Last spring I shared some discouraging news about the state of affairs with organic wheat. Unfortunately, the 2014 harvest in the Midwest was no better than that from 2013 and the general picture for organic wheat is still quite bleak.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Loïc Dewavrin when he gave the keynote presentation at the Northern Grain Growers Association annual conference. Loïc operates a farm in Les Cedres, Quebec (just west of Montreal) called Les Fermes Longpres with his brothers Thomas and Côme and his son Gregory. Although the thrust of Loïc’s presentation for NGGA was about seed security and the systems he and his brothers have on their farm to grow all of their crops with seed they save, he also touched on the roller mill that they were in the process of installing on the farm. My ears perked up at the mention of this, but I must admit that I was also skeptical.
A little background here: Roller milling is the most sophisticated way of milling flour and even small roller mills typically cost two million dollars to set up. The roller mill is the invention that makes white flour possible. The first ones originated in Hungary in the late 1800’s and the technology quickly spread throughout Europe and then to North America and around the world. In many circles today, roller mills are the subject of criticism… and many of the points that the detractors make are indisputable. These mills are designed to dissect wheat berries and discard most of the bran and germ—the sources of a lot of flavor and nutrition. But, say what you will, we wouldn’t have croissants, baguettes, sticky buns, ciabatta and a long list of other favorite baked goods without roller mills. The roller mill gave bakers around the world a whole new medium to work with, and today the vast majority of the wheat harvested globally is processed on one of these. Today, most roller mills are owned by giants of the food world. The financial barriers to entry are so high that many of the most popular brands of flour don’t even own their own mills; they contract with the operators of large roller mills. So to discover that Loïc and his brothers were putting in a roller mill on their farm was impressive to say the least.
Here at the bakery, although we are big fans of stone-milled flour in all its forms, our customers have demonstrated their preference for loaves that are lighter in texture and color and milder in flavor. (And I don’t want to make it sound like I’m just blaming the customer—we love a good baguette just as much as anyone.) Many of our breads that contain a portion of whole grains also have a good helping of unbleached, roller-milled wheat flour in them. All told, 75% of all the flour we use at Red Hen is produced on a roller mill. In April of 2014 I had the opportunity to join Jack Lazor and a group of UVM students on a trip to see Loïc’s farm and mill, which he has named Moulin des Cedres. The town of Les Cedres, Quebec is located just west of Montreal and although the linguistic, cultural and topographical differences make one feel that it is far away from Vermont, the Dewavrin’s farm is only 150 miles from our bakery. Loïc showed us the completed roller mill that he bought, brought in pieces from Paris to the farm. He and his brothers engineered and assembled it themselves on site. For the Dewavrin’s, the mill is a natural extension of their farming from both a marketing and a technical perspective. The Dewavrins have long been saving their own seed on their 1500 acre farm and have been involved for years in plant breeding projects. When Loïc explained the intricate system of crop rotations and companion planting they employ on their certified organic operation, he also showed us the implements that they had designed and built or modified to work the land gently and efficiently. Years ago they built a facility to cold press sunflower oil to add value to that crop. As time went by, it became clear to the brothers that the next logical step in the process was to engineer and construct a mill to process the wheat right on the farm. As Loïc says, “In this quest [for] self-sufficiency, being aware of the risks of market globalization and highly concerned by food security issues, the project of transforming grains on the farm itself was the only logical step for further development of the company.” And, after seeing the ingenuity these farmers have put to use on the farm, it is easy to see why a roller mill was the next frontier for the Dewavrins.
Before I left Les Cedres on that snowy day last April, Loïc handed me a 20 kilo bag of flour that was milled on the new mill. Back at the bakery I made a batch of baguettes that were some of the finest I have ever made. The hard work the Dewavrin’s have put in from field to mill has paid off.
Loïc and I have stayed in touch since that visit. The thought of significantly increasing our use of regionally produced, identity-preserved flour and partnering with another superlative farm operation was a very exciting prospect for us. I view this as a continuation of the work we have done with Ben Gleason since 2000 and Tom Kenyon (Aurora Farms/Nitty Gritty Grains) since 2008. And as we watched the organic wheat market spiral into crisis mode this year, the possibility of using Moulin des Cedres flour at Red Hen has also become a practical consideration as it could potentially provide us with a more stable supply of high quality organic wheat flour.
In early November, Loïc led a group of us from the bakery on a tour of his operation and he opened by saying that their plan is to partner with just 2 or 3 small bakeries. Loïc sums up this new venture very well:
In size, the mill built on the farm seats between artisan stone mill installation and bigger roller mill installation. Most of the design, construction and assembling have been done by the three brothers and son during the last three winters. The intent was to concentrate on white sifted organic wheat flour (essentially for baguette) since the heavy soils of the farm do produce a very good quality spring wheat. Seeking for a good relationship with specific bakers which are really dedicated to organic and local food, the product will be limited to few of them (the best ones!) essentially because the crop production is limited by the acreage dedicated to wheat.
We are honored that Red Hen is the first sizable client for this new operation. As when we worked with Aurora Farms and Champlain Valley Mills to bring our Vermont-grown wheat project to fruition, Hillcrest Foods has been a critical link in the chain. They have enthusiastically agreed to transport and warehouse the flour from Moulin des Cedres.
If you had told me a few years ago that we would ever see the day when all of our flour comes from within 150 miles of the bakery, I would have never believed it.
Some of what has made this happen as quickly as it has is related to sad news from the Midwest; but most of this we can attribute to the unusual good fortune of being located close to a remarkable farm and mill. So keep an eye on our baguettes this holiday season and let us know what you think. And in the coming year, we expect you will taste the difference in most of the rest of our breads. You’ll also know that you are supporting our efforts to close the loop and reduce the food miles that go into our bread.