Chatham University ag program celebrates role grains play in region

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Chloe Newman, owner of Crust Worthy, sells these artisan breads made with locally-milled flours at the Bloomfield Farmers Market on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh on Sept. 5. (Lucy Schaly photo)

It’s been called the staff of life. But when talking about local foods, bread often gets left out of the conversation.

“You can go to any farmers market in Pittsburgh and get local produce, meat and dairy,” said Cassandra Malis, project manager for Chatham University’s Center for Regional Agriculture, Food and Transformation. “You’ll be hard pressed to find a bag of local flour. That’s not just Pittsburgh. It’s a thing that happens around the country.”

Chatham University’s Center for Regional, Agriculture, Food and Transformation, or CRAFT, program is trying to do something to fix that.

They want to help businesses develop new product lines using local grains, teach bakers how to use locally-milled flours and connect consumers with sources for local grains.

On top of that, they’re capturing the history of grains in western Pennsylvania and what they mean to the region.

“Bread and grains are ingrained in the food culture of everyone on this planet, basically,” Malis said.

More than 80% of the 1,300 bakers, distillers and wholesale processors within a 200-mile radius of downtown Pittsburgh did not source their grains locally, according to CRAFT.

Grant

Part of the solution is coming through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Promotion Program. Chatham received the $499,997 three-year grant, in early 2020, to promote a local grains economy in western Pennsylvania.

The grant has two parts: business development and education, Malis said.

CRAFT is offering businesses help with product development, on a sliding-scale fee schedule, through its Food Innovation Lab, at the university’s Eden Hall campus.

The university is based in Pittsburgh, but the CRAFT program is housed within the Eden Hall campus, a 388-acre former summer home and farm property owned by Sebastian Mueller, a Heinz relative, in the suburban area north of the city.

Processors, farmers or bakers can use the lab to develop new recipes and products using local grains, with help from the lab’s consultants.

The education component is for bakers and consumers. Locally milled flours can be challenging to use for someone who is used to commercially available flours.

“They’re not always consistent in terms of moisture content,” Malis said. That, among other things, can be different from batch to batch.

The plan is to hold workshops and training sessions for bakers to learn how to successfully handle locally-milled products. There will also be networking events to connect farmers with processors with bakers, when it is safe to do so in person.

For consumers, they put together a community supported grain box for purchase.

The box includes four varieties of locally grown and milled flours, a dehydrated sourdough starter with a link to a recorded workshop on how to care for a starter, a muffin mix using all local grains and recipes. The first grain boxes are going out this month.

Legacy

Even with all the work being done, it’s still an uphill battle to get local grains into the mainstream consciousness. There are just a handful of mills in the entire region that sell commercially. This doesn’t include historical mills that are occasionally used for demonstrations.

It’s also difficult to source grains from farmers. Many mills buy in grain from outside the state.

“Wheat is difficult in Pennsylvania. It grows great out in the other side of the state. What grows well here is rye, spelt, buckwheat, hardier things,” Malis said.

Buckwheat in particular has an interesting and important role in the history of the area. Butler County used to be called Buckwheat County for its major role in the county’s agriculture.

That was one of the interesting facts they discovered through the research project called “Babka and Beyond: Bread, Grains and Baked Goods in Western Pennsylvania.”

CRAFT gathered oral histories from farmers, bakers and millers from the region to maintain the legacy. More than 40 people were interviewed for the project. The audio of the interviews are available publicly online.

Another project, called “Buckwheat County: The Agricultural History from Seed to Mill,” is underway.

Flavor

The payoff of using locally-milled flours is the flavor, said Nigel Tudor, owner of Weatherbury Farms, a mill in Washington County. They grow about 65 acres of various types of organic grains and stone mill them.

“The biggest thing about local grains is it’s more flavorful,” Tudor said.  “It’s not something you realize you’re missing until you try it.”

Wheat grains are made up of three parts: germ, endosperm and bran. The white flour you get at the store only has the endosperm. Whole wheat flour has all three parts.

The germ and the oils within it are where the flavor comes from. The oils in the germ are also the problem with it because they can go rancid over time.

The tradeoffs of using locally-milled flours is a lower shelf life and higher cost.

Chloe Newman, owner of Crust Worthy, a Pittsburgh-based bakery, said when she was buying 50-pound bags of white flour from restaurant supply stores, it was maybe $15 per bag. Now that she’s using locally-milled flour, it’s more like $50 for a 50-pound bag.

“That’s why my breads are priced the way they are,” she said. Newman specializes in sourdough breads. “It’s not just a lot of labor and overhead that goes into making them. The ingredients themselves are significantly more than what you buy at the Aldi down the street.”

While you want to make a flavorful product for your customers, you don’t want to price them out either. That’s a fine line Newman has to walk. Is it worth the extra cost? That’s for you to decide.

For Newman, it’s about more than just the cost. She wants to lead by example in investing in local producers.

She also wants to expose people to different types of grain past their usual wheat bread and expose them to different cultures, time periods and flavors through their baking methods. Buckwheat and rye, two grains commonly grown in Pennsylvania, are some of her favorites to use when baking.

“I love using things like buckwheat and rye in cookie recipes,” she said. “They’re the two grains I started experimenting with that weren’t wheat flour. They hold a special place in my heart. They’re both really strong flavors.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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