How the Regional Grains Project Transformed New York's Union Square Greenmarket
For a home baker, the local flour movement can be a bit daunting. After all, protein content matters; hard wheats, containing more gluten, are better for baking bread. They make the elastic dough that stretches to capture air during kneading, rising to yield a nice, high bread with an airy crumb. Softer wheats with less gluten are better for pastry. And though low-gluten grains like rye can be used for breads and baked goods, they act entirely different than the all-purpose flour you’re used to, and the results can be baffling. Where do you turn for help? A great starting point is the local farmer's market.
If you live in New York City, the best place to go is the Union Square Greenmarket. There, on any given Wednesday or Saturday, you’ll find a booth selling an array of New York State grains and flours and knowledgeable folks who are eager to help explain what to purchase and how to cook and bake with it. You’ll also find samples of dishes made with the grains—everything from emmer crackers to the Moroccan stew, harira.
The operation, helmed by the Greenmarket Regional Grains Project (GRGP), provides consumer support as part of a much larger mission. From research to technical assistance for farmers to creating markets for local grains and fresh-milled flours, the Project works to integrate grains into the artisan food movement and bring the grains economy back to the Northeast. Why? Because the ultimate goal of the Greenmarket is to help local farmers grow great food. And grains, if dealt with right, can be gold to farmers. With everyone from millers and maltsters to animal farmers needing high-quality grain, it can be a valuable crop. And, as cover crops, grains also fix soils, putting nutrients depleted by vegetable farming back into earth.
A century ago, the Northeast region lost its vital grain farming. To hear GRGP director June Russell tell it, farmers made an exodus to the Midwest, where wheat grew better in the drier climate. With the opening of the Erie Canal, which made it much easier to transport grain, there was little need for local production, anyway. So flavorful grains like ruddy, herbaceous Red Fife wheat, which were the heritage of the region, fell out cultivation. The Midwest’s fast-growing hybrid wheats took over the markets, and bakers lost touch with ancient and local varieties.
One of the Project’s tasks is to reunite the bakers and the grains. It’s a process that started back in 2004, says Russell, when the Greenmarket decided that the bakery stalls needed to be more “mission supportive.” The Greenmarket’s modus operandi, after all, was to support the revitalization of regional agriculture while providing New Yorkers with good, fresh food. In the coveted stalls at Union Square, says Russell, “the farmers were livid that a guy selling banana bread made with ConAgra flour was taking up three spaces.”
The bakers resisted at first. Russell doesn’t blame them. “The entire marketplace is calibrated to all-purpose flour, and these [heritage flours] are anything but,” she says. “Even our professional bakers had no training or language for them. They hadn’t been taught it in school how to work with variable proteins.”
But the Regional Grains Project persisted, and today, every baked good sold at the NYC Greenmarkets is required to contain at least 15 percent local grain, and many of them have a lot more than that. Orwashers’ “Ultimate Whole Wheat,” made with New York State wheat; She Wolf’s whole wheat sourdough, baked using upstate’s Farmer Ground flour; Bread Alone’s sourdough rye, from local grain—these are the breads that New Yorkers crave now. And other products have followed: Brooklyn Brewery pairs New York-grown wheat and barley with local hops and honey to make a light, fruity, refreshing beer that’s sold at the Greenmarket to support the Regional Grains Project.
The entire effort, and its delicious results, are evidence of a sea change in food lovers’ understanding of grains. “It took ten years for grass-fed beef to really get into the mainstream,” Russell points out. “In 2002, people were saying you could never sell grass-fed beef, it was terrible, it was too tough. But farmers just needed to learn how to raise cattle on grass, and then palates changed, and now every place has a grass-fed burger. I look to that as similar.”