Where’s the Wheat?: Small Grains Research Threatened by Federal Budget Cuts (with Video)

As Minnesota experiences a state-wide government shutdown and other states struggle to balance their books, the federal government is in a battle to come up with a plan to get this nation out of debt. It is a complex political process, and understanding in intricacies of various budget plans can be daunting. But looking deeper, you can find specific initiatives to severely curtail efforts that work toward food security and support local foods, including small grains. As many rejoice in the Obama Administration’s efforts to support organic and local agriculture, these initiatives may not survive the current round of spending cuts.

The Wheat Movie traveled to North Carolina meeting those involved in the local wheat movement, and at that time we met up with Dr. David Marshall, a wheat breeder and research leader with the USDA’s Plant Science Research Unit of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Since 2002, Dr. Marshall has led the Uniform Bread Wheat Trials, a multi-state, long-term initiative to perform traditional breeding practices to develop new strains of organic wheat with increased pest and pathogen resistance and the ability to grow in various climates. The crux of his work is to develop hard (bread) wheat for North Carolina, as well as to collaborate with the global wheat breeding community to develop high-yielding and hardy grains for local economies around the world.

On a broader level, the USDA-ARS is charged with, “finding solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day, from field to table.”

In addition, the USDA-ARS Mission Statement defines it objectives:

– conduct research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority and provide information access and dissemination to: ensure high-quality, safe food, and other agricultural products

– assess the nutritional needs of Americans

– sustain a competitive agricultural economy

– enhance the natural resource base and the environment, and

– provide economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities, and society as a whole.

In North Carolina, the USDA –ARS is leading the development of the new varieties of hard (bread) wheat suitable for the wet climate of the Eastern United States. Dr. Marshall’s work has been an integral supporting piece of Carolina Ground, a new organization of farmers, millers, and bakers across the state developing a secure, closed-loop micro-economies for bread wheat. Many strains of wheat from his work, including NuEast and Appalachian White, have the potential to change the landscape of North Carolina’s faltering farm economy by allowing small farmers in mountainous terrain grow a sustainable specialty crop that may rejuvenate rural communities by providing surrounding communities with bread that truly is local.

Before we visited with Dr. Marshall in May, budgets cuts with the USDA-ARS were already a concern, but since then the threat has grown. In mid-June, Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced what was known as the Chaffetz Amendment to the House’s budget proposal. With a $1.8 billion cut to government spending, the amendment specifically addresses spending within the US Department of Agriculture, calling for an elimination of what supporters call duplicative programs within agricultural research and statistical gathering. Under the Chaffetz Amendment, the USDA-ARS alone faced $650 million in cuts.

A June press release issued by the Caucus of House Conservatives stated the following goals of the spending cuts:

Cut in Half the Combined Budgets of Four Duplicative Agencies – USDA has three different agencies that perform agricultural research and statistical gathering at the federal level and a fourth that helps fund these activities at the state and local levels.  Many of the functions of the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture could be consolidated or accomplished through private-sector efforts.

The Chaffetz Amendment did not pass, with a vote of 338 to 83. In essence, this points to one-fifth of the house voting for an amendment that would have put critical research into the hands of the private sector. Had the bill passed, we would have entered the difficult situation of improving food production and battling malnutrition, hunger, and rural poverty solely through efforts driven by driven by shareholder interests, not the public good. It be sure, Monsanto’s Research and Development Pipeline provides a window to some of their research projects, many of which that focus on genetic modification and patenting, pesticide and herbicide use, and opportunities for large-scale industrial agriculture. While the USDA conducts similar works itself, many corners of the department, including the ARS, are pushing for alternatives based on community-level solutions, supporting local food economies, and organic farming practices.

As the situation stands right now, the House of Representatives has passed a version of the Agriculture Appropriations Bill that recommends a 15% cut to the USDA across the board. The Senate has yet to pass its own version, but as lawmakers struggle for compromise, similar cuts may be on the table there as well.

