Acclaimed artisan bread bakery WheatFields is part of a growing movement of retail bakeries to use bread flour milled from heirloom wheat in some breads, including Country French, Multigrain, Pain de Campagne, Steel-cut Oat, Walnut Sage, and 100% Whole Wheat. This development plays heavily into the current hyper-local sourcing trend that is sweeping America’s retail food industry.
The Lawrence, Kansas, bakery buys heirloom flour from Heritage Grain and Seed Company in Lawrence. The heirloom variety is Turkey hard red winter wheat grown by Bryce Stephens in Decatur County, Kansas, and milled by Heartland Mill in Marienthal, Kansas.
“We love its baking qualities and the flavor of the bread we make with it. While we have no illusions of Turkey dominating the high plains again, we are proud to be playing a part in its survival as a living crop,” WheatFields Bakery co-founder Thom Leonard explains.
Turkey variety hard red winter wheat was introduced to Kansas in1873. Mennonite immigrants from Crimea in the Ukraine, fleeing forced military service from Russia, smuggled in the seeds sewn into the inside of their coats.
While no statistics were kept of the actual amount of seed carried in this earliest introduction, estimates range from as little as 360 pounds (one peck per each of 24 families) to as much as 36,000 pounds (one bushel per each of the 600 families). This is enough to plant 6 to 600 acres.
The Mennonite history relates that this seed was carefully hand selected for the soundest kernels and packed in the coats and luggage of the immigrants on their long journey to new farms in a new and distant land. These farm families also carried with them the agricultural knowledge and skills necessary for this crop to be successful in Kansas, where the climate and soils were much like in their lands in the Ukraine. The farmers and the wheat thrived, as the variety proved well-adapted to the soils and the hot summers and cold winters of the Kansas plains.
In the mid-1880s, grainsman Bernard Warkentin imported some 10,000 bushels of Turkey seed from the Ukraine, the first commercially available to the general public. The 10,000 bushels (600,000 pounds) would plant some 150 square miles (10,000 acres). By the beginning of the 20th century, hard red winter wheat, virtually all of it “Turkey,” was planted on some five million acres in Kansas alone. In the meantime, it had become the primary wheat variety throughout the plains from the Texas panhandle to South Dakota.
So without Turkey wheat, there probably would be no “Breadbasket.”
Today hard red winter wheat is planted to twice the acreage in Kansas than a century ago, some ten million acres. While half the genes in the modern wheat crop have their origin in the old Turkey wheat, only a hundred acres of actual Turkey were planted for harvest in the summer of 2009, on the same northwest Kansas farm that is the source of the heirloom flour in WheatFields’ bread. In the field, Turkey is taller than its modern semi-dwarf descendents. It yields less wheat per acre, but does retain its cold and drought hardiness and its resistance to the most common wheat diseases.