearly somebody had grown this wheat. And somebody had milled it. And somebody had made bread with it.
And what bread! Back home, I tore off a hunk, troweled butter over the top, and wolfed it. It was not show-offy bread; it was richer, creamier, more satisfying. I’d always thought that most whole wheat bread tasted like rank sawdust, so this was a game changer. It had the nutty, green liveliness of mown hay, and I realized that although I had tasted a lot of delicious bread before, none of it had ever tasted freshly killed.
I had no idea why, so I contacted the bakery that had produced the loaf and asked. “We mill all our flour the day before we bake,” explained Blair Marvin, who runs Elmore Mountain Bread with her husband, Andrew Heyn. “That’s what you’re tasting.”
Fresh-milled flour? New concept. Wasn’t flour a white powder you bought in paper bags with a medieval knight on the label? Not theirs, Marvin said. “We built our own mill. Want to come see it?”
Oh, yes, I did.
By the time I arrived at Elmore Mountain Bread, at the end of a dirt road in the Vermont woods, I’d boned up on cereal. Although I’ve written for years about the “good food” movement, as the Portsmouth chef Evan Mallett calls it, grains had never been on my radar. That suddenly seemed absurd, since they are the basis of agriculture and supply more of the world’s calories than any other food group. But hey, this was New England. We had some of the best local meats and cheeses and veggies on the planet, and we had star bakers churning out wholesome loaves—but those loaves were made with wheat from Kansas and North Dakota. Our bread was about as local as our coffee.
Yet that hadn’t always been the case. In 1800, Vermont and Maine were the breadbasket of the Northeast, supplying New York and Boston. New England once had 15,000 small mills lining its waterways, grinding flour for local consumption. Only after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, and railroads followed, did the Midwest win the grain game. With its warmer, drier summers and massive acreage, it produced cheaper wheat with a higher protein content, which is what gives bread its elasticity. Wheat moved west, the mills followed, and New England’s farmers switched to milking cows and tourists.
Today, a handful of gigantic steel roller mills in the Grain Belt produce most of our flour, and it is almost all white—the ultimate generic, shelf-stable commodity. And as with other commodities, flavor is not a consideration. Commercial flour is made from standardized blends of high-yielding wheats designed to have as little noticeable character as possible, and whatever perfume the wheat might retain quickly dissipates after grinding. It’s the blank canvas the artisan baker paints on, not the art.
At least, that’s what I thought until I stepped through Elmore Mountain Bread’s screen door and confronted the oven, a brick altar of wheat veneration. Three metal doors crossed its face, and a rosy-cheeked woman with fair hair spilling out of her black cap was pulling golden baguettes from the middle door. Marvin gave me a floury handshake as she scored a batch of Vermont Redeemer with that intricate wheat pattern, a gramophone tattoo flexing on her arm. “I wanted to make the score on this bread really special,” she explained. “All the other bakeries have straight scores. I wanted to do one that was kind of hard, because I felt like it was a really special bread. It’s so much work, and boy are my hands numb by the end of the day, but the bread totally deserves it.” Beads of sweat glistened on her nose. “Sorry,” she said, “the oven’s crazy hot today.”
Elmore Mountain’s bread is wood-fired, the new standard for hard-core bakers. Marvin fires the oven at 9 a.m. the day before and lets it burn for 12 hours. The masonry retains so much heat that 700 loaves can be baked in the cooling oven the following day. “We carefully designed the breads to work with the oven,” Marvin explained. Focaccias, which like high heat, go in first, then baguettes, then more substantial breads that need a longer, cooler bake, like Vermont Redeemer. Breads with maple syrup or honey go in last. “It’s taken a long time to dial it in and figure it out,” Marvin said. “We spent years staring at this thing, baking thousands and thousands of loaves and figuring out how best to utilize the heat.”
Marvin and Heyn designed the oven eight years ago with a gifted mason named William Davenport. For years, they’d used a conventional oven with a single door. They could move just three loaves at a time with a peel, losing heat every time. By the time that oven expired, they had pages of notes on their dream oven, which Davenport built for them. The new oven is larger, better insulated, and bolstered by a steel framework so the bricks won’t blow apart from the constant heat, and it allows them to load or unload two dozen loaves at once with a belted loader through one of the doors without disturbing the others. The moisture from the new batch helps steam a crackly crust on the finishing batch.
Soon the tight-knit community of wood-fired bakers was making the pilgrimage to Elmore to see the Turtlerock oven, as Davenport called it, and to commission their own. One of the first visitors was Dave Bauer, a celebrated North Carolina baker. Bauer was grinding his own local heritage grains on a small stone mill from Austria to produce uniquely Southern breads and pizza crusts. You can’t imagine what a difference fresh-milled flour makes, he told Marvin and Heyn. They were skeptical. “I wanted consistent flour,” Marvin recalled. “I wanted predictability. I wanted to know exactly what I was getting into.”
A few days after Bauer’s visit, a FedEx box appeared on their doorstep. Inside were bags of heirloom Bloody Butcher dent corn, Abruzzi rye, and Turkey Red winter wheat that Bauer had milled the day before. They opened up the bags and stuck their heads inside. “BOOM!” Marvin said. “It was this face-punch of flavor! It blew us away. The smell of it! The aroma! That was the moment. We were like, Sold! Done! We have to do this.”
The best grindstones are made of granite, but they need frequent redressing to stay “sharp,” and that’s a lost art. Austrian mills, the only ones commercially available when Marvin and Heyn began looking, are made from a cheaper composite material embedded with grit, so as they wear away they maintain some roughness. They work fine for rustic, Austrian-style whole grain breads, but they can’t grind fine. As Heyn put it, “It’s like using a Ginsu knife versus a good German chef’s knife.”
Heyn, who has the white stubble, laconic reserve, and tinkering mindset of an old-school New Englander, had a better idea. He pored over 19th-century milling books, boning up on things like the shape of millstone furrows and the trajectory of wheat berries, and came up with a design for a set of granite millstones that would grind flour finely enough to make a superb baguette. He ordered the stones from some flabbergasted granite carvers, built a mill around them, ordered some whole wheat berries from Kansas (the only organic supply available that year), and in November 2013 began milling his own flour.
The impact on Elmore Mountain’s bread was profound. Grinding their own grain allowed them to preserve the germ—the oil-rich heart of the kernel that is ejected by industrial roller mills in making white flour—and whatever portion of the husky bran they wanted, giving their flour a creamy color and intense flavor. Marvin couldn’t believe what she’d been missing. “Open up a bag of flour from a large mill and what do you smell? Nothing. When you open up a bin of fresh-milled flour, you smell all of these things. Wheat is not just a blank slate. Each variety has its own aroma, complexity, sweetness, muskiness, barniness—all of these flavors to translate into the bread.”
Marvin and Heyn quickly became the poster children of the baking revival. “I have met the next bread,” grain maven Amy Halloran wrote of the pair in The New Bread Basket, her 2015 bible of the movement.
“We got lucky that what we wanted to do fell within the trajectory of bread right now,” Marvin told me with a shrug. “Either that, or we just created our own universe.”
Part of that new universe, they hoped, would be farmers. Bakers have always been limited to the handful of standard flours offered by the big mills, all of which are designed to be as neutral as possible. Marvin and Heyn, however, now had the option of buying wheat berries directly from any farmer they could find. Their first thought was to source locally, but they were stymied. “We thought that was going to be easy,” Heyn said. “We had no idea it would be such a challenge.” At the time there were only three people growing wheat commercially in the state, and it was spoken for. The dream of the local loaf was put on hold.
Meanwhile, Heyn found himself in the millstone business. “Other bakers got interested,” he told me. “They’d say, ‘What, you built your own mill? You’re milling all your flour in-house? That’s crazy!’ And then they’d say, ‘Hey, would you build me a mill?’”
Heyn now spends more time on his New American Stone Mills than he does in the bakery. He’s built mills for bakers and millers in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and North Carolina, and a 48-inch monster in Minnesota, and as fast as he can build them, the orders pile up faster.
Why? I wondered. Why would people already committed to long, hard days of sweaty baking pile the arduous task of milling on top? Weren’t we running the clock of industrial progress backward?
For an answer, Heyn brought me to his mill. A thin stream of whole wheat berries funneled down the inverted pyramid of the hopper into the eye in the center of the runner stone, out through the furrows where the whirring runner stone met the stationary bedstone, and into a bucket as fresh flour. I leaned my head into the bucket and breathed in the romance of a hayloft, and for the first time in my life, I thought of flour as a seed.
Of course, if asked I’d have said that grain was made of seed heads, but a lifetime of experiencing flour as a nutritionally barren white powder had conditioned me to think of it otherwise. Seeds: tasty, nutritional gold. Flour: starchy scourge.
But this was so clearly different, and I began to wonder if the ills we assign to wheat have a lot more to do with the industrial process than with the plant. Marvin agreed. “With the industrialization of food, the quality of bread has gone down, and it’s gotten a bad rap. As we were seeing more and more people not want to eat bread, it increased our desire to make better-tasting, healthier, more interesting bread that was closer to the way people have been eating bread for thousands of years.”
Right now, the evidence is circumstantial but growing that the gluten in naturally leavened, slowly fermented breads acts very differently from the gluten in quick-rise industrial breads, and that the gluten in many heritage wheats is easier to digest than the gluten in modern, high-yielding varieties. And fresh-milled flour unquestionably has more vitamins and enzymes than white flour that was milled months or years ago and has been slowly staling in warehouses ever since. I wondered how generations of Americans, mine included, had put up with that.
But then I remembered coffee. Like wheat, coffee is a seed. How many decades was a stale can of Folgers standard fare in American homes and diners? Nobody complained about the old-toast flavor; that was just what coffee tasted like. Not until the 1980s, when a few nuts began grinding their own beans, did people begin to discover the bliss they’d been missing out on. It suddenly seemed obvious to me that this was going to happen with grains, too, and that little Vermont was going to lead the way. But when I proposed this to Marvin, she gave me a funny look. “Have you seen what’s happening in Maine?” she asked. Um, no, I hadn’t. “You are going to the Kneading Conference this month, aren’t you?”
I stammered and said of course I was going to the Kneading Conference. Who wasn’t?
Somehow the Kneading Conference had been flying under my radar for 10 years in, of all places, Skowhegan, Maine, a down-on-its-luck former mill town of 8,500 people on the Kennebec River, about an hour from Maine’s moneyed coast. Skowhegan is ringed by boarded-up strip malls with grass poking through the pavement, but when I popped into a nondescript bakery downtown to buy a baguette, the baker handed it over the counter and said, “This is made with Sirvinta wheat, an Estonian variety that does very well in this climate. It’s milled right around the block.”
I poked my nose around that block and found the Somerset Grist Mill, a four-story mill started three years ago by Amber Lambke, a local community organizer who also founded the Kneading Conference. While working for the farmers’ market, Lambke had noticed the surge of people interested in growing or baking with heritage and local grains. She also learned that in the 1830s, Somerset County had produced 239,000 bushels of wheat a year, enough to feed 100,000 people. By 2007, it produced virtually none. So she launched the first Kneading Conference in a pocket park in Skowhegan, 75 bread heads showed up, and things snowballed.
Pretty quickly, Lambke spotted the pinch point in the system. Growing grains requires a lot of infrastructure: You need combines and seed driers and, above all, mills. “I realized that central Maine was not going to participate in Maine’s grain economy unless we had a mill again,” Lambke told me. She visited Kansas State University’s International Grains Program to learn about milling, which turned out to be a dead end. “No faculty member there could tell me anything about stone milling,” she said. So she trekked to Denmark. “What blows me away in Denmark is that appreciation of whole grains hasn’t been lost. The culture around really good, seedy, dark breads is still there. They’d lost the art of stone milling as well, but they’re about 10 years ahead of us in reestablishing their own grain economy.”
Just as Lambke had assembled the knowledge she needed, a surprisingly perfect space opened up: the local jailhouse. The sturdy cinderblock bruiser was strong enough to hold the milling equipment and thick enough to contain the din. When Lambke toured the building in 2009, it was still full of inmates, but she could picture all those cells filled with milling equipment, and now they are: A four-foot-wide stone mill from Austria, a century-old wooden Clipper cleaner, a de-stoner, a de-huller, a sifter, and all the other obscure pieces of equipment that those of us who enjoy our bread and oatmeal never think about. Lambke milled about 700 tons of wheat, oats, corn, and rye in 2016—a rounding error compared with one of the Midwest’s industrial roller mills, which produce 600 tons a day, but revolutions always start small. More than a dozen farmers around Somerset County have jumped onto the grain bandwagon, and others are on the way.
A mile north of the grist mill, at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds, I climbed aboard that bandwagon at the Kneading Conference, which I quickly rechristened the Forearms Festival for all the bulging, tattooed flexors on display among its millers, bakers, and oven makers. “We’re on the precipice of a grain explosion,” Tristan Noyes, the young executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, told the crunchy crowd. “We’re beginning to reap the rewards of creating an interconnected community of grainiacs.”
Grainiacs, it turns out, are earnest, industrious, sweet, and slightly nuts. “You can grow all the grain you need to make your own bread for a year in an area the size of a two-car garage,” a seed evangelist named Richard Roberts told us in the seminar on heritage grains. And you should harvest that wheat with your own scythe, explained photographer/snowboard patroller/scythe enthusiast Jesse Cottingham in the scything workshop. “It can be a backbreaking tool to use, or it can be like dancing,” he said as he whirled through the tall fairground grass in shorts and bare feet, stalks flying, while the rest of us labored to imitate him without severing anything vital.
There were workshops on building an earthen oven and on baking with einkorn, a predecessor of modern wheat. Marvin and Heyn gave a talk on stone-milling fresh flour. I met a maltster. Farmers asked bakers and brewers what heritage grains they should grow next—an entirely new kind of dialogue. Everyone agreed that there wasn’t enough grain in all of New England to touch local demand. Jason Perkins, the head brewer at Allagash Brewing Company, presented Sixteen Counties, its first beer brewed entirely from Maine grains—mostly malted barley, with some raw wheat and oats thrown in for zest. It tasted clean and bitter and potent, deliciously severe in a very Maine way.
At breakfast, a black-haired priest named Paul Dumais made ployes, the traditional Acadian buckwheat pancakes of Madawaska, his home region near the Canadian border. Ployes are a challenging yellow-green color because of tartary buckwheat, the variety unique to the region. “It’s one of Maine’s poverty foods,” he said as he handed them out. “Generations grew up on it.”
Flipping spelt pancakes beside him was the biggest grainiac of all: author Amy Halloran. “This is ground zero for the revival of regional grain production,” she told me. “It’s happening in pockets all around the country, but this is the most grassroots-driven. People are restoring the social value of staple crops. The processes of farming, milling, and baking make it obvious how necessary we are to each other.”
In other words, bread is relationship. It takes a village of farmers and millers and bakers and eaters. A warm loaf of Vermont Redeemer, bought from a local co-op, is an unlikely triumph of communal gluten.
To be honest, though, I still didn’t get it. I loved having access to flavorful, local bread, and I certainly understood an artisan baker’s wanting to make the best bread ever, but I still didn’t get what would turn a normal farmer into a grainiac. And I wouldn’t, until I tracked that Redeemer to its source: Rogers Farmstead, Berlin, Vermont.
When I pulled up beside the Rogers farmhouse on a steamy summer day, a small boy with a crewcut was surveying a ragtag collection of field equipment like a general reviewing his troops. He waved me over urgently, though he had no idea who I was. “That’s the twactor,” he said solemnly, pointing. “Combine. Thwesher. Mowedboahd pwow.” I nodded in faux comprehension. The red barn, the old farmhouse, the antique equipment, the crewcut—it could have been a diorama of life on the prairie 50 years ago. Some rye that had escaped a nearby field waved in the breeze, its heads still green.
A 40-year-old version of the same boy, right down to the crewcut, stepped out of the barn and shook my hand. Nate Rogers explained to me that one of the first steps in becoming a small-scale wheat farmer was hunting down equipment nobody had made in years. “That length grader shipped from Oregon. I found those cleaning screens in Orono, Maine. The combine’s from northern Michigan. That moldboard plow’s out of Quebec. Five grand. A steal. You can’t get this stuff anymore. That grain drier is the most important piece of equipment we have. I got it for $1,000. It’s 30 years old. It can transform 10,000 pounds of grain into a beautifully stored product in two hours.”
Rogers grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. He loved farming but knew dairy had no future, so he became an engineer at Vermont’s IBM plant. Still, he kept dreaming about raising his kids on a farm, so when he heard about a run-down farm for sale beside the Dog River, just south of Montpelier, he jumped on it.
There was no master plan. Rogers thought maybe he’d raise beef cattle, but he was trying to stay open-minded. “You have to let the land dictate what you’re going to do,” he explained.
And the land, it turned out, had some very clear ideas on the subject. When Heather Darby, an agronomist with the University of Vermont extension service, visited the farm, she turned over foot after foot of rock-free, well-drained sandy loam, and told Rogers something she tells very few farmers: Think about wheat. “She said there’s so much opportunity, you have to go for it,” Rogers said. “I knew the soils were good, but I didn’t know how good. They’re ridiculous. When you end up with prime river bottom, you have to maximize it.”
Darby introduced Rogers to Redeemer, a new variety from Ontario she’d been testing for years. Redeemer thrived in well-drained soils, had excellent flavor and performance, and was resistant to fusarium, a toxic fungus that wrecks most wheat in wetter climates. Rogers went all in. It was an immense gamble, but he had the magic touch. His first crop of Redeemer came through beautifully—and he realized he had no idea what to do with it. There was no Somerset Grist Mill in Vermont.
But there was Elmore Mountain Bread. When Blair Marvin heard that a farm 25 miles down Route 12 from them was sitting on a crop of organic wheat, she had trouble believing it. She cold-called the farm and got some samples, and in 2014 the first experimental loaves of Vermont Redeemer began rolling out of the Turtlerock oven.
One of those loaves was hand-delivered to Nate Rogers, and that was all it took for full-blown grain fever to take hold. “I was really intrigued by the scalability,” he told me. “Grains are much more scalable than vegetables. If you have five acres of vegetables, that’s a big deal. But with grain, 50 acres isn’t that much more work than five.” In 2015, he harvested 20,000 pounds of Redeemer and sent samples to Marvin and Heyn, who came down to the farm to talk business. “It was one of the coolest conversations I ever had,” he recalled with a smile. “They brought lunch, and we sat on the lawn on a big blanket with the kids running around, and I said, ‘OK, how much do you guys want?’ And they said, ‘We want it all.’ And I said, ‘It’s yours.’”
And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship—a farmer who needed a miller and a baker. Not only did they want Rogers’s entire crop but they also wanted to put his name on the label and tell the story of the bread. “It was utterly brilliant in its simplicity,” Rogers said. “We were an unknown entity and we had to define ourselves. Every customer I talk to, I say, ‘Just look at the bag.’”
Now he’s on a roll, and thinking big. He’s growing oats, and a few acres of spelt for a local distiller’s whiskey. He’s playing around with buckwheat. Bigger tractors and combines loom. And he could easily see his 100 acres of wheat becoming 500. “Every piece you pick up makes the next one easier,” he said with a glint in his eye. “We’re just scratching the surface of what we can do.”
Rogers grabbed a rye seed head and squeezed. Milky liquid squirted out. “This is just entering soft-dough phase,” he said. “It’s still a long ways away. The Redeemer is already starting to turn golden. Want to see?”
Oh, yes, I did.
We piled into his truck and drove to a high field framed by green hills and a vintage Vermont barn. We waded into a chest-high field of Redeemer, and there I was, gazing across my first amber wave of grain. So much food! I thought about all the other fields of wheat across New England turning golden at the same time. Something hopeful caught in my throat, something every wheat farmer for 10,000 years must have felt, going back to those first pioneers in the Fertile Crescent. From fields like this, you could make bread and beer for everyone in town. From fields like this, you could build civilization.