Articles in Business
Across the country, bakers are starting to mill their own flour. The idea might seem silly. Make your own flour? Might as well make your own air. But like fresh ground coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh milled flour is a galaxy away from its banal supermarket counterpoint.
Flour’s job is often structural, delivering flavors such as butter and chocolate in sweets, or fermentation in bread. Flour stands in the background and doesn’t make a peep, like the ideal child of yore. This silence comes from stripping away the most flavorful elements of grains through the milling process, which generally removes all of the germ and much of the bran.
“Fat equals flavor,” a chef friend declared in the early ’90s, when fat was a popular thing to fear. I’ve found his statement holds true, even in grains.
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Grain kernels have three parts: bran, endosperm and germ. Most of the oils are in the germ and the bran, which also hold minerals, nutrients and flavors. Flavor and fat are volatile. Once exposed to air in the milling process, the oils in grains spoil quickly. Bran has other strikes against it, and the biggest is that it interferes with making lofty, airy loaves of bread.
Roller mills, which were adopted in the late 1800s, allow for removal of bran and germ. One advantage of this is shelf stability, and another is making flour that is mostly endosperm, a powerhouse of starch and protein that’s great for baking.
Stone milling was the way to make flour for millennia. Now, millstones prop up mailboxes on suburban lawns, but the technology is having a revival. Bakers are adding stone mills to their kitchens because the process allows them to use more whole grain flours and experiment with flavors.
“Fresh milling is a new frontier in the repatriation of wheat to our regional economies,” said Steve Jones, director of The Bread Lab and Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center. The place is a magnet for inquisitive bakers drawn to the science that is following flour back to the field. The lab has small mills to test grains as scientists, and resident baker Jonathan Bethony, investigate varieties, seeking types that grow well for farmers and perform well for bakers.
“The flour is flavorful and quirky. The flavor is a plus for sure, the quirkiness can be a pain,” Jones said of fresh flour.
Flour aged to improve its strength
Flour is typically aged to improve its strength and even out irregularities that newly milled flour can display. Again, I think of children, who are tamed into good behavior. Time, or in many cases, bleach tames young flour, and its potentially wild expressions.
“We are working to add some predictability back to the equation. Fresh milled is usually weaker but in our experience still makes incredible bread and again the flavor makes it all worth it,” Jones said. “Grassy, nutty, chocolate and various hints of spice? You don’t get that from old flour.”
Fresh flour is one of the primary reasons Tabor Bread exists in Portland, Oregon. Owner Tissa Stein saw a gap in the foodie city, where there was wood-fired pizza, but no place exclusively making wood-fired bread, nor house-milled flour.
The bakery opened two years ago, in a house down the street from a dormant volcano, Mount Tabor. The kitchen is tucked behind the oven and mill, which are visible from the café. The Austrian mill has its own room, but the walls are glass, so people can see the action.
The pine-planked mill is pretty as a piece of furniture. Baker/millers pour grains in the hopper, and inside the wooden casing, two large stones grind grains into flour. Customers like to see this tool at work.
Stein likes being able to bake with whole grain flour for flavor and nutrition. She fell in love with bread of this quality when she lived in California and bought Desem bread from Alan Scott, the baker and oven maker who launched a wave of microbakeries in America. Scott built an oven in Stein’s backyard, and influenced her decision, decades later, to mill whole grains and capture their vitality.
“Going directly from grain to flour to mix with only a day or two in between,” she said, enhances the taste, and the food value of the bread. Fresh whole grain flours add complexity, building layers of flavor from the lively enzymes on the bran that feed the sourdough cultures.
Fresh flour rather gymnastic
Fresh flour can be rather gymnastic because of those enzymes and other factors, but the challenges are hardly insurmountable. In fresh milling, people are tapping into a tradition, as Dave Miller did in the late 1980s. Getting a whiff of fresh flour as an apprentice at Berkshire Mountain Bakery really made an impression on him.
“That imprinted the whole thing for me,” Miller said. “As a baker you never get to smell fresh flour, and you don’t know what you’re missing.”
The moment when grains are cracked open is when the flour has the most potential nutrition, he believes. By the time he opened his own Miller’s Bake House in Northern California, he knew how he wanted to bake, using a wood-fired oven, organic grains and a stone mill. His experience is a model for others taken with the concept, and putting it into practice.
Theoretically, milling also lends more choices in sourcing, but current production for industrial milling and industrial baking limits what’s available, and its channels of distribution. Baker Graison Gill, of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, is keenly aware of the flow of grain.
