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Case Study: Expanding Wheat Varieties for Flavor and Sustainability

In an effort to reduce shipping inefficiencies, a group of geneticists, farmers and bakers bring more wheat diversity – and tastier breads – to the east coast.

| March/April 2017

  • Ice Cream Fridge
    Most of the variety in grocery store products involves flavoring or branding, not differing ingredient varieties.
    Photo by iStock/RapidEye
  • Cow
    In the U.S., the Holstein-Friesian cow breed provides at least 90 percent of milk, yogurt and ice cream.
    Photo by iStock/HenkBentlage

  • Ice Cream Fridge
  • Cow

In the United States, wheat is distinguished by season, color and hardness. Hard wheats, such as bread grains and durum, are largely grown in Midwestern states including Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado. Soft wheats, primarily used for cakes, pastries and biscuits, are grown in the South.

Understanding that the more popular U.S. market is for hard wheat, local growers in Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina approached wheat breeder and plant geneticist David Marshall and asked if there was a way they could expand into those types. “And my first reaction was ... no,” Marshall says. “But then I said, ‘We’ll take a look at it.’ So we did.” 

After much research, in 2009 Marshall and his colleagues developed two lines that did particularly well in North Carolina and Virginia and were released as premier varieties of hard winter wheats by and for the East Coast. One of the project’s long-term goals, Marshall explains, was to see if they could greatly reduce East Coast millers’ and bakers’ reliance on trucking or shipping in tons and tons of flour that had been produced in the central U.S. So far, it’s working.

But the project also helped the East Coast develop new grains, and better food. Brewmaster and author Garrett Oliver explains, “We knew back in the 1970s, as we walked through the supermarket, that something was wrong — but we didn’t know exactly what it was. Somewhere in our hearts we knew bread was supposed to be made of just a few ingredients and probably go stale in a day. We knew it wasn’t supposed to be full of ingredients we couldn’t pronounce ... chemicals. We knew bread wasn’t supposed to be Wonder Bread. People learned to take food and make it into food facsimiles: something that reminds you of food but isn’t real food.”

The antithesis to this flavorless, chemical-filled bread is bread made with minimally processed local, heirloom grains. Carolina Ground, the only mill in the southeastern United States dedicated to the exclusive processing of regional grains, grinds local, heirloom grains in small batches with the germ crushed into the endosperm flour, spreading its oils and flavor. When sifting, Carolina Ground “removes larger bran particles but doesn’t fully separate the three components of the grain berry,” says founder Jennifer Lapidus. “What we offer to the bakery is a distinctly different flour, with flavors not detected in a roller-milled product.” 

Chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurant Dan Barber clarifies, “Using freshly ground whole-grain flour allows you to taste things in the grain you otherwise would have missed. Each new grain — even each new harvest — we receive is very different. So, in that sense, there is very much a terroir to bread — a story that’s being told not only about the soil but also about a larger community of breeders, millers and bakers.”

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