New York State has malt fever. This January, the Farm Brewery Law went into effect, and people are amped up about homegrown beer. The law makes it easier to open small breweries that use the state’s agricultural products like hops and grains. Everyone from politicians to home brewers thinks this is swell. Not me.
I’m a baker, and I’ve been following flour back to the field for a few years, meeting people who are putting wheat into local markets. I’m getting to know the brewers and distillers who are thrilled about barley for malting, which turns the grain into base ingredients for beer and spirits. Barley and wheat are small grains, and need similar infrastructure for growing and handling, so the interest in alcohol has the potential to expand small-scale grain farming overall. Still, I’m sorry this frenzy didn’t happen over bread.
Why does beer command more attention than bread? At the state level, I believe it is strictly mercenary. If there was a bread tax, I’m sure I would have met politicians on my flour tours a long time ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been meeting farmers, millers and bakers working outside the wheat belt. They are passionate, and devoted to helping grain production get rolling in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country. So are the researchers and food activists they work with. But those with beer fever outnumber them.
The interest in localizing beer is impressive, but confuses me. Meetings about hops and barley are booked beyond capacity, crowded with people thinking of planting hops to get agricultural tax credits, and farmers who have never grown grains.
I am not immune to the powers of alcohol. I used to adore India Pale Ales, or IPAs, especially any made by Stone, but I can’t drink anymore. It just makes me feel lousy. Still, I remember how beer brings unity and bliss, creating a brotherhood of the bottle. Even cheap beer can do this — I never understood baseball better than when I held a plastic cup of Budweiser in Yankee Stadium. America, understood.
Bread is also communion. This social symbolism works even for the non-religious. We break bread to be together literally and figuratively, yet neither the concept nor the practice influences our expectations of cost. If bread means so much, why do we think that the staff of life should be cheap?
More on Zester Daily:
Sure, artisan breads command our imaginations and a good market share in bakeries and supermarkets and at farmers markets. But think about the way you think about staples. Don’t you want your milk and bread inexpensive, so you can spend money on treats like lattes, cupcakes and craft beers?
Milk doesn’t have as many philosophical strings attached, yet it, like grain, when removed from standard pricing systems (commodities for grains, fluid milk prices for milk), costs more than the price of production, and more than most people are comfortable paying — myself included.
The dairy industry is working to change the way fluid milk is priced. The current system was developed in the 1930s and is bizarrely linked, by an algorithm few can understand or explain, to the price of cheddar set by the Chicago Board of Trade. Making milk is often more expensive than farmers can earn selling it. No wonder, then, that over the last 30 or 40 years, dairy farms have disappeared quicker than ice cream on a hot day.
Bread makers know the cost of cheap
We get cheap flour and bread because grain production is centralized on 2,000- to 5000-acre farms in states such as Kansas and Montana. While heirloom tomatoes are almost clichés of local food, grains are late to local tables because these low-value crops need a lot of land, labor and equipment. Prize vegetables such as arugula or heirloom tomatoes can bring a lot of money per acre. Grains generally cannot. Grain growers need costly tools, like combines and grain bins. A nuanced understanding of planting, harvest and storage techniques is required to produce high quality grains.
We’ll pay 4 bucks for a cupcake, but bakers have a hard time making the numbers work for flour whose cost is not balanced by federal subsidies for commodity crops. Beyond price considerations, bakeries of all but the smallest, most hands-on scale are hesitant to work with flours that do not have the predictability that comes from blending seas of pan-American wheat.
Bakers used to know how to work with flour that varied from field to field and year to year. Mills were local — look for the abandoned millsones at the edge or your most tumbling stream. Is the answer to retreat from industrialized food so that what we eat costs what it costs to grow? I don’t know, but I would like to see fewer fields of corn and soy and more amber waves of grain.
Sowing outside the grain belt
That is happening, bit by bit. Farmers are figuring out what varieties of wheat grow and harvest well in the humid Northeast summers. Having more demand for barley for malting or wheat for baking will help build the infrastructure required to get grains in the ground and get those grains to market.
There are discussions of community mills and cooperative granaries in New York, Maine and elsewhere. Many partners — the Northeast Organic Farming Assn.-New York, the Pennsylvania Assn. of Sustainable Agriculture, Cornell, Greenmarket Regional Grain Project, OGRIN and others — are in the middle of a four-year grant sponsored by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. They’ve been educating farmers about growing practices, building a mobile cleaning unit to help process grains, and conducting field trials of wheat varieties.
Despite my sour grapes at the beer frenzy, I am hopeful that the desire for local barley will feed the need for local flour, and help bring prices closer to manageable for bakers and eaters. Let’s see whether beer — in a sense — grows bread.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to urge flour along. Ask your artisan baker if they make a local loaf. Buy that local loaf once they start baking. And get your co-op to carry that flour and use it for your biscuits, pancakes and pie crusts, OK?
Top photo: Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran