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October: Good Grains

So many folks I know feel they are gluten intolerant. Yet humans have been eating grains since prehistoric times without such distress. What is going on? Some evidence seems to point to the fact that the modern versions of our favored grains have become over-hybridized, or that it's really the residues of pesticides, herbicides and other nasties making us ill. It didn't used to be this way, that's one thing we can be sure of.

The American Midwest is called the "Breadbasket of the World" and most of our grain products come from enormous farms spreading over thousands of acres, growing only grain, year after year. But it wasn't always that way. Farms were smaller and growing grain was just one part of an integrated farming operation. Preindustrial wheat was very tall, its straw as valuable as the grain for fodder, thatch, bio matter for healthy fields, fuel, livestock bedding and dozens of other uses.

Only a few generations ago grains were grown abundantly in the Chesapeake region and ground at independent mills. Huge crop yields and durability in milling and storage were low priorities since milling and flour distribution was local. In 1810, Pennsylvania had over 2000 mills. Virginia, had 441 mills and even Baltimore City proper had 22 mills in the 1850’s.

With short stalks and roots, modern hybridized wheat has been developed to put all its energy into producing big kernels that are easily harvested by machine. It will grow in extremely dense mono-cropped conditions—conditions that deplete the soil, encourage insects, funguses and other diseases, conditions that require enormous amounts of irrigation and lots chemical fertilizers and pesticides to meet the demands of the crop. No wonder we don't feel so good. And scientific studies have found that many of the older grain varieties do not cause an adverse gluten response in sensitive people, in spite of having just as much gluten as modern grains.

Fortunately, as of late, there's been a lot of interest from local Chesapeake farming communities in reviving heritage grains. In 2010, Next Step Produce in Charles County, Maryland, began offering organic whole barley, oats, rye and wheat at the Dupont Farmers' Market. Now they are milling as well as growing and their heritage Turkey Red Flour, and it is what you'll find at Baltimore’s Atwater's Bakery's in their popular Turkey Red Loaf.

Atwater's has set a goal of using at least 25% local flours in their bakery and they also buy from McGeary Organics up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Selling under the brand name of Daisy Flour, McGeary mills their wheat at the historic Annville Mill. Built in 1740 it's the oldest continuously working mill in the United States. Working with the Rodale Institute, Daisy Flour is now producing their heirloom Lancaster Red Reserve Series of Heritage Wheat Flours. On the eastern shore, permaculturist Vint Lawrence is constantly experimenting with heritage grains at his Lands End Farm. Doug Rae at the highly-regarded, Evergrain Bread Company, in Chestertown gets much of his specialty flours from Lands End.

Creative and community-conscious bakers like Ned Atwater and Doug Rae are bringing the wonderful old-fashioned tastes and textures of these nearly forgotten strains of wheat to the marketplace with good results. Tim McGuire, the operations manager at Atwater's predicts that, "Hopefully we're big enough and present enough to show people what can be done with local flour."

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