Blanket cuts such as these offer little protection for programs supporting local food security and food sovereignty within corners of the USDA. With significant cuts to the USDA-ARS, years of work developing new organic crop varieties to stay ahead of changing pathogens, insect populations, and climate change will certainly threaten the strength of the US and global food systems. These are important considerations to keep in mind as lawmakers struggle to come together to balance the budget. In our current fiscal situation, austerity in an inevitability, but in implementing cuts we must think critically before cutting programs that have clear records of success in moving toward a more sustainable and secure food system.

To learn more about the USDA-ARS, and Dr. David Marshall’s efforts to develop high-yielding and high-value grains for small farms in the US and around the world, watch this video, a collection of interview clips from our visit to his wheat testing site at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC.

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North Carolina Winter Wheat Harvest Begins (in Pictures)

Summer is in full swing, and so is the harvest of winter wheat in the United States. The harvest begins in the south, with combines gliding across the golden wheat fields stretching from Georgia, through Texas, to California in May. By early June, the harvest migrates north, to a narrow belt spanning the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and southern Kansas. By the end of July, the last wheat stands of Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana are cleared, processed and stored in the region’s grain bins.

Harvesting wheat carries significance as both an end and a beginning. On the one hand, it is the culmination of the labor performed the previous September and October, as the wheat was carefully planted in rows and cared for with irrigation an nutrient supports. After a long winter, spring finds the wheat growing tall and green, as farmers carefully follow weather patterns, hoping their young crops can withstand wind and rain throughout the season. By summer the fields turn from a rich green to a golden amber, and when the hydration levels are just right, they are ready for harvest. On the other hand, the harvest is an opportunity to observe and appreciate the bounty of such labor and worry, and begins the process of cleaning, milling, and ultimately baking throughout the year to come.

In late March, the USDA and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a news release (.pdf) setting the projected 2011 winter wheat harvest in North Carolina to be 700,000 acres, a forty percent increase from 2010, when 500,000 acres were harvested. This is in contrast to projected global output, which, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (.pdf) is expected to be lowered by more than 5.2 million tons for 2011/2012, largely due to drought in parts of Europe and excessive flooding in parts of Canada. But even with this reduction globally, the harvest remains at 664.3 million tons, the third highest harvest on record.

The growing number of wheat fields sprouting along the eastern United States certainly means an increased level of food sovereignty for the region, and initiatives to keep this grain off the commodity markets in Chicago, Minnesota, and Kansas City may provide protections against the volatile grain prices in the coming years. But on a much smaller level, activities on North Carolina farms are changing. More and more farmers there are finding themselves gathering wheat instead of more traditional commodity crops and goods, such as corn, tobacco, and milk.

Next week we hope to be in the western part of the state where John McEntire, a newbie to wheat but certainly not to farming, plans to harvest his second year of Turkey Red wheat and Abruzzi rye on his farm in Old Fort. But across the state, on the coast, the summer wheat harvest has been a tradition in the Haines family on Looking Back Farm for more than ten years, as they lead the charge in supporting local millers, including the historic Lindley Mills and the upstart Carolina Ground with local wheat for local consumption.

The Wheat Movie team was there to capture this year’s harvest at Looking Back Farm, and we were pleasantly surprised to witness quite the family affair. To see more images from the harvest, take a look at the photos on our Facebook page.

Riding shotgun on the combine.

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Production Update

We are finally down to the wire, and heading out east tomorrow morning. The team will be spending two weeks in North Carolina for principal photography on “The Wheat Movie” project. We have a lot of outstanding shoots lined up, and plenty of support from the great people of Asheville. With all their support, we are excited and confident in jumping in and getting rolling!

Our first week will be in and around Asheville, where we will be visiting farmers, millers, bakers, and organizations working to support a local grain economy. Top of the list is a visit with Jennifer Lapidus from the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project and Carolina Ground. They are rigging up their new mill, and we are excited to be there to see this piece of the puzzle come together. We will also be visiting a few bakeries, including Farm & Sparrow, an artisan bakery that features its own local, heirloom loaf, McEntire’s Pride. Later in the week we will explore where this bread comes from by visiting the loaf’s namesake, John McEntire, an organic farmer growing some very special grains, including Turkey Red wheat and Heirloom Dent corn, which has been grown by his family for generations. The week will wrap up as we attend the NC-Grown Bread Wheat: From Field to Hearth event in Raleigh and the Saturday farmers’ market in Asheville.

