When Will Brockenbrough walks across the sloping, wide-planked floors of his grain mill in Nelson County, he’s stepping through 225 years of history. Built in 1794, the mill was then a crucial link in the local farm economy, using water power derived from the Piney River to stone-grind grain from nearby fields. On this late-spring day, big swaths of irises bloom along the millrace, giving the tall wooden building an especially picturesque air.
But Woodson’s Mill, as it’s been known since Dr. Julian B. Woodson expanded it around 1900, isn’t just a museum piece. Fresh flour dusting the floor, and Shop-Vacs for cleaning it up, attest to the fact that this mill is a going concern—and Brockenbrough is trying to restore something of its importance within the Virginia food scene.
“We’re the middleman,” he says, “between grower and baker”—or, in many cases, chef. A neighbor down the road grows Bloody Butcher corn—an heirloom variety with a distinctive red color—for Woodson’s Mill to grind into grits, popular in area restaurants. The mill sells yellow grits, whole wheat flour, and buckwheat flour, too.
Yet, despite the fact that grain forms the foundation of the average American diet, Virginia’s grain economy is mostly invisible to the consumer. Every Virginian is used to seeing cornfields in summer, but the majority of that corn is destined to become livestock feed. Meanwhile, many of us wouldn’t know a wheat or rye field if we spotted one. Most of the flour we eat—and we eat a lot of it, in everything from bread to pizza crust to croissants to birthday cake—is likely grown far to the west, in places like Kansas or Alberta. As American agriculture shifted, in the mid-20th century, from the family farm to a more industrial agriculture model, growing grain became an enterprise defined by large machinery, hybrid plant varieties, and long-distance transport.
It was during that shift—in 1963—that Woodson’s Mill shut down. With its reopening in 2012, Brockenbrough entered a local food economy focused instead on organic, artisanal, direct-to-consumer products. Think heirloom tomatoes at the farmer’s market, or goat cheese produced a dozen miles from the store where you buy it. “If it weren’t for that interest in local food, we wouldn’t be doing it,” says Brockenbrough.
For all the energy of the local food revival, though, grains have been a conspicuous missing link. As part of its Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign, the Piedmont Environmental Council has printed a brochure listing local food producers since 2005; this year’s version includes vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy, eggs, and “specialty products” (including handwoven linen)—but no category for grains. “We haven’t had requests to add it and have very few producers saying they grow grains, says PEC’s Jessica Palmer. “If there is more of a demand from our producers, we would definitely look at adding that category.”
In part, the invisibility of local grains is due to the fact that grains require more processing than most crops before people can eat them. Milling is itself a multi-step process, and the old building at Woodson’s Mill houses a number of defunct machines, like a grain burnisher and a middlings purifier, that attest to the complexity of the operation. “Very few people are interested” in milling their own grains, says Pete Sisti, who grows organic wheat on his farm in Powhatan.
And while home cooks certainly use a lot of flour, they typically think of it as a staple, not something they want to pay a premium for. (Direct to the consumer, Woodson’s Mill whole wheat flour goes for $8 per two-pound bag.)
The real market, Sisti says, is bakeries. Picture Virginia growers selling grain in bulk to local mills (Sisti’s wholesale price is $35-50 per 50-pound bag), who then sell flour to local bakeries, who can tout the local origins of their artisan breads and pastries. That’s the recipe for a healthy Virginia grain economy.
Hidden in plain sight
If Heather Coiner gets her wish, that scenario might be on the verge of coming true. Coiner, whose wood-fired oven turns out sourdough loaves and many other treats at Little Hat Creek Farm in Roseland, began pulling together a group of grain growers, millers, and bakers about a year ago, calling the new organization the Common Grain Alliance.
“When I first started baking,” she says, “it was in southern Ontario and there were mills there that produced flour, so it seemed quite natural to use those flours in my bread. In Virginia I found it much more difficult to source local flour.”
She noticed, too, the absence of grains in the thriving local food culture here. “It’s very apparent that grains are not part of the conversation,” she says. “As Evrim Dogu from Sub Rosa Bakery [another CGA member, based in Richmond] put it, ‘They’re hidden in plain sight.’ Everybody talks about vegetables, meat, dairy, all those components, but who’s talking about where the staple foods come from?”
CGA is trying to enter that breach. Conceived of as a regional mid-Atlantic group and encompassing the breadth of the grain industry, its aim is to raise the profile of local grains and build the network of grain professionals. At their meetings, CGA members plan marketing strategies but, equally importantly, they sell each other sacks of grain and flour.
“Every time we meet, there are increasing pounds of grain exchanged,” says Coiner. She herself used to source much of her flour from North Carolina. “I’ve replaced all that with grain from three different sources from within my network here. This year I’m buying well over 50 percent of my flour locally.”
At Charlottesville’s Albemarle Baking Company, founder Gerry Newman is trying to move toward more local sourcing, too. Though he does make specialty items from Virginia wheat, the bulk of his flours come from King Arthur—milled in North Carolina, grown in the upper Midwest and Canada.
“I’d like to buy all our flours here,” he says. “We’d be supporting our local grain economy, and it has less of a carbon footprint.” Through CGA, he’s made a connection with Roanoke-based Deep Roots Milling, where sixth-generation miller Charlie Wade mills wheat from a nearby farm. “We’re shooting toward supporting that farmer and eventually making them our source,” he says.
