In 2013 we started using a hard red spring wheat variety called Fortuna that Horsedrawn Farm had grown on Lopez. Originally brought to the island by OJ Lougheed in 2009, it’s a solid mid 20th century variety bred in Montana using traditional breeding practices and is well suited to our island climate. When we first got our hands on some of the Fortuna in 2013 the threshing equipment hadn’t been cleaned from the year before and there was a fair bit of barley and “foreign material” in it, but it sparked our interest and commitment to using locally grown and milled grains.
Over the last three years we’ve been working with Horsedrawn Farms, Ron Norman, and Steve Lillestol at Island Grist to plant, harvest, thresh, clean, and mill more and more flour for use in the bakery, learning and building capacity as we go. Barn Owl Bakery’s role, besides being the customer for the grain and flour, is to seek out and trial new varieties of grain.
In 2015 we started looking for varieties that intrigued us and planted out our first grain variety trials with wheat, barley, corn, buckwheat, and flax. We selected out of those varieties that grew well and seemed to have promise in the bakery and, together with a new collection of seeds gathered over the winter, planted out another set of trials in the spring of 2016. In the fall of 2016 we put in our first winter wheat trial. Many of the varieties we plant are only available in seed packet quantities and to get enough grain to do a test bake is a three year process. If the grain grows well here on our cold dry island, we like the baking qualities, and the flavor is there, we’ll then grow enough seed to give to a farmer to grow out a 1/2 acre or so, creating the foundation seed for long-term farming of that variety.
The grain we’re interested in growing has three qualities that we’re looking for:
- Standard height – With the introduction of semi-dwarf genes into wheat in the 1960’s yield went up at the cost of nutrition. The short wheats also enable a system of agriculture that relies on excess nitrogen being dumped on the fields to increase protein levels in the grain. Standard height wheats are often higher in minerals and if they’re grown in the high-nitrogen fields will lodge.
- Open pollinated – Part of our vision here on Lopez is to foster and select for regionally adapted identity preserved grain varieties. We want to be free to plant and save seed, select for the traits we like, and sell seed to farmers far and wide without restriction. Many modern varieties come with patents or copyrights attached which limit what a farmer can do with that seed.
- Flavor and function – At the end of the day we have to be able to make delicious beautiful baked goods with the grain.
Mostly these criteria have led us to the heritage or heirloom grain varieties which, due to lower yields have largely fallen by the wayside of modern wheat farming, but to us are a reservoir of genetic diversity, flavor, and stories. Being stewards of this genetic and cultural seed diversity is an important part of the grain project. Locally grown, stone milled grains are much more variable and tricky to work with than the flour we get from Fairhaven Mills, so incorporating them into our breads is a slow process. While a few of the breads we bake are made entirely with Lopez grown grain, most of them still have off-island flour in them. In the coming months and years as we learn more about growing, milling, and baking with these varieties we hope to replace all of our whole grain flour with Lopez grain and eventually maybe all of our flour will come from Lopez. The grain project has been made possible by the generous sharing of land and resources from Michael Sullivan, Peggy Bill, David Bill, Ken Akopiantz, Horsedrawn Farms, Steve Lillestol, Island Grist, OJ Lougheed, Brook Brouwer, and all the folks who showed up to help weed, scythe, and thresh.