“We’re at the mecca of transportation for grain barges and elevators and silos,” Gill said. The Mississippi River handles 60 percent of grain exports for the country, but access to flour and grain is slim for the bakery. The constraints are partly why he chooses to mill some of the flour he uses. Making great bread with wildly good tastes and superior nutrition factors into the decision as well.
“When you’re stone milling you’re preserving the integrity of the grain,” he said, and all its vitamins and minerals. In the case of wheat that means, “Omega 3 fatty acids, plus phosphorus, folic acid, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, mono- and polyunsaturated fats and vitamins C, B and E.”
Bellegarde makes 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a week, selling to a mixed wholesale clientele of wine shops, supermarkets and restaurants. All of the breads incorporate some fresh milled flour. The fall menu of specialty breads was built to feature these stone ground whole grains, including wheat, rye, blue and yellow corn, buckwheat and durum. Louisiana rice and wheat go into the Acadian Miche, and a Pecan Flax bread is also made with Louisiana wheat. The Louisiana wheat is soft, and soft wheats are better for pastries, so he can only add so much to a bread.
“I got some Texas-grown hard red winter wheat and I made a loaf of it on Saturday and that was incredible,” Gill said. Aside from a few places milling grits, Bellegarde is an anomaly, which is a catch-22. Until there are more people seeking unusual grains, farmers can’t grow crops to serve the market.
The emergence of mills in bakeries can change that. Just as farmers markets acted as bridges to build local agriculture, mills are essential infrastructure for leveraging production of staple crops in small acreages and out of the commodity system.
Fresh flour, however, is not just a moral proposition, but a quick ticket to righteously great tastes. Dig around, and you might well find your favorite baker is getting curious about their main ingredient.
Main photo: Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he’s just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell
It’s hard to do justice to all the miller-baker all-stars, but here’s a list of some bakeries milling some or all of their flour.
Miller’s Bake House Yankee Hill, California
Tabor Bread, Portland, Oregon
Bellegarde Bakery, New Orleans
Elmore Mountain Bread, Elmore, Vermont
Bread & Butter Farm, Shelburne, Vermont
Green Mountain Flour and Bakery, Windsor, Vermont
Zu Bakery, South Freeport, Maine
Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Housatonic, Massachusetts
Farm & Sparrow, Candler, North Carolina
Sub Rosa, Richmond, Virginia
Boulted Bread, Raleigh, North Carolina
Renards European Bakeshop, Princeton, Wisconsin
Baker Miller, Chicago
Crooked Tree Breadworks, Petoskey-Harbor Springs, Michigan
460 Bread, Driggs, Idaho
Nomad Bakery, Derry, New Hampshire
Hillside Bakery, Knoxville, Tennessee
Fol Epi, Victoria, British Columbia
600 Degrees, Tofino, British Columbia
Boulangerie Bonjour, Edmonton, Alberta
True Grain Bread, Cowenchen Bay, British Columbia
The Night Oven Bakery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Some restaurants that feature fresh flour
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York
All Souls Pizza, Asheville, North Carolina
Pizzeria Locale, Denver/Boulder, Colorado
Some independent mills closely tied to bakeries
Stone mills can supply your home baking
Farmer Ground Flour, Enfield, New York
Hayden Flour Mills, Phoenix
Carolina Ground, Asheville, North Carolina
Grist & Toll, Pasadena
Camas Country Mill, Eugene, Oregon
Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill, Skowhegan, Maine
Greenwillow Grains, Brownsville, Oregon
Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina
On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.
Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.
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It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.
Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.
The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.
“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.
“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”
While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.
“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.
“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”
She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.
“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”
In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.
“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”
The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.
Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.
“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”
Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.
“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.
“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”
Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 24 hours
Yield: 8 cups
1 turkey neck
Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail
1 onion, halved
1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
10 whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients
1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.
2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.
3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.
Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo
Are olives an aphrodisiac? My research suggests they are not, but for Andrea Pupek and Fabio Cimicchi, they most certainly were. Andrea’s Global MBA thesis project, a comprehensive marketing plan for Fabio’s family olive oil business, resulted in love, marriage and now a vibrant olive oil export business, Caselle Italian Imports.
Andrea’s mother knew early on that Andrea would travel the globe when at 13 she became a student ambassador of People to People. Her parents provided her with roots and wings. Her roots were firmly planted in Western Massachusetts, and her wings took her to Italy.
Family’s pierogi ‘factory’
Andrea recalls the strong ties her family had to her paternal grandmother, her babci. Her favorite memory with her babci is what she calls “the Pupek family pierogi factory.” As with many family recipes, none were ever written for the pierogis. Andrea had the foresight when her babci started forgetting things at 92 years old to document and photograph the pierogi factory. A legitimate recipe now exists, and an indelible memory was forged between Andrea, her sister and their babci.
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Family values were the centerpiece of Andrea’s upbringing. Even after her parents divorced they continued to celebrate the holidays together. This exceptional situation of support, love and respect was one Andrea would find among the olive groves in Orvieto, Italy.
Andrea’s thesis work took her to Italy — to the Cimicchi family — to develop a business and marketing plan for the export of their olive oil. She never imagined that one of the Cimicchis would become her husband or that she would call Orvieto home.
The transition she says was easy.
Fabio’s family’s values echoed hers. His family is emotionally and physically close, resembling what one might imagine a prototypical, multi-generational Italian family to be. Sunday lunches are a ritual. It anchors the family solidly in their generational traditions of meals that are simple, but long and delightful. There are multiple courses that include some form of roasted chicken, potatoes and, of course, a homemade pasta dish.
Marriage of family traditions
At the holidays, Andrea integrated her family’s Christmas cookie-making traditions into the Cimicchis’ traditions. When Andrea and Fabio traveled to the United States for the holidays, she made sure to include one of the Cimicchi family’s Christmas Eve favorites – chocolate spaghetti – in her family’s festivities. Imagine spaghetti with olive oil, chocolate, walnuts and sugar paste. Now that’s a decadent tradition worth importing.
The love affair has produced much more than the fusion of family values and food traditions. It has also resulted in the creation of Caselle Italian Imports. The Cimicchi family owns more than 195 acres of land, planted with more than 2,000 olive trees.
Le Caselle is located the between Orvieto and Castel Viscardo in the Umbria region, which is known for its olive oil and is frequently referred to as the green heart of Italy.
The Cimicchi family’s ties to Le Caselle date as far back as the 1700s when the family came to care for the land under Knight Guiscardo, who was himself hired to protect the land for the church. The land changed hands a few times among a small group of families, but Fabio’s great-grandfather Alessandro ended up owning the majority of the original Castel Viscardo estate. In 1984, Fabio’s parents purchased the rest of the family land that makes up the original Le Caselle estate from Uncle Guiseppe Cimicchi, with the goal to produce wine and olive oil.
Family’s olive oils
The Cimicchis produce two types of olive oil for sale: Madonna Antonia, which is made from 100% moraiolo olives, and Olio delle Caselle, their signature Umbrian blend. The blend is a closely held, secret family recipe perfected over several generations, using just the right proportions of moraiolo, leccino, frantoio and rajo olives. Olio delle Caselle has a golden color with a tinge of green.
When tasting the olive oil, Fabio told me to slurp the olive oil along with some air. Adding the air emulsifies the oil and allows it to spread across your entire mouth for a full taste bud experience. The taste was smooth and fresh, with a little spicy aftertaste. Delicious. It is perfect on young greens and tomatoes, in salad dressings and soups, and as a dip for crusty Italian bread.
With the matrimony of Andrea and Fabio, and the loving support of close family friends, Caselle Italian Imports was born. Andrea put her masters thesis to work, sharing the amazing fruits of the Cimicchis’ labors with the wider world. Caselle Italian Imports also offers other Italian specialty products, such as traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena.
Main photo: Recently harvested olives from the Cimicchi family’s Le Caselle estate in Italy. Credit: Andrea Pupek
The way to make a small fortune in wine, they say, is to start with a large one. The phrase comes to mind as I taste the first vintage at London Cru, the eccentric, possibly uneconomic, but very serious urban winery in southwest London: the first in the UK capital.
London Cru follows a pattern of urban wineries such as 8th Estate in Hong Kong and New York’s City Winery, buying in grapes and vinifying them in the city. It is the brainchild of the keen young team that surrounds Cliff Roberson, a 74-year-old wine merchant of considerable renown.
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He started the importer Buckingham Vintners in 1974, and in 1991 opened his flagship shop, Roberson Wine, in London’s Kensington district. By 2004, he’d sold all of his shares in Buckingham (by then one of the UK’s biggest wine companies, selling 40 million bottles a year) to the European wine group Schenk, to focus on the retail side of the business.
A couple of years ago, Roberson “got itchy” as he put it. When his right-hand man, Adam Green, suggested they set up a winery, he was interested.