The following week, we’ll be joined by talented cinematographer and filmmaker Will Lyons as we traverse the state to visit Looking Back Farm, a father-son operation not only growing wheat but helping build a broader infrastructure for organic grains by building an on-farm organic seed-cleaning facility and a portable animal feed mill. Later in the week we will learn about the new strains of organic wheat developed by Dr. David Marshall at the USDA Agricultural Research Service. We will also visit with the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) to explore the role changes in the tobacco industry have played in driving farmers to look for alternative crops, and discuss with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association the importance of supporting initiatives for local grain.

Throughout the next two weeks, we will be meeting other bakers, millers, and perhaps most importantly consumers, to better understand this movement for organic and heirloom bread wheat. It is our hope that in telling their stories, we will illuminate a larger national movement for local food economies and share both the challenges and rewards for participating in innovative efforts for sustainable, community-based agricultural localism.

At this early stage, we would like to thank Cully Gallagher in Minneapolis; Jason Joseffer in San Francisco, Nick Hunter at Hazen Hunter Photography; Will Lyons at BeHeardFilms; Sabrina Hilario at Flying Pig Studio; Travis Williams at Stewards: Stories and perspectives on American agriculture; Brent Manning at Riverbend Malthouse; Arthur Ircink from Wisconsin Foodie; our comrades at Food First, and John Assalian and the Viewstream crew for their support and assistance. Again, with all this collaboration, we are ready to hit the wheat!

More to come…

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The Wonders of a ‘Local Loaf’

A few weeks ago I made my way to the Berkeley Farmer’s market to meet up with Eduardo Morell, a baker and the owner of Morell’s Bread in Marin County. Since 2002, Eduardo and his wife, Tamsen have been baking bread in a brick oven at the Headlands Center for the Arts, a creative hive of artists, artisans, writers, performers, and cooks working toward their crafts with a focus on positive social change. Over the years, Morell’s Bakery has made a name for itself by baking some of the most coveted breads in the Bay Area, and I wanted so see what all the hype was about. More specifically, I had heard rumblings about his ‘Local Loaf’ and knew I had to taste it for myself.

Morell’s approach to baking is to carry on traditions lost due to industrial food production. He bakes his bread in a wood-fired brick oven built by renowned oven builder Alan Scott, hose hand-built ovens can be found in disparate corners of the world, from here in the US to his native Australia. All of Morell’s breads are naturally leavened, whole grain sourdoughs that are handcrafted every step of the way. He has a keen focus on enhancing the subtleties of each grain, and even produces 100% spelt and 100% rye loaves.

As for the ‘Local Loaf,’ I eagerly carried it away in its brown paper bag, found a spot on the post office steps, and tore off a piece. I took in the floury aroma of the bread and took a bite. It is a dense bread with a good amount of give and a nice, chewy crust. It has the creamy tang of a sourdough without overbearing fermented flavors. I instantly had the feeling I was tasting something special, and I was.

The flour on the ‘Local Loaf’ is stone-milled White Sonora wheat, a variety whose roots have been dated back to eighteenth century Mexico. At one time harvested throughout California’s Central Valley, the grain played a critical role in feeding troops during the Civil War. The 20th Century saw a steep decline in this the planting and harvesting of this wheat, and today the crop is largely available in the US only in small pockets of Arizona and California—though, thanks to eastern farmers like John McEntire, we are now seeing this old grain in places such as North Carolina (see our post about Kenny Haines at Looking Back Farm).

Today, White Sonora has been claimed as part of Slow Food’s US Ark of Taste, a collection of 200 foods in danger of disappearing from our planet and our plates.

Luckily for us in the Bay Area, Full Belly Farm near Guinda, CA has been growing White Sonora on their CSA farm for a number of years, and have found an ideal outlet for the grain through Morell’s bakery. A small resurgence in this wheat can be attributed to Monica Spiller and The Whole Grain Connection, a California organization supporting organic and sustainable grains through research, education, and market development. In fact, Spiller has worked diligently to document the history of Sonora wheat (pdf) throughout the ages.

It is these close relationships between farmers, bakers and researchers that can keep agricultural and culinary traditions alive. These relationships form the basis for sustainable models that keep local food economies intact, provide agricultural laborers with safe jobs that pay living wages, and protect our farmland from the ecological threats of chemical inputs and monoculture farming practices. Thinking about these connections as a tore off another piece of my ‘Local Loaf’ on the post office, I was reminded that this is more than just about tradition and sustainability. This is about some damn fine bread.

Morell's Local Loaf

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Real Bread in Great Britain

In researching for this film, we’ve come across a wide variety of farmers, millers, bakers, and activists from all over the country, and all over the world, committed to reclaiming bread as an intimate, local symbol of nutrition and community. From rural North Carolina to hidden hamlets in the south of France, the new, old-style alternatives provided by small producers are making impacts on how people make their bread buying decisions. Making this transition on a wider scale is difficult to achieve without an active, educated consumer base. Intertwined within this movement are a number of outreach organizations helping to share the benefits of good bread.

One such group is the Real Bread Campaign, an effort organized by Sustain, The Alliance for Better Food and Farming. Based in London, the Real Bread Campaign recently succeeded in exposing local supermarkets in Great Britain who were freezing breads before thawing them for sale as fresh loaves. In addition, the organization is actively advocating for complete labeling of bread ingredients, including processing aids, often comprising animal products, known allergens, and GM products.

A couple weeks ago, Chris Young from The Real Bread Campaign sat down and answered a couple questions for us about the movements for local and organic bread in Great Britain. Below is a condensed version of our e-mail conversation.

What is the Real Bread Campaign?

The Real Bread Campaign is a national network of people who care about the state of bread in Britain. Our main aim is to bring Real Bread back to the hearts of our local communities.

The Real Bread Campaign was the brainchild of Andrew Whitley who, as an organic artisan baker, has been fighting this decline and teaching people to bake Real Bread since the mid-1970s. He knew that in order to bring Real Bread back to the hearts of our local communities in significant numbers, a national organization was needed. This would bring together everyone who cares about the state of bread in Britain in a mutually-supportive network, sharing ideas and experience; championing positive steps in the right direction, and challenging legislation and other obstacles to the rise or Real Bread. He brought this idea to the charity Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, which, as a campaigning organization, was happy to take on the task.

Before Sustain launched the Campaign in November 2008, it invited experts in the fields of baking and milling, and anyone else who was interested, to planning meetings. These enabled Sustain to collect opinions on what the scope of the Campaign should be and possible criteria for the definition of Real Bread. From these, Sustain drew up our criteria and plan of action, going on to launch the Campaign in November 2008 and the open-to-all membership scheme in September 2009.

As of March 2011, the Campaign has a membership of just fewer than 600 people, around a quarter of who joined on behalf of bakeries and other organisations, the rest as individuals. Our wider network of supporters runs into thousands.

How does the campaign define “Real Bread”?

We define Real Bread as being made without the use any processing aids, artificial additives, flour ‘improvers’, dough conditioners, preservatives, chemical leavening or, well, artificial anything. As a basic definition, this is Real Bread that is accessible to all.

Beyond this, we are finding ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet.

In 2009, your organization wrote a letter to the Federation of Bakers in an attempt to persuade those producing bread on an industrial level to disclose their use of “processing aids.” What are these processing aids, and why would you like the Federation to identify them on bread packaging?

According to The Food Labellings Regulations 1996, a processing aid ‘…means any substance not consumed as a food by itself, intentionally used in the processing of raw materials, foods or their ingredients, to fulfil a certain technological purpose during treatment or processing, and which may result in the unintentional but technically unavoidable presence of residues of the substance or its derivatives in the final product, provided that these residues do not present any health risk and do not have any technological effect on the finished product.’

Some of the ‘label friendly’ or ‘clean label’ processing aids available on the market are known allergens, some are of animal origin, and others could have involved the use of bacteria or fungi grown on substrates of GMO origin or themselves be GMOs.

Notwithstanding any of this, consumers have the right to make fully informed shopping choices. This they can only do if manufactures and retailers provide information about what has gone into the production of a loaf, expressed in language that the ordinary consumer can understand.

Further, your letter stated, “The development of bakery enzymes in the past two decades demonstrates how industrial innovation can outstrip regulatory capacity, especially where the long-term effects on consumers eating food produced using enzymes in combination might never be tested adequately.” What are some of the enzymes that have been developed in the recent past, and what risks to they pose to consumers?

First, at least one of the enzymes in use (fungal alpha-amylase) is a known allergen.

Though any additives or processing aids have to be declared safe (or in the more pragmatic terminology of the US Food and Drug Administration, ‘generally recognized as safe’) before use, they have only been tested in isolation over relatively (in terms of human history) short periods. What has not and might never be understood is what effect the cocktail of artificial additives we consume, not only in factory loaves, but in many industrially processed foods, have on the human body in combination over time.

Furthermore, what is declared safe can change over time and history is littered with additives that were vouchsafed by industry but then quietly withdrawn or even banned when health concerns could not longer be ignored.

How does the pursuit of “Real Bread” benefit farmers? Millers? Bakers? Consumers? The environment? The economy?

Too much wealth and power lies with agribusiness and multiple retailers. This needs to be seized back by the consumer – we the people must take back control of the food we eat.

Local is a key issue for us. In part this is because money spent with locally-owned businesses is of greater benefit to a local economy, but also because a localized food system will be more resilient to the challenges of the loss of cheap oil. A community that can grow, mill and bake its own grain without any petrochemical input will be able to feed itself when the wells run dry. Noble is the loaf made without a drop of oil, and blessed is the person who can walk to buy it.

If the nation answers our call of using grain grown as locally as possible, British farmers stand to see sales increase. The use of organic farming would see the soil, flora and fauna on and around their fields benefit, too.

The more localized grain supplies become, the more local mills we’ll need. Similarly, it is a crazy situation we have in the UK where some nine million loaves a day – 80% of those we buy – are produced by fewer than ten companies and then carted up and down our motorways by petrol-guzzling lorries. With the return of local independent bakeries, we’d not only see a rise in the ratio of jobs per loaf and the value that the skills of craft baking has for the baker, but also keystones of our high streets, the hearts of our communities.

As for consumers, our aims are for us all to be able to make fully-informed choices about the food we eat. Ideally, even with this full disclosure, the most we’d ever see on the ingredients list of a basic loaf would be: flour, water, yeast and salt.

Does the notion of food sovereignty play any role in the work you are doing? In what way does the campaign allow producers and consumers to take back their food system and make it more sustainable and equitable?

We believe in an honest price for an honest loaf, and that issues of accessibility should not be tackled by cutting corners, be that by the addition of additives; farming methods that have less than due respect for the well being of the environment; or by the replacement of meaningful, skilled jobs for bakers within our local communities by button pushing tasks at distant industrial plants.

To support existing and would-be Real Bread bakers, we have written Knead to Know: the Real Bread Starter, the guide to success in bringing Real Bread back to the heart of a local community; created the Real Bread Finder, which helps bakers advertise their loaves; and run The Real Baker-e, an online forum in which they can share information and ideas that are of benefit to each other.

For consumers, we research and highlight what we see as the true costs of cheap loaves, and expose the aspects of industrial baking and multiple retailing that they’d rather the public didn’t see. At the same time, we give ideas on how they can seize back control over the food they eat.

From where are you seeing the most resistance to your work with the Real Bread Campaign? What are the main points of contention, and how do you address these challenges?

Unsurprisingly, it comes from those whose practices we challenge, which so far has been the big industrial bakers and the major supermarket chains. Interestingly, their responses have not tended to be all that robust. For example, when we questioned the Federation of Bakers on the possible use of legally undeclared processing aids by their members, they were less than forthcoming. That was until the media picked up on the fact that one source of one of the enzymes on the market was pig’s pancreas. It was only then that the FoB responded, but only to say if it says vegetarian on the label, then it’s vegetarian. To this day, they have not denied using hidden added enzymes.

