In the thick of last spring’s lockdowns, a national inclination toward hoarding and kitchen experimentation knocked the American flour industry completely out of whack. Classic bleached all-purpose flour (the kind called for in most recipes) became a black-market commodity and yeast suffered a similar fate, plunging homebound bakers into the confusing world of sourdough fermentation. While that craze has mellowed some (when was the last time you fed your starter?), another baking bubble has yet to burst—and that’s indie flour milling.
I was not spared either trend. A friend gifted me a sourdough starter just before the pandemic hit, and to keep it alive, I needed to find a flour source fast. My grocery store’s shelves were empty, so I scoured social media baking accounts for supplier recommendations until I found a few small mills with available stock. To split the cost of shipping (flour weighs a ton), I went in on large online orders with friends, and soon my freezer overflowed with brown paper bags bearing unfamiliar names like Red Fife and Einkorn. These stranger grains had been stone-milled at small operations now referred to as micro-mills, and that they have a nickname at all is indicative of the growth they’ve experienced this past year—growth that is seeming less like a blip each day.
Commodity white flour has been back in action for the better part of a year, yet micro-mills are still thriving. Those weird words in my freezer are elbowing their way into our food lexicon, popping up on restaurant menus in the form of Sonora croissants and rye brownies, and getting folks used to the idea that flour can be more than filler.
“There is an awakening happening right now around locally grown grains,” said Amber Lambke, co-founder of Maine Grains in Skowhegan, Maine. “An awakening to the fact that flour is not just the flavorless medium that a baker or a cook adds other things to, [to] give it flavor, that flour itself can have flavor depending on the variety and where it’s grown.”
Fresh-milled, richly flavorful flour seems like a no-brainer, considering the outsize role it plays in our dietary landscape. So how did we lose sight of this idea in the first place? Mill towns used to be a staple of the American landscape; if your town had the water to power it, chances are it had a grain mill. But those numbers have plummeted over the past century as flour production concentrated into the hands of a few large conglomerates like Conagra and General Mills. The consolidation is stark—in 1870, around 22,000 mills served an American population of 30 million, while a scant few hundred provide for the 300 million people here today.
Food production had to expand alongside that population, and nowhere was it easier to grow unthinkable amounts of grain than the Great Plains. Flat expanses of land from the Dakotas down to Texas provided untold quantities of wheat, and it was here that Big Flour set up shop, leaving grain farms and regional mills on either side struggling to keep up.
But those farms couldn’t just stop farming grains, even in the face of overwhelming competition. Rye, buckwheat, and oats are essential cover crops for managing weeds and preventing erosion, while straw and feed-grade grains are necessary for raising animals. “Without grain production in a region, you don’t have access to these resources, and it skews the economics of doing other things,” said Lambke, who gave the example of an organic egg farmer needing to ship organic feed in from the Midwest at a steep personal and environmental cost.
And so non-commodity grain farms and mills have hung on, but just barely. They’d seen a slight uptick in interest in recent decades via the farm-to-table movement, but that attention remained niche—until 2020.
“Last spring, our website volume skyrocketed to 40 times our normal order volume,” said Debbie La Bell of Hayden Mills in Queen Creek, Arizona, whose numbers are hovering around five times the pre-pandemic norm even now. I saw this trend at every micro-mill I spoke to—at Janie’s Mill in Ashkum, Illinois, annual flour milled shot up from 190,000 pounds in 2018 to 920,000 in 2020, and they’re on target to do 650,000 in 2021.
That’s a lot of weird flour going to bakers accustomed to all-purpose. “I began to field calls from people who had no idea what to do with this organic stone-ground flour,” said Janie’s retail manager Cecilia Gunther. The calls were so frequent the mill owners bought her a headset. “Stone-ground flour is not like roller-milled flour, and many people had bought this flour not realizing what they had stumbled across,” she said.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, whole grains were ground into flour using millstones that pulverized them, making it difficult to separate the nutritious and flavorful yet volatile bran and germ from the milder, shelf-stable endosperm that becomes white flour. When roller mills that more thoroughly cleaned the endosperm were introduced, they rang in an era of standardization, uniformity, and recipes that always work.
