Alliance Aims to Grow Virginia's Grain Economy

Dec 12, 2019

Michael Grantz with a few of the local flours he uses.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

A regional network in our area has a humble goal – to resurrect Virginia’s grain economy, from the wheat in our soil to the bread on your table. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.

The Common Grain Alliance is a nonprofit organization comprised of more than 40 grain growers, millers, and bakers in Virginia and the mid-Atlantic region. A common refrain among their members is that flour, so often taken for granted as a substrate or thickening agent, should itself taste good.

Hannah Johnson, co-founder of the Common Grain Alliance.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

HANNAH JOHNSON: Many other foods have really come into the spotlight for the local foods movement. You know, people are interested in going to the farmers market and buying heirloom tomatoes and pasture-raised meat and eggs.

Hannah Johnson, a home baker and produce farmer from Keezletown, is one of the co-founders of the alliance.

JOHNSON:  I think a lot of people think of grain as this flavorless filler food that’s just an ingredient that you don’t taste.

She bought a second-hand, tabletop mill to process flour in her own kitchen.

[Sound of milling durum wheat]

Grantz with his wood-fired oven, which he uses for everything from crusty breads for market to home cooking.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

The group is just a year and a half old. Another co-founder, Michael Grantz, runs a market garden and wood-fired bakery with his spouse Arden Jones outside of Lynchburg.

[Walking across Grantz’s field]

He remembers the alliance’s first few meetings in the basement of the Waynesboro Public Library.

MICHAEL GRANTZ: Most of the people at the meeting had some sort of grain-related business, whether it was a small bakery or a mill or a farm, so we’re all trying to figure out what the best options are for us to support each other and develop the regional grain economy.

Members now meet on a quarterly basis around Virginia. A few of them recently convened a panel at the Virginia Farm-to-Table conference in Weyers Cave, including Daniel Austin of Taste of Jubilee farm in Rocky Mount.

Daniel Austin of Taste of Jubilee Farm.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

DANIEL AUSTIN: In 2019, we harvested barley, we harvested two different kinds of hard winter wheat, we harvested spring oats, we harvested open pollinated corn, number 2 yellow non-GMO corn, non-GMO soybeans, and buckwheat.

He, too, denounces commodity flour for being a tasteless powder.

AUSTIN: Flour is everywhere in our food. Almost everything we eat … And you should be aware of the flavor, not to mention the health benefits, of eating local, freshly milled flour.

Austin grows grains for seed use, animal feed, and human consumption. His food-grade wheat primarily goes to Deep Roots Milling in Roanoke for processing, which is run by sixth-generation miller Charlie Wade. Wade says that almost all of his grower and buyer connections were made through the Common Grain Alliance.

Charlie Wade of Deep Roots Milling, at the Virginia Farm to Table Conference on the campus of Blue Ridge Community College.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

CHARLIE WADE:  … really tight-knit community, like-minded folks, great to bounce ideas back and forth. I just really enjoy the community of it.

One of those buyers is the worker-owned restaurant The Little Grill Collective in Harrisonburg. Co-owner Tim Wiggins also sat on the Farm-to-Table panel.

TIM WIGGINS: All our pancakes use Virginia grain, our biscuits, and our cookies, and some of it goes into our potato cakes and our soysage: soy sausage … I think it’s important to support local agriculture and local small business that are trying to do the right thing for the soil and for the environment.

While the term “local” has no set definition in terms of food production, Hannah Johnson hopes the alliance can create the demand for more growers, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley.

Kendall Whiteway and Tim Wiggins, two of the co-owners of the Little Grill Collective, with Deep Roots Milling flour and their whole wheat biscuits.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

JOHNSON: This is my neck of the woods. I was born and raised here, and would love to have some more grain farmers here and celebrate our tradition of wheat farming in the Shenandoah Valley.

Johnson laments that flours with gluten proteins such as wheat have lost popularity in the current foodie scene.

JOHNSON: With large-scale agriculture as it is right now, a lot of pesticides are used; a lot of glyphosate, that’s the same thing as Roundup, is sprayed on the crops. In standard agriculture practice, it’s sprayed on wheat just prior to harvest … not all wheat is like that … farmers who are growing here in Virginia who are growing for the artisan market are trying to produce a quality product.

Johnson with a jar of corn she grew for home use, which she grinds into masa for fresh tortillas.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

But Virginia in particular has another challenge for grain farmers: the humidity, which increases the risk of certain fungal infections that can essentially poison a wheat crop.

GRANTZ: One of the main reasons that there’s not a lot of local wheat and grain in Virginia to begin with is because we have a really challenging climate for growing grain, so we’ve been working on applying for grants to get funding to educate farmers on growing quality wheat and grain in Virginia.

Because of our climate, it’s easier to grow “soft” than “hard” wheats here – soft wheats have a lower concentration of protein and are better suited for goods such as pastries, rather than breads. But some farmers are experimenting with adapting hard wheats to the region, or blending harvests together to benefit from the properties of each. Michael Grantz combines a few different flours for many of his loaves, which he bakes in a mobile, wood-fired oven, and then sells to farmers’ markets and on-site at the Great Day Gardens.

[Sounds of Grantz scraping flour, explaining the oven, opening and closing oven doors]

Hannah Johnson with a soft red wheat blend from Grapewood Farm in the eastern Virginia community of Montross.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

GRANTZ:  I think, if we can change the way that people think about bread, and encourage people to question what’s in their bread, then we’re really creating a radical shift in how people think about food. Not just as a commodity or as a blank slate of fuel that you’re putting into your body, but as something that’s alive, that’s full of nutrition, and something that can really nourish you and heal you.