On a recent Friday morning, Wheatberry Bakery in Amherst, Massachusetts, was humming with activity. Behind hand-built wooden counters set with delicate French tiles, co-owner Adrie Lester dealt a brisk business in organic scones and muffins, loaves of fragrant artisanal bread, soups, and sandwiches. In the bakery's kitchen, her husband, Ben, kneaded a batch of dough, then paused to slip a tray of sourdough baguettes into the oven.
The Lesters opened their business in 2005 and quickly established themselves as a neighborhood fixture. But in early 2008, everything changed. Commodity crop prices went haywire, sending the cost of flour soaring. "It was catastrophic," Ben said. The Lesters decided that basing their products on an ingredient produced thousands of miles away in the Midwest no longer made good business sense, and they began to ask what it would take to source grain from local growers.
Two years later, an estimated 10 percent of the grains they use are locally grown, a number they hope to increase over time. In the meantime, the Lesters have poured their energies into a related endeavor: organizing the region's first grain CSA, which in 2009 had approximately 115 members, with a waiting list to match. Last October, Ben and Adrie installed an electric mill in their bakery; now, a day rarely passes without a member stopping by to say hello and grind some grain into flour. The Lesters offer a remarkable example of the creative, community-focused thinking that has driven the local foods movement for the past decade, and they are not alone. From Maine and Vermont to New York and Pennsylvania, a growing number of farmers, bakers, brewers, distillers, and food educators are working to create a regional grain network throughout the Northeast.
Of course, there are the old-timers, like Daisy Flour in southeastern Pennsylvania, which has milled local wheat continuously since the late 19th century, and the relative old-timers—like Vermont's Butterworks Farm and Gleason Grains, which have been growing grain for human consumption (as opposed to livestock feed) since the 1980s. Then there is the "new" generation. In 2006, veteran baker Don Lewis, of Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners, New York, began exclusively sourcing local grains for his breads and rugelach. Rochester's Small World Bakery launched a bread club in 2007 that provides members with a weekly loaf baked from New York flour. And Cayuga Pure Organics, a 600-acre grain and beans farm, was founded in 2003 by two long-time Ithaca farmers, Erick Smith and Dan Lathwell.
Last year, Cayuga joined New York City's Greenmarket system as its first supplier of whole grains, beans, and flour. Greenmarket publicity manager, Sabine Hrechdakian, said customers have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. "In recent years we've seen [local vegetables and] grass-fed meat take off," she said. "Grains are the new frontier."
Once upon a time, of course, local grain was de rigueur. Before America's amber waves settled in the Great Plains (Kansas and North Dakota produce most of the country's bread wheat, each harvesting over eight million acres annually), the East was America's original breadbasket. This early production was, by default, hyper-local—grown by individuals and ground at home, or in small communal gristmills.
In 1825, the Erie Canal opened up trade routes that enabled New York's fertile Genesee Valley to emerge as a leading wheat producer. The canal also helped establish cities like Rochester and Buffalo as early centers of industrial milling. According to the late Blake McKelvey, a former Rochester city historian, Rochester boasted 21 active flourmills by 1835, enough to earn it the title Flour City.