Envision rolling waves of grain, and you may not think first of New England. But grain does indeed wave in Northfield, Massachusetts, where the L’Etoile family of Four Star Farms (fourstarfarms.com) grows two varieties of hard red winter wheat, the staple ingredient of America’s bread. It’s a crop that plots the earth’s rebirth: Planted in the fall, allowed to overwinter (hopefully under snow), this variety grows green in the spring before a golden harvest in high summer. For the L’Etoiles, the seasonal rhythm of planting, tilling, harvesting, milling, and selling it has grown into a rich and fulfilling life for three families.
Four Star started out as a sod farm in the 1980s, but five years ago, after much research, Bonnie and Gene L’Etoile, their son Jacob and his wife, Robin, and son Nathan and his wife, Liz, set out to grow cereal grasses where none had grown before. Now Jacob oversees planting and harvest; Liz handles marketing; Bonnie keeps the books; and Gene does research and management. Nathan has also recently returned to work here, after a stint as Massachusetts’ assistant commissioner of agriculture. Grandson Hugh, Jacob and Robin’s little boy, who’s 3 now, comes by to “work” as often as he’s allowed.
One winter day, Liz cheerfully points out the sales chart: Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton; Bondir, Oleana, and other high-profile restaurants in the Cambridge/Boston area; and many markets across the state. After much hard work, Four Star Farms is garnering wide acclaim for its ‘Warthog’ and ‘Zorro’ hard red winter wheat varieties, with a high average protein content. The flour has a nutty, almost sweet flavor, as delicious as it is nutritious. The L’Etoiles also grow soft winter wheat, barley, buckwheat, rye, hops, spelt, triticale, and heritage corn, some sold as grains and some milled into flour. Milling is done at the farm, and each bag of flour is hand-packed. Liz and Bonnie also sell the flour and grains at farmers’ markets. “It’s the story behind the grains that really sells the products,” Liz says.
Today, as the L’Etoiles and other dedicated farm families reclaim the region’s venerable agricultural heritage, chefs and home bakers celebrate the rebirth of a crop that more than a century ago made the Connecticut Valley “the breadbasket of New England.”