Similarly, when we asked six major UK supermarket chains which of their in-store loaves were baked from scratch on the premises, without the use of artificial additives, we felt that the response was generally less than full and frank. We did get a few proper letters, but none answered all of our questions.

Both groups hide behind what we believe to be pretty poor excuses, along the lines of: we always comply with the law, we don’t have space on labels to tell you everything that goes into a loaf, and we don’t say which of our ‘freshly baked’ in-store loaves were in fact baked elsewhere, frozen and then re-baked at our stores’ loaf tanning salons because that would only confuse people.

For you and your members, is the Real Bread Campaign a nutritional, culinary, environmental, economic, or political organization?

We are just collecting results of a survey of what motivates our members, but initial results tend towards people having a desire to re-establish independent, traditional high street bakeries; a concern over health/nutrition; and simply that the real thing tastes better.

To learn more about local, organic, and heirloom grain economies in Great Britain, check out these additional resources:

Oxford Bread Group
Brockwell Bake Association
Organic Research Centre
Traditional Corm Millers Guild
National Association of Master Bakers

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Profile: Looking Back Farm

Behind the growing number of local and organic food consumers across the US is a committed collection of farmers adapting their practices to supply us with the good food we are looking for. Many of these producers are young people leaving cities to create a re-envisioned form of agricultural localism. Others are farmers who have been producing organically before the practice was known as such. But in small farming communities are an expanding number of growers abandoning life-long practices of deploying chemical inputs and monoculture practices to join the movement for a more sustainable food system.

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to talk over the phone with Kenny Haines, an organic grain farmer in eastern North Carolina. His entrance into organic agriculture is best described an unconventional. For most if his career, he worked with large industrial agriculture operations. After studying agriculture in college, he went on to manage farms as large as 6,500 acres in Delaware. His job frequently took him to California’s Central Valley, where he would purchase massive harvesters and other heavy equipment. His work relied heavily on chemical inputs and monoculture fields.

At that time, chemistry was seen as the key to success in the industry. Farmers were relying on chemical inputs to improve the quality and quantity of outputs, from fertilizers to pesticides and herbicides. After years working in the industrial farm economy, Haines started feeling pressure from his wife, a registered nurse.

“She used to tell me I was going to kill myself, and everyone else with these pesticides,” Haines laughs.

Her persistence, and the realization that pests and weeds ultimately develop resistance to the chemicals used to ward them off, finally got to him. Twenty-five years ago, he quit conventional agriculture and, starting with a rented ten-acre plot, began growing organic vegetables. His family would sell their produce at roadside markets and to stores in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. At one time he sold his vegetables to Wellspring Grocery in Cary, North Carolina, but stopped shortly after the store was purchased by Whole Foods. In the 1990s, he started putting grains into his regular crop rotation, and began to put less emphasis on his produce.

At the time, the focus on organic grains what considered laughable by others in the community.

“When I started, most people thought I should be committed,” Haines admits. “Now, they only think I’m half nuts.”

Today his Looking Back Farm comprises 350 acres in various plots near his Perquimans County log cabin home. Together with his son Ben, Haines produces a harvest of organic wheat, corn and soybeans that find their way into a variety of products, from animal feed to bread to whiskey. He also sells compost and grows wheat for seed.

The wheat grown on Looking Back Farm includes both old and new varieties. He grows a breed called TAM 303, developed by Dr. David Marshall at the US Department of Agriculture. For years, Marshall has used traditional breeding practices to develop wheat varieties ideal for high yields in North Carolina’s climate and altitude. Haines also has his hand in other new varieties, including Appalachian White and New East.

In contrast to these varieties, Haines is most proud of his Sonora, an heirloom wheat desired for its taste, and rare enough to be included in the Arc of Taste, a running catalog of endangered foods maintained by Slow Food International.

“That Sonora is the prettiest wheat I’ve ever seen. It’s a beautiful white,” he says.

In addition, he has worked with David Bauer, a baker outside of Asheville, to grow and harvest Turkey Red, an heirloom variety first brought to America’s shores my Russian Mennonite immigrants in the late 1800s. Settling in what is now Kansas, these early western farmers brought an adaptable, long-stem wheat capable of growing in a variety of climates and soils. In recent years, a small number of farmers have brought Turkey Red to the East Coast, and Haines is one of a handful of growers supplying artesian bakeries, such as Bauer’s Farm and Sparrow, with this old variety.

