Why a local coalition of farmers, artisans and activists are fighting to bring back heritage crops.
If you frequent local bakeries along the Front Range, it’s possible that you’ve heard the growing buzz about heritage, ancient or heirloom grains. From Turkey Red to Blue Emmer, White Sonora to Rouge de Bordeaux, a renaissance of pre-industrial wheats, in particular, has slowly spread across Colorado. At the epicenter is a group called the Colorado Grain Chain: a nonprofit organization of farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, artisans, distillers and chefs with a shared interest in growing, sourcing and promoting locally adapted heritage grains.
“The Grain Chain was founded because of a growing interest in the health attributes, flavor profiles and terroir of heirloom grains on the part of farmers, consumers and those of us in between,” explains Andy Clark, chair of the Colorado Grain Chain and founder of Moxie Bread Co. in Boulder County. “There’s more organic heirloom wheat planted in Colorado right now than I’ve seen in my 25 years as a local baker, and 2021 is shaping up to be a turning point for this movement.”
In large part, the Grain Chain grew out of Colorado Grain School—an annual, multi-day conference founded in 2016 by Nanna Meyer, associate professor of human physiology and nutrition at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. A former ski racer from Switzerland, Meyer has worked in Olympic sport nutrition for more than 20 years and attributes much of her own success as an athlete to the high-quality, nutrient-dense grains of her childhood. Yet it wasn’t until she became involved in UCCS’ transition from a corporate food system to a self-operating enterprise that she began researching Colorado-grown grain.
“When we were identifying producers [to partner with on the project], we found plenty of local vegetables, fruit, quinoa and rye, but we wanted to see more local grains,” Meyer recalls. “That’s how the conference, which brought together students with bakers, farmers and other industry professionals, began.”
Today, Grain School has transitioned to an online course that is open to both industry professionals and everyday consumers. Yet it’s the in-person connections made at earlier conferences that have helped fuel the heritage grain movement on a larger scale. Roy Pfaltzgraff of Pfz Farms, a founding Grain Chain member from northeastern Colorado, knows all too well the obstacles that can face innovators in the agriculture industry:
“When you go to try something new, one of the biggest issues is that you rarely have someone to talk to. I’ve spoken with more farmers in Canada than the U.S., because [Americans] are a very traditional crowd, and regenerative farming has been slower to adapt here. The biggest risk and investment for farmers is overcoming a fear of the unknown.”
Pfaltzgraff currently grows buckwheat and millet—ancient, gluten-free grains that he sells to a local malting company—while educating individual consumers through his line of homemade gluten-free baking mixes. Yet these grains are just a portion of the 15 different crops he rotates to keep the soil healthy.
“There are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are humans on earth,” Pfaltzgraff explains, “but to maintain that activity, soils need to be fed a diverse diet.” This biodiverse perspective has helped Pfaltzgraff reverse the topsoil erosion that plagues drier regions of the state. However, these innovations have also made him an outcast among his neighbors—despite how well his crops are thriving.
Phil Taylor, the co-founder of Boulder nonprofit Mad Agriculture, explains why evolving agricultural practices is such an uphill battle: “Most farmers are stuck within the current food system. It’s not an option or a choice—it’s a paradigm.” In particular, Taylor describes the industry standard of evaluating crop success by yield as a hurdle to regenerative agriculture and the introduction of heirloom crops. For example, heritage wheat may only provide 30–40% of the yield of commercial varieties, but it can also earn 10 times the revenue per pound.
“Farmers can develop an awesome vision for their land, but it rarely finds life unless it is supported by three relationships: who you surround yourself with, where the money comes from and what markets you sell to,” Taylor explains. Essentially, without support from their peers, more flexible forms of financing and a commitment from an end-buyer, most farmers aren’t willing to take the risk—and there’s also the question of infrastructure.
The vast majority of processing equipment is designed to work on the scale of truckloads, refining thousands of pounds of grain at a time. For farms that grow smaller quantities of grain—whether because it’s an experimental crop, or because they prefer a more biodiverse system of rotation—achieving that quantity of scale is unrealistic. Committing to grow heritage crops is thus only the first step; you then need to find scaled solutions to clean, mill and store it.
Yet that infrastructure is slowly appearing. In Boulder alone, two small, independent mills have opened in the last year. The first is a dual retail and wholesale operation called The Mill Site, which operates out of the Moxie Feed + Seed on North Broadway. The second is run by Dry Storage, Kelly Whitaker’s bakery in the Peloton West complex. The existence of these mills, in and of themselves, is game-changing for the local grain economy.
“A lot of people are excited to consider grain or flour as something more than just an indistinguishable, cheap ingredient,” says Joan Rasmussen, head miller at The Mill Site. “It’s also interesting to see the same varieties grown by a range of farms, because you can tell the difference. The flavor and protein will change based on the soil and climate in which the crop grows. Sometimes the grain is more shriveled, which leads to a nuttier, heartier flour. Other times, you’ll get a much fluffier, lighter product.”
A professional baker turned miller, Rasmussen is unusually qualified to help customers navigate this veritable paintbox of flours. “A lot of food maker-influencer types are starting to use heirloom grains, which is driving consumer interest. People come in and kind of want to try everything, so it’s important that we provide education about how the different flours perform or how to troubleshoot a specific issue.” With the increased interest in home baking throughout the pandemic, Rasmussen has also been able to hear feedback from repeat customers—many of whom comment on the remarkable flavor of their baked goods or that their sourdough starter has never been more active.
At Pastificio Boulder, a fresh and dried pasta company that celebrates and works primarily with organic, heirloom grains, co-founder Claudia Bouvier underscores the importance of freshness: “If your whole-grain flour was milled six months ago, you lose the flavor, the aroma, the characteristics that make these flours so special.” Bouvier and her partner, Ted Steen, carefully fresh-mill the majority of their grains for production—an attention to flavor and texture that recently won their dried pastas two Good Food Awards.
“Working with heritage grains is definitely more challenging,” Steen notes, “but it’s also more fun to know there are different varieties of wheat out there. It’s similar to wine: Every time you taste it, you’re considering the region it came from, the people who grew it. It takes you on a little adventure.” Beyond the creative benefits, those who work with these biodiverse grains also contribute to practical shifts in the grocery chain, including our food system’s resilience in the face of climate change.
“Conventionally grown wheat uses a lot of fertilizer and creates run-off that ends up in oceans,” Professor Meyer explains. “That pollution isn’t sustainable. Moreover, when you sift grain and remove 70% of the bran, you transform something nutritionally complete into something less impactful. Even if you use the byproduct for animal feed, white flour is incredibly expensive from a climate perspective [when compared to whole grain flour].”
In his work with Mad Agriculture, Taylor has seen how such unsustainable practices hurt the farmers themselves: “Farmers have no control over the price of commodity products, and despite the rising input prices [of fertilizer], their revenues, adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant since the ’70s. Everything we know tells us the current system isn’t going to work for much longer.”
Back in northeastern Colorado, Pfaltzgraff’s farm suggests a model for incremental change. In less than five years, he has been able to reduce his fertilizer and herbicide use to less than half the industry standard through regenerative, no-till farming techniques. While true organic farming remains near impossible in such an arid landscape, this reduction in both financial inputs and chemical toxicity is a meaningful step forward.
Getting everyday consumers to understand these complex dynamics of agriculture is perhaps the biggest challenge ahead. “[We’re experiencing] what Marx called the metabolic rift: when the people consuming the majority of our food forget where it comes from,” Taylor reflects. “Cities rely on the country, yet we’ve never been more polarized. The grain movement could be a powerful way to restore that relationship—to heal the urban-rural divide.”