“Ninety-nine out of a hundred businessmen would have run a mile,” Green says. “Cliff is that one in a hundred who saw the possibilities.”
From warehouse to urban winery
They enlisted as a partner an itinerant entrepreneur, Will Tomlinson. With a million-pound start-up fund, they equipped a former gin distillery in Fulham that served as Roberson’s warehouse with five open-topped stainless steel fermenters and a barrel cellar. The capacity: 2,500 cases, They hired Australian winemaker Gavin Monery, whose résumé includes premium wineries such as Cullen and Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, Chave in Hermitage, and Remoissenet and Alex Gambal in Burgundy.
Roberson, a company with annual wine sales of 10 to 12 million pounds through retail and the restaurant trade, and with a fine wine broking arm, has access to premium producers in every wine region of the world.
“Most of the guys we are buying grapes from, we import their wines anyway,” Monery says.
So he can control harvest dates (they pick early for freshness), and quality. To ensure they get exactly what they want, they pay handsomely — more than double the going rate, in some cases.
The first vintage, the 2013, consists of four wines: a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Roussillon, and a Barbera from Piedmont. Monery has sourced three more for 2014, a Syrah and a Garnacha from Calatayud in northeastern Spain, and a white English grape Bacchus, from Sandhurst Vineyards in Kent. Labels are minimalist: the wines are called SW6 (London Cru’s postcode) White Wine No. 1, Red Wine No. 1, and so forth. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UK’s Byzantine food laws forbid the mention of vintage or grape variety on the label.
A long journey by refrigerated truck
When the grapes are picked, they are transferred immediately to refrigerated trucks, which then make the 36-hour journey through mainland Europe, over the English Channel and into the winery. The trucks are key to the operation, Monery says. A fleet of such vehicles buzzing back and forth through Europe can’t come cheap. Is this a viable business model?
“Well,” Green says with a smile, “it’s not the safest or the most rational business plan you could come up with, but, equally, it’s one that we all thought was interesting. We are thoroughly aiming to offer our investors a good return, and they see the aesthetic pleasure of being involved, and of bringing something genuinely new to London.”
Indeed, it is aesthetically pleasing to be in a fully functioning winery — complete with pungent aromas of oak and fermentation — in the middle of London. And the wines themselves? I don’t know what I was expecting from French and Italian varietals vinified in Fulham by an Australian, but I found them fresh, bright, charming, and loaded with varietal character.
It’s a pity that the 2013 is made in such tiny quantities — far fewer than 1,000 cases in all, and they are down to their last bottles. There’s a small fortune to be made here.
London Cru wines
All about $24 (£15) , available from the winery’s website.
SW6 White Wine 1 – Chardonnay: Bright, fresh, rather exotic nose with nice creamy roundness, this mitigated on the palate by brisk and precise acidity cutting through crunchy apple and some high tropical notes. Charming.
SW6 Red Wine 1 – Syrah: Picked early at 12 degrees alcohol. Delicate white pepper nose followed by a savory palate with dark fruit topped with ripe black cherry. Soft tannins with grip dissolve into lovely mouth-watering juice. Excellent.
SW6 Red Wine 2 – Barbera: Ruby red hue, bitter cherries on the nose, dancing acidity, tannins that are dry, even dusty, quickly releasing gouts of mouth-watering juice leaving a memory of ripe fallen damsons. Fresh, wild and utterly beguiling.
SW6 Red Wine 3 – Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of leaf and nettle that swirl out of the glass like a genie from a lamp. Classic blackcurrant leaf palate, tannins with grip and heft, scent of menthol alongside the hedgerow fruit, lots of juice on the finish. The best of a very strong quartet of wines. Bravo.
Main photo: In London Cru’s urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru
I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.
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Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.
Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.
The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.
The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.
A hundred-year drought
A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.
Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.
Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.
In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.
Three rivers, now no rivers
One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.
Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?
The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.
Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.
After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.
In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.
Between a rock and a hard place
Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.
But Birch is in a bind.
Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.
Looking to the future
The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.
Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.
To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.
Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.
To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.
In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.
And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.
Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch
I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.
Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.
Agribusiness central to region
Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.
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Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.
Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.
The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.
Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”
Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.
There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.
World Ag Expo
One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.
The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.
The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.
Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison
The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.
Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.
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A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.
Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.
There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.
A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.
“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.
Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue
The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.
In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.
Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”
Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.
PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.
The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.
Check your local PBS listings for show times.
Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV
The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.
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This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.
Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.
Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.
In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.
The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!
Skill and strength
Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.
As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”
As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.
Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:
First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)
Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.
Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.
The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.
Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR