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Bay Area wheat makes a comeback

SF Gate
The San Francisco Chronicle SF Gate

When Jessica Prentice and a handful of friends were organizing the first Eat Local Challenge in 2005, encouraging people to eat food grown within 100 miles of where they live, she approached baker Eduardo Morell to make bread with flour grown by Full Belly Farm in Yolo County. He had heard about Full Belly's soft white Sonora flour, but never thought it could be used to bake a great bread.

"The soft grain doesn't hold up to vigorous kneading or result in a very lofty loaf of bread," says Morell. "It's more like a rye bread, very dense and moist and chewy."

But Prentice was a close friend, so he made the bread. He used a loaf pan to compensate for the wheat's relative lack of structure, and he barely kneaded it because there wasn't that much gluten to develop. The bread turned out surprisingly good.

Over time, Morell figured out how to best work with Full Belly's flour, and now bakes about 20 loaves of what is affectionately known as the Local Loaf, sold at the Berkeley Farmers' Market to a small but devoted group of fans.

"The bread just packs more of a punch. The flavor's there. It's front and center," says Morell. "It's what wheat should taste like."

Those strictly following the eat local mantra have bemoaned the fact that they might have to pass up pasta and bread because wheat was rarely planted locally. But that is starting to change as a handful of local growers have begun to grow heirloom varieties that once thrived in parts of the Bay Area now covered in urban landscapes. In the process, they are reviving the story of Sonora wheat in California, a soft, light-colored strain that is said to have been brought over from Europe around the time of Columbus and grown by Native Americans.

"We didn't know if there was much of a market," says Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, which was one of the first farms to reintroduce wheat to the greater Bay Area about four years ago. "There wasn't at first, but slowly people are catching on. As a farmer it's not just figuring out how to grow something but how to sell it."

Full Belly now sells 7,000 pounds of wheat a year, including wheat berries as well as flour, at farmers' markets and to bakers and even brewers like Thirsty Bear in San Francisco. They've been joined by Pie Ranch, an educational farm on the San Mateo Coast that now supplies whole wheat flour to its nonprofit partner, Mission Pie, a cafe-bakery in San Francisco.

Eatwell Farm in Dixon sells its new crop of hard red winter wheat at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and next year plans to start a grain CSA (community-supported agriculture), where customers can sign up to receive regular deliveries direct from the farm.

Statewide boost

Locally, wheat will probably never again claim a huge amount of acreage, since it isn't a high-value crop that can make up for the cost of real estate, yet it is getting a boost in the state overall. As grain prices experienced a recent spike, California farmers increased wheat planting (other than durum wheat) by 30 percent from 2007 to 2008, to 650,000 acres.

The majority of wheat farmers - in the far north of the state as well as in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys - are growing hard red wheat rather than the soft white varieties like Sonora that some small organic farmers in Northern California favor.

Much of the local activity can be attributed to Monica Spiller, who has devoted much of the last three decades to studying wheat and finding a home for its old-time varieties. A chemist by training and married to the late Gene Spiller, a certified nutrition specialist, she was concerned about the lack of whole wheat bread in America's diet.

"I had this goal, this mission in life to find out how to bring back whole grain breads into normal usefulness," says Spiller.

In the '90s, she discovered that she could request free samples of heirloom seeds from the USDA. She later borrowed a few acres from Full Belly as well as on the land of Sally Fox, a nearby cotton grower, and experimented with as many as 70 varieties, focusing on ones that had grown historically in the state. She started to notice that the older varieties had natural advantages for local organic farms, such as being naturally tall, which shades out weeds and reduces the need for herbicides.

In 2000, Spiller founded the Los Altos nonprofit Whole Grain Connection, which supplies hard-to-find seeds and information to farmers, and continued her experiments.

After one particularly cold and wet season in 2004, she found that Sonora was one of the only varieties that didn't succumb to stripe rust, a common disease. The next year, working in part with Lee Jackson, a UC Davis agronomist, she did further tests.

"Sonora wheat came to the top of the list," she says.

Spiller believes Sonora wheat could have been first brought over by the Portuguese on one of the early ships, possibly before Columbus. She says it's possible that this was the strain of wheat that the explorer Juan Bautista de Anza encountered when he met with Yuma Indians in what is now Southern California, on his way to the Santa Clara Valley in the late 1700s. Sonora wheat thrived in earnest after the Gold Rush, when farmers capitalized on the needs of hungry miners.

"By 1860 the wheat in California was a colossal business, notably in Santa Clara Valley and Alameda. The whole Bay Area was a tremendous wheat-growing area," says Spiller. California became a breadbasket, exporting to Europe and the East Coast. Wheat was ground by stone mills that cropped up all over San Francisco, much like the urban wineries that handled grapes brought in by rail from the countryside.

Rise of refining

Things changed in the 1880s, when the Plains states began growing vast amounts of hard red wheat, which did better in their cold, northern climate. When they tried to grind it in stone mills, the result was different than California's Sonora wheat. Whereas Sonora flour made a delicate, light-colored whole grain bread, hard red wheat flour resulted in a very dark, coarse one.

"The vogue was white, white, white and sift, sift, sift. They got around it by learning to remove the bran and the germ and only to have the white endosperm. This is, of course, our refined white flour," says Spiller. "There was an enormous amount of it. Everyone just worshiped it."

However, when Sonora wheat was given the same treatment, it didn't come out well because it was more difficult to remove the bran or germ, Spiller says. California's wheat production slowed dramatically by the early 1900s. Also, new roller mills were introduced, which more easily separated out the germ from the flour.

"The stone mills were just about discarded overnight," she says.

With the recent trend toward whole-wheat everything, it's interesting to see stone-milled flour come back in vogue, though on a small scale.

One challenge for today's small growers is getting the special equipment needed for sowing and harvesting wheat. The massive combines used in the Midwest won't work on a small field.

Pie Ranch started out using scythes to harvest its wheat by hand. When that became impractical, farmer Jered Lawson got a 1953 Allis Chalmers All-Crop 66, with 66 inches of cutter.

"It cost more to get here than for the combine itself," says Lawson, who often demonstrates how to thresh wheat - and harvest it with an Old World scythe - at farm events. The farm also recently ordered a mill from Austria to augment the home-style mill it displays at its farm stand.

The soft Sonora wheat Pie Ranch got from Spiller turned out to be perfect for the farm's main product: pie. The wheat is used in pies sold at the farm stand and augments Mission Pie's whole wheat flour supply.

Working with Sonora wheat

Sonora wheat performs differently than hard winter wheat varieties because it is lower in protein. Spiller compensates for that by adding vital wheat gluten to her bread; the recipe is posted on her Web site (see "Where to find flour").

Whereas Sonora wheat contains about 9 percent protein, Eatwell Farm's hard red winter wheat has been tested at 12.3 percent protein, so it is easier to work into bread.

If you're not a bread baker, local wheat is delicious in simple quick breads and pastries. In The Chronicle's test kitchen, we swooned over the rounded, deep flavor of pancakes made with Eatwell Farm's wheat compared to those made with supermarket whole wheat. (See sfgate.com/food for the recipe).

Or you might just follow the lead of customers who let Eduardo Morell do the baking, showing up religiously to buy the Full Belly whole-wheat bread at the Berkeley Farmers' Market.

"With the regulars you don't even have to say anything," says Morell. "They walk up and I bag the bread, and they hand me the money, and sometimes words are never spoken except 'thank you' and 'have a nice day.' "

Where to find flour

Keep fresh-milled flour sealed and in a cool, dark place, preferably the refrigerator. Opinions vary about how long you can hold it, but Monica Spiller says that stone-milled flour, especially from dry California fields, can be stored for months.

Eatwell Farm. Flour and wheat berries sold at Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and at Village Market in the Ferry Building, San Francisco. Wheat berries $1 per pound; flour is $5 per 3-pound bag. eatwell.com.

Full Belly Farm. Flour and wheat berries sold at following farmers' markets: Tuesday in Berkeley, Thursday in San Rafael and Saturday in Palo Alto; also sold at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Monterey Market in Berkeley and Star Grocery in Oakland. Farmers' market price is $3 per 1 1/2-pound bag. fullbellyfarm.com.

Morrell's Bread. Full Belly whole-wheat bread sold at Thursday and Saturday Berkeley Farmers Market. $6 per 34-ounce loaf. web.me.com/eduardomorell.

Pie Ranch. Pies made with some of the farm's produce and flour are sold at Mission Pie, 2901 Mission St. (at 25th Street), (415) 282-1500 or missionpie.com. Flour and pies also available at the farm stand in Davenport May through November; see pieranch.org.

Whole Grain Connection. Recipes, baking tips and seed catalog at sustainablegrains.org.

By Tara Duggan