People may not realize that Vermont was once the breadbasket of New England. Local grain farmer Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm shares that Vermont’s wheat production peaked in 1840 at 644,000 bushels, quite small by today’s standards, but certainly not back then.
And now the nation’s second-least populated state is emerging as a major player on the scene of one of the most important movements in today’s artisan bread community. Across the country, local farmers, university wheat breeders and bakers are working in concert to develop grain varieties that offer the most favorable characteristics for yield, baking quality and disease resistance, among other factors.
“If the local and regional grain movement is going to evolve and succeed, it’s going to involve direct communication among farmers, breeders and bakers,” says Jeffrey Hamelman, who recently retired as director of the bakery and Baking Education Center at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont. “And here’s Vermont leading the way again.”
One voice can make a huge difference, as Vermont’s own Bernie Sanders proved in the political arena, and now Vermont bakers and farmers and breeders like Dr. Heather Darby, extension agronomist at the University of Vermont, are playing influential roles in the future of wheat.
“If we say the bake is great, but the farmer says the yield is terrible, it’s not a win-win,” Hamelman says. “What works is when the breeder suggests varietals that work well for the farmer and the bakers, and then all three parties are giving a thumbs-up. The best thing that is going to happen is if we have a lot of regional movements, testing for different markets.”
That’s exactly what happened when Hamelman suggested a few years ago that King Arthur Flour form a partnership with The Bread Lab run by Dr. Stephen Jones at Washington State University. The Bread Lab is a combination think-tank and baking laboratory where scientists, bakers, chefs, farmers, maltsters, brewers, distillers and millers experiment with improved flavor, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheats, barley, other small grains and beans.
The Bread Lab began in 2011 in a small laboratory in the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center. Today, it occupies 12,000 square feet at the Port of Skagit and includes the Bread Lab research and baking kitchen, a cytology lab, and the King Arthur Flour Baking School at the Bread Lab. Last year, they expanded with a milling laboratory and professional kitchen.
Baker-miller Andrew Heyn, who owns Elmore Mountain Bread in Elmore, Vermont, with his wife, Blair Marvin, says local grains are increasingly important to the future of bread. And this messaging resonates increasingly well with today’s consumers.
“The baker can draw that line: I baked it, I milled it, and I bought it from this farmer,” says Heyn. Adds Marvin: “I believe this bread should be accessible to everyone – all income levels and tastes.”