This idea seems to bore some 21st century American cooks. We’re experimenting now—fermenting and aging with less-than-consistent outcomes, and dabbling in less-than-pristine ingredients. The stone-milled flours I’ve encountered come in creamy shades of cornflower, mint, and butter—anything but white. In that colorful array reside enzymes that make the flour easier to digest (some gluten-intolerant people can eat it) and that enhance sourdough fermentation. “Fecund and ripe” is how Gunther describes Janie’s Red Fife wheat: “The scent of this flour will transport you to a still, deep, and loamy forest in the early autumn as the leaves begin to fall,” she said.
“It’s a quality thing,” said Caroline Schiff, pastry chef at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, New York, whose pandemic efforts to eliminate sourdough waste went viral in the form of the sourdough discard pancake. “I can smell the difference. … Sometimes I’ll pick up floral or herbal notes, or nutty earthy vibes, and then I can build flavors around them.” Olivia Wilson—a chef, consultant, and organizer of Bakers Against Racism in Richmond, Virginia—takes this approach a step further in custom layer cakes she designs around grains like sprouted rye, farro, and Einkorn accented by flavors like sesame, fig leaf, and tonka bean. Customers don’t come to her familiar with these things, but she eases them in gently: “I start the conversation with a few questions. … What kind of fruit, spices, cocktails, desserts, etc., do you like? I then come up with a few different options of cakes.”
Wilson and Schiff are part of a cohort of bakers attempting to mainstream whole grains. On the opposite coast, Roxana Jullapat is doing the same at her bakery Friends & Family in Los Angeles, where sorghum, spelt, and buckwheat flours feature prominently and local miller Grist & Toll gets frequent shoutouts. On both coasts, the millers and farmers I spoke to insist that continued education about regional grain economies will be critical to sustaining this growth as we emerge from the COVID era.
“[The pandemic] put the spotlight on how desperately we need local and regional to gain momentum and to have success,” said Grist & Toll owner Nan Kohler. “National did not come to the rescue. Local did.” Kohler and one of her wheat farmers, Mai Nguyen, underlined the importance of accurate labeling in raising awareness around these ingredients.
“Whole wheat with names is new to people,” said Nguyen. “I try to use language that helps people understand what they’re engaging in.”
But that language itself can be contentious, carrying weighty political implications. “When I see the words heirloom, heritage, native, ancient on anything, it’s a red flag,” said Wilson, who credits advocates like Nguyen and Jullapat for educating her on these grains. “Who are these people, how did they acquire the land, who works there, and how are they treated and supported beyond fair pay … questions that I try to ask of most any business but especially farms these days.” A majority of American micro-mills and specialty grain farms are owned by white people, reflecting a national history of colonization and land displacement. The micro-milling movement will need to pay careful attention to these details in order to evolve and endure in a society coming to terms with its brutal history, especially considering the farm-to-table tendency to emphasize nostalgia and pride of place in its marketing.
Government investment will also play a role in the movement’s longevity as micro-mills go up against an industry long propped up by subsidies. “At the top of the list of necessary things to grow our efforts and make them sustainable are monetary investment and changes in policy that favor smaller, independent farms and food operations,” said Kohler. “Without that, we will remain a niche effort, and I hate being described as niche! It makes our work sound precious and frivolous, which it absolutely is not. It is political, it is difficult, and it is expensive. There is nothing precious about butting heads with a powerful, industrial system.”
The past year saw us butting heads with many powerful systems as the pandemic provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we do things. Many of the adaptive behaviors we acquired will recede into the rearview (sanitizing groceries, Zoom dating), but some are worth holding on to. Rethinking our grain economy feels like one such pivot, given the centrality of flour to the American diet and the significance of soil health in feeding the global population. But even if soil and gut health bore you, just think of the flavor. I, for one, am making the best pancakes of my life right now using a mix of buckwheat, rye, Red Fife, Einkorn, and Warthog wheat, and these things don’t even need syrup.