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Here Come the Grains

A wheat field is planted in the Bottoms

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A different kind of crop is currently growing on approximately 12 acres of farmland in the Arcata Bottoms. After experimenting with wheat and other grains in test plots, Kevin Cunningham decided to expand his production and established the Shakefork Community Farm and its Grain Share Program, based on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model.

When I read the flier introducing the Shakefork Community Farm, the words "whole grains and specialty flours" resonated with me. In general, I am inspired by interesting ingredients (both known and not previously used) to experiment with new recipes, and I would like to include more whole grains in the dishes I prepare. I have recently started an exploration of the world of bread-making (no bread machine and, at least for now, no stand-up mixer either), and I also make pizza, biscotti and various other flour-containing products. So, if someone talks grains and flours, I listen. In this case, the conversation first happened indirectly, with me reading about the farmer, the farm (whose name refers to the two-tined tool once used to collect hay and grains) and the program. I then decided that I wanted to learn more about the novel enterprise, so I arranged to meet Kevin at the barn on Mad River Road where he keeps his equipment.

At the center of the tall-ceilinged stage there is the combine, a piece of equipment Kevin traveled all the way to Maryland to get. The combine harvester cuts, threshes and cleans the grain crop in one operation, so it is very important for his work. The one we are looking at is 50 years old. The reason it was hard to find, Kevin explains to me, is that machines like it were made for relatively small-scale operations, different from the modern, vast grain farms.

I start our conversation with a practical question: "When will you have the first delivery for the Grain Share Program shareholders?" Kevin first tells me what crops he planted last fall, starting with wheat. The names he mentions— hard red winter wheat, hard and soft white winter wheat — are not unfamiliar, thanks to recent readings related to my home baking project.

A brief technical detour: Wheat is categorized based on growing season (winter or spring), kernel hardness (soft or hard) and bran color (red or white). The harder the wheat, the higher the amount of protein in the flour milled from it. The hardest kind of wheat is durum, whose flour is used to make pasta. The wheat flours we buy in the stores are milled from various kinds of wheat and sometimes their labels specify which ones. Different types of flour have different percentage of gluten-forming proteins, and are suitable for different baking needs. For example, bread flour has a higher protein content than regular (all-purpose) flour, and the latter has a higher protein content than pastry flour.

Beyond winter wheat, Kevin is growing rye and oats. The latter is actually the first crop that will be ready for harvest, in June, followed by wheat and rye in early July (with weather playing an important role in the program). When we drive over to the farm, the view is of a sea of green. To my untrained eyes, the small plants of the various grains don't look distinctly different, but, as we walk along the perimeter of the field, Kevin points at the different sections and I can see variations in the size and shape of the plants.

Barley will be planted as a spring crop. The oats and barley that will be harvested are of the hullless kind, meaning that the hull adheres only loosely to the groat and threshes free from it during normal harvest operations. Kevin is also planning to sow corn and buckwheat in the spring (the latter not a cereal, but a plant relative of sorrel and rhubarb). Winter crops are sown in the fall and are harvested in late spring-early summer. Spring crops, which have a shorter growing season, are planted in the spring and harvested from late summer to early fall.

Back to my original question regarding the beginning of Grain Share Program deliveries, the answer is probably August, with pick-up details to be determined. Each distribution (the plan is to have 10 in a year) will contain 12-15 pounds of grains, both whole and floured. Other interesting components of the distribution will be triticale (a grain that is a cross between wheat and rye) and flax seeds. Asked where he got the idea for his Grain Share Program, Kevin tells me that he was inspired by Jennifer Greene, who runs Windborne Farm in Fort Jones (in the Scott Valley area of Siskiyou County), a CSA that delivers grains, beans and fresh flours to its shareholders.

To obtain flour from grains, some processing is needed, which brings me to my next question for Kevin: "Where will you mill the grains?" That will be done on-site (i.e., in the barn) using another piece of equipment he is currently shopping for: a stone mill, which will probably come from South Carolina, where the required type of stone (quartz) is quarried. The mill will allow production of cracked grains and finer ground flours. The book that is my current guide to bread-baking (Local Breads by Daniel Leader) explains, in reference to wheat flour, that "stone grinding, in contrast to commercial milling, removes less of the oily, vitamin-rich germ." Thus stone-ground flours are tastier and more nutritious.

Kevin's enthusiasm finds an easy terrain in my own excitement about possibilities: the sorcerer apprentice's itch for exploring new ingredients in new recipes that lead to thrilling kitchen adventures. The early afternoon light filters into the barn. It illuminates, and at the same time shadows, the red tractor, the orange combine and a set of light blue barrels that will soon become storage containers for grains. We end our conversation with talk of farming practices. Kevin does not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and applies principles of sustainable agriculture (crop rotation, cover crops, TLC) to the land he is farming.

Leaving the cool shade of the barn, I try not to get blinded by the bright light of a crystal clear spring day. I finally bring into focus an image I have been chasing since the moment I first introduced myself. I realize I have met Kevin many times before, at the Arcata Farmers' Market, behind Paul Giuntoli's Warren Creek Farms table. His background in farming also includes time spent managing the vegetable CSA of the College of the Redwoods Sustainable Agriculture Farm in Shively and of the Arcata Educational Farm.

Is he planning on selling at the coming Farmers' Market? Kevin answers affirmatively. So, if you have more questions about the Shakefork Community Farm and its Grain Share Program, you will be able to pose them directly to him on Saturday morning on the Arcata Plaza. (This year's market season begins this weekend.) As for me, I will buy some of the barley he has left from last year's crop — I got a glimpse of it in one of the barrels in the barn — and see if I can develop tasty recipes to use it. Come August, I'll be ready to mix, bake, slow cook and otherwise experiment using locally grown grains. Needless to say, I can't wait.

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