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Madisonians take pride in knowing where their tomatoes are grown and who grew them. At restaurants we order charcuterie boards filled with locally sourced cheese and meats and house-pickled veggies. But what about the bread that accompanies a meal? Sure, you might purchase artisan bread from a local bakery, but do you know where the grain comes from?
David LeZaks, the lead of regenerative food system initiatives at the Chicago-based nonprofit Delta Institute, will tell you that before Wisconsin was a dairy state, it was a grain state. He says the local grain economy is growing but not at the pace he would like to see.
LeZaks says a local grain economy exists when a staple crop, like grains or beans, travels from farmer to consumer within a 250-mile radius. The entire ecosystem involves a farmer, a flour mill and a bread maker. Each business takes steps to ensure the longevity and quality of the soil, the grain and the final product.
Local farmers will send their grains (like spring wheat, winter wheat, barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, rye, sorghum and spelt) to local mills that will sell it to bakers who eventually produce artisan bread. From field to bread, each step in the process stays in Wisconsin. Here's how that savory slice gets to your table.
Spring wheat looks like a field of grass. When it starts to flower it has yellow or white buds, which turn into amber-toned grain. This is the fifth season of planting for Halee and John Wepking, partial owners of Meadowlark Organics in Ridgeway. They've lived and worked on this farm for three years with majority owner Paul Bickford. The couple owns more than 80 acres and a family homestead where the Wepkings live with their two young children.
In order to ensure the crops are not stripping the soil of the same nutrients season after season, the Wepkings vary what they grow, planting spring wheat, oats, corn, rye and buckwheat in addition to clover and alfalfa that prevent soil erosion in between harvests.
Once the crop is harvested — typically in July — the Wepkings keep the wheat in large storage facilities. The crop can be stored for years, but the couple aims to sell it before the next season to supply the freshest wheat for making flour.
Wisconsin was home to many flour mills in the 1800s, but many of the facilities have since closed.
LeZaks says stone milling is very different from the more popular rolling mill technique. The more commercialized practice separates the three parts of the wheat plant: the endosperm, the germ and the bran. The germ and bran are nutrient dense and high in oils, which make the flour spoil faster. Their removal eliminates much of the flavor and the nutrients from fiber and iron, says LeZaks.
One stone-ground mill using all three parts of the wheat still functions — Lonesome Stone Milling in Richland County, located in Lone Rock, Wisconsin, population 888. The mill mainly produces whole-wheat flour, organic whole-grain rye flour and whole-grain yellow cornmeal. Lonesome Stone Milling ships flour to Milwaukee, Chicago and Madison.
Local baker Kirk Smock, owner of ORIGIN Breads, uses the final flour product from Meadowlark Organics that is milled at Lonesome Stone.
The Final Product
Smock, who's been baking since 2005, starts the bread-making process by feeding a wild yeast starter two times per day. Once it is ready, Smock hand-mixes the flour, water, yeast and salt.
When using local grains, Smock says relying on the texture of the dough is an important factor. While he'll follow the same formulas for the different breads, he'll adjust the proportions based on how the dough feels. The process is different when working with commercialized flour, which is made with grain sourced from all over the country that has a consistent outcome.
Smock says ORIGIN Breads gets flour delivered every two weeks and with many deliveries, he makes small tweaks to recipes based on the flour's feel.
Smock has customers with gluten sensitivities (not allergies) who report being able to eat ORIGIN Breads' signature loaves. There are several reasons for this, the biggest being that the loaves are sourdough that ferment for a long period of time, Smock says.
Other reasons include: The essential fibers remain in the flour during the stone-milled process and large chunks of bran are removed at the mill. His core loaves also contain just three ingredients (flour, salt and water), whereas commercialized loaves can have more than 30 ingredients.
"[The customers] are thrilled to be able to eat bread again," Smock says.
After the dough rises overnight, the bread is ready to bake in a 460-degree stone deck oven. The total process takes 36 hours and results in bread with a flavorful center.
The idea of continuing a local grain economy has caught the attention of bakers and some restaurant owners in the greater Dane County area. Smock says The Heights has sourced local grains for the menu by using ORIGIN Breads and other grains from Meadowlark Organics.
"The local story has captivated a lot of imagination [by] bringing people back to their food but in many cases overlooked grains," LeZaks says. "[Using local grains] is creating tighter connections between the soil, the farmers and the millers."
Mackenzie Krumme is a Madison writer and a former intern at Madison Magazine.