Pandemic stay-at-home orders seem to have ignited a passion for home baking, making five-pound bags of flour scarce on supermarket shelves. This, even though Pennsylvania and neighboring states grow thousands of acres of wheat. Many growers and experts hope some of the wheat grown in the region can help feed this newfound hunger for flour.
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Local Mill Working Overtime
Lyle Ferderber is tired. His flour mill, Frankferd Farms Foods in Butler County, has been working overtime, as an increasing number of people have started baking.
“The interest in our flour has just skyrocketed,” he said. Ferderber, president and co-founder, has hired workers to keep up with the flour orders, which have risen 40 percent in the past few months.
One reason supermarket shelves don’t have much flour is similar to other segments of the food supply chain. Large mills that feed the industrial flour supply are not set up to package the two- or five-pound bags of flour that consumers want now.
“They have tons of flour,” Federber said. “But it’s 50-pound bag sizes, and it’s sitting in a warehouse waiting to be shipped to bakeries and restaurants that may be idled as a result of the virus.”
Federber thinks that’s partially what’s driving people to his mill. “Our’s is now made pretty much fresh to order,” he said. “I sent orders out today to the Greensburg area and to the Maryland area. The flour bags are still warm.”
Pennsylvania’s Soft Winter Wheat
About three quarters of the wheat milled at Frankferd Farms isn’t local — it comes from the Midwest.
Most industrial-sized mills in Pennsylvania also buy wheat from northern plain states like South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska. Those states grow what’s known as hard spring wheat. It’s good for bread baking because the dry weather in the Midwest stresses the wheat, boosting its protein content. But that doesn’t happen in rainy Pennsylvania.
“You can take a variety of hard wheat and it will grow here,” explained Heidi Reed, agronomy educator at Penn State Extension. “But it’s not going to produce the same amount of protein, because it will never be stressed here in the same way as it is out there.”
According to the USDA, Pennsylvania’s 180,000 acres of wheat fields are mostly planted with soft winter wheat because it grows well in the state’s climate.
“This is the type of wheat that’s used for cookies and crackers, cakes and also used to blend with other types of wheat to make all-purpose flour,” said Reed.
Pennsylvania’s soft wheat also fuels the pretzel industry. The state is said to produce 80 percent of the nation’s pretzels.
Experimenting with Hard Wheat for Bread
Still, some Pennsylvania wheat farmers want to give hard winter wheat a try. Weatherbury Farm in Avella, Washington County, grows a variety of wheat and other grains that it mills into flour. According to Weatherbury’s owner, Nigel Tudor, they’ve planted a hard spring wheat this year.
“Philosophically, it seems like the right thing to do,” he said. “There should be somebody growing locally grown wheat to make bread. It just seems wrong that you say, ‘we’re going to rely on the western states to give us our wheat for our bread.’ ”
Tudor has been working with researchers to help develop better varieties of hard spring wheat to grow in this region. In the meantime, Weatherbury Farm also grows other grains that can be used for baking that have long grown well in the region like rye, spelt and buckwheat.
Since the pandemic hit, Tudor has seen increasing interest in his flours. “We’re certainly optimistic that the market for direct to consumer flour is growing,” he said.
To buy flour at Weatherbury Farm, people can order online, and pick up at the farm on designated days. Usually a dozen people do this. But on the most recent pickup day, they had ten times as many orders, and sold ten times as much flour than normal, according to Tudor.
A Local Flour Economy
Until recently, the consumer market for local flour in western Pennsylvania, whether rye and spelt, and even locally grown wheat, just hasn’t been strong.
“You can go to any farmer’s market in Pittsburgh, and find local produce, and fruits and veggies, and cheese, meat and dairy,” said Cassandra Malis is Program Manager at Chatham University’s Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT). “But you will be very hard pressed to find local flour.”
This has started changing in some regions, like New York City, where Grow NYC coordinates sales of grains and flours grown regionally, like wheat, rye, spelt, and einkorn, at farms in New York, Vermont, Maine, and even central Pennsylvania. Customers order online and can pick up at farm markets around the city.
At Chatham’s CRAFT, they’re trying to get local grains into the hands of bakers. Over the past few years, they’ve created an inventory of Pennsylvania grown products, including grains. Now, they’re moving forward with a networking project, to introduce grain farmers to bakers, millers, brewers and others who could use their products.
“So the bakers can learn more about the challenges farmers have growing grain here, and farmers can learn more about what bakers are looking for when they’re buying a flour, and what price point is reasonable for the baker,” Malis said.
They’re also expanding workshop offerings, so experienced bakers can teach others in the region “the nuances with the local grains and how to bake with them on a larger scale and in a more consistent way,” said Malis.
Local Grain Love
For some food experts, there’s just nothing like the taste of fresh flour grown and milled locally, especially the grains that grow here.
“How can we help people understand this basic food, that is also really special?” asks Amy Halloran, author of “The New Bread Basket,” a book about local grains, and the people who grow, mill and bake with them.
She doesn’t see why people limit their pallets to the ubiquitous hard winter wheat grown in the Midwest, and sold in supermarkets as bread and flour.
“You’re planting to the specifications of an industrial food system that’s going for factory standards,” she said. Also, the bran covering on the outside of a wheat grain is stripped away in industrial milling. “There’s a lot of taste taken away if you only have white flour,” she said.
Halloran’s favorite freshly milled wheats have a purple or white bran covering. “Fresh stone-milled flour from farms that are nearby to the mills is a totally different food,” she said, “You can have an incredibly flavorful flour.”
Halloran has mixed feelings about the pandemic-induced flour rush. She’s glad that local mills are seeing an increased interest. But, she said, “I’m really heartbroken that it took a breakdown of the standard supply chain for this incredible ingredient to have a moment, because flour is so far off our consideration in terms of food processing and food thinking.”
Signs of a bigger impact?
But there are more signs that that could be changing.
Five years ago, some Giant Eagle supermarkets started stocking bags of Weatherbury Farms flour, according to Nathan Holmes, of food distributor Three Rivers Grown. “It failed,” he said because not enough people bought it.
But in recent weeks, they got another order from Giant Eagle for Weatherbury Farms flour, and it seems to be a success. “In a matter of four weeks, we basically almost sold out all of his hard red wheat,” he said. “We’ve sold over 1,700 bags, or something like that, in a really short period of time.”
Giant Eagle did not respond to requests for comment. Holmes doesn’t expect the industrial flour system to take long to correct the flour shortage on store shelves, but he sees this as a window of opportunity for local mills like Weatherbury Farm.
“If we sold 2,000 bags of flour, and those people that typically wouldn’t have bought it or seen it on the shelf before bought that flour and say, ‘Hey, this was delicious. This was the best banana bread I’ve ever made,’ and they see the picture of his family, and see that it was coming from a farm in Avella, and they say, ‘I know where Avella is,’ the opportunity is that those people are going to come back and look for it,” Holmes said.
Holmes hopes the current interest lasts beyond the pandemic, so local grains and flour become part of a more diverse and secure local food system.
Top photo: A field of soft red winter wheat in Adams County, Pa. in June, 2019. Photo courtesy of Heidi Reed / Penn State Extension