North Carolina is tobacco country, though Haines has never grown the crop. In the past few years more and more farmers in the state have taken advantage of the growing market for organic tobacco by converting from conventional cultivation. But as with most crops, the land cannot sustain tobacco fields year after year. Tobacco cultivation requires rotation every two years—with each rotation farmers prevent their fields from insect infestations and nutrient depletion of the soil. As a result, these farmers are searching for other organic crops to grow, usually soybeans, corn, or wheat. Despite this added variety to their annual harvests, Haines says, tobacco remains the money crop, the source of the majority of the farms’ income.

As these farmers look for alternative organic crops, they are facing a shortage of organic seeds. To maintain their status as organic farms, their seeds must be cleaned and processed by certified organic facilities. Haines saw an opportunity to provide these valuable seeds to other farmers.

For Haines, organic wheat is an outstanding opportunity for small farmers to create niche markets to supplement their main cash crops. To help make organic wheat crops available, Haines is building an organic seed cleaning facility to supply his neighbors with the organic seeds they need to supplement their organic tobacco harvests. In this effort, he has partnered with the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project, a burgeoning coalition of seven bakeries and a number of farmers working to create a local micro-economy for organic wheat.

Creating such economies are not based on profit. In fact, the profit margins for growing organic are significantly smaller then growing conventional, Haines says.

“Organic is not a license to think money,” Haines admits. “Organic needs to be looked at more as a lifestyle project. You have to look at the whole picture. Healthier foods mean lower medical bills.

“The seed cleaning facility is not going to make me rich,” he continues. “Making access to organic seed is like a puzzle piece. And as you add each in, the picture becomes clearer.”

Looking Back Farm’s work is supported by a grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), under the auspices of its Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, a cost-share grant program for North Carolina farmers. Given tobacco farmers’ struggles to stay afloat after deep regulation of tobacco companies beginning in the late 1990s, much of the money paid by the tobacco industry was fed into reinvestment programs for the farmers who supplied the industry. Today, this money is available to all farmers. As a distributor of these monies, RAFI is using its fund to support general rural redevelopment throughout the state. Many of the projects under this grant program support organic agriculture.

In addition to the seed cleaning facility, Haines as worked again with the support of RAFI to create a mobile feed mill to supply local animal husbandry operations with bagged organic corn and wheat feed for livestock. This operation is the only local source of organic feed for local operations. Haines and son Ben have been quietly supporting their organic neighbors, and see this as an opportunity to show others the viability of organic agriculture.

Haines says his work is an attempt to lead by example. “Some neighbors have seen it, and they are trying it now,” he said. “We also get a lot of calls from farmers in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, and even southern California. We’ve never met these farmers, and never will. But it shows that this is growing. We try to help in any way we can.”

We at The Wheat Movie will be visiting Looking Back Farm, and hope to capture the energy and passion Haines has for his work. At the time of our visit, the seed cleaning facility will be up and running, and we will be documenting the beginning stages of an outstanding opportunity for North Carolina farmers to provide sustainable, organic grains to local communities.

To learn more, watch this video slide show produced by RAFI in collaboration with the talented filmmaker Alix Blair about Looking Back Farm’s feed mill operation. Featuring Kenny’s son, Ben, this video shows the commitment to local, sustainable organic agriculture that is changing the food economy of the eastern United States.

(NOTE: This video was created independently of The Wheat Movie team. We had nothing to do with its production. But we do like it!)



Ben Haines, Looking Back Farm: Portable Organic Feed Mill from RAFI-USA TCRF on Vimeo.

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North Carolina Wheat in Pictures

Thanks to Nicholas Hunter from Hazen Hunter Photography for the amazing snapshots of organic grain in North Carolina. The first Western North Carolina wheat trials, some turkey red destined for Farm & Sparrow Bakery, and more.

Check out the photos on our Facebook page!

John McEntire in his Turkey Red

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