Predictability across seasons can be a barrier to sourcing local flour, says Patrick Evans at MarieBette bakery, which is not part of CGA. “Consistency is the main thing holding us back,” he says. “I would be open to using local whenever I could.”
Care and attention
Before CGA was founded, grain professionals had to hunt far and wide to find each other. Jeff Bloem opened Murphy & Rude Malting Co. in 2017, malting grains to sell to local breweries like Random Row and South Street. He uses only Virginia-grown grain, and says that before opening his business, he spent five years driving around the state to build a network of growers who could supply the high-quality grains he needs. “It’s incredibly difficult to figure out who is farming small grains,” he says.
He met some farmers at events held by the Virginia Grain Producers Association, but that organization is mostly a lobbying group focused on the needs of high-volume commodity grain growers—often meaning those ubiquitous cornfields you see from the road. By comparison, CGA members are more oriented toward the local-food values we’ve all come to know: organic, non-GMO, heirloom, artisanal.
Because such operations are craft-based, they demand considerable investments of time and attention. It’s not just that grain professionals are scattered far and wide. It’s that the relationship between, say, farmer and baker takes time to dial in, so that both businesses can benefit.
For example, Newman has been buying some flour from Grapewood Farm on the Northern Neck to make a country bread that ABC offers twice a week. “It’s a full percent weaker in gluten,” he says. “You notice a difference in strength. It took some time, and a lot of bread we didn’t sell, to get it right. There was the same commitment from the farmer—he said ‘I’ll give it to you until you get it right.’”
Local grains require a labor of love, says Coiner. “They carry all the variability and character you might expect from a single origin unblended product. That’s both good and bad,” she says. “You get taste characteristics and nutrition and flavor that you could never get from a commodified flour, but you also get unpredictability in terms of fermentation rate, or over- or underactive enzymes you have to compensate for. It’s not for a fainthearted baker.”
Bloem echoes the challenge of building farmer relationships. “Are they willing to absorb the risk of growing malting-quality small grains, which is different than growing for the mill?” he says. “I have particular specs I need the farmer to hit. Even finding a farmer that could grow [that] doesn’t mean they will.”
Fields of plenty
Pete Sisti stands outside the barn at his farm in Powhatan County. Around him ripple the 250 acres he inherited from his parents: swaths of forest between undulating fields, many of them currently covered in white clover. His parents’ old farmhouse—and their gravesites—are within sight, but right now Sisti is looking around at all the equipment he uses to grow wheat here.
There are two tractors, a vintage 1970s-era combine, two steel silos, a conveyor, an “Agri-Vac” that moves grain from the silo into a hopper inside the barn, a powerful fan to dry wheat that’s too moist, a bush hog, a planter, large tanks of organic fish-emulsion fertilizer and rainwater, a dump truck, and a van that’s currently running so its air-conditioner can chill the 40 bags of wheat, weighing 50 pounds each—that’s one entire ton, if you’re counting—that he just took out of cold storage.
That list doesn’t even count the machinery kept inside the white barn—noisy devices that remove impurities and sort the wheat into various grades. One of these is an Italian-made grain cleaner that Sisti traveled to Germany to source. Brown paper bags, heavy with grain, are piled here and there.
Sisti has been growing grains only since 2013—an enterprise that he manages around his other career selling software. As he demonstrates machinery and inspects wheat berries, noting subtle differences in size and quality, it’s apparent that being a wheat farmer demands not only a large capital investment but a considerable knowledge base. “Having a mentor is so important,” he says.
After several years of experimenting, he’s now settled on a rotation plan in which he’ll grow winter wheat on 30 acres at a time, planting in September and harvesting in June. This year’s crop is almost ready to harvest, a soft ocean of green beginning to turn gold. On the edge of the field, Sisti bends one stalk to show how each plant will soon nod its seedhead down toward the ground, signaling that it’s time for him to come through with the combine.
This particular field occupies the front yard of a trim, new house. The home was built on one of three 10-acre parcels that Sisti sold to pay for his parents’ care as they struggled with Parkinson’s disease and dementia in the last years of their lives. Holding onto this land—which his grandparents also farmed—means a lot to him, and organic wheat farming is part of his plan to do so.
Coiner says that’s one big reason to encourage a local grain economy for human consumption—it means a lot more income for farmers than growing animal feed. “It can be a significant boost of income to keep people on their farms and maintain the rural landscape,” she says. “It’s a diversification. When you think of the crisis in the dairy industry right now, milk prices have plummeted. Dairy farmers could be growing wheat or rye on their land and selling to the food market without too much trouble, if there was end processing support and demand for it.”
Start with demand
That ton of wheat chilling inside Sisti’s van will soon be delivered to a couple of different CGA members, including miller Charlie Wade. “The majority of my business is coming from fellow members,” says Sisti, whose largest customer is Dogu’s Sub Rosa Bakery. He offers a discount on wheat to CGA businesses.
Bloem, too, is reaping the benefit of networking through the group. “Working with Deep Roots Milling, we just sprouted 150 pounds of wheat in batches, with wheat from another CGA member farmer,” he says. “I’m able to help the miller, who down the road helps me by milling a product of mine into a flour form for me to sell to my customers. It’s a scratch-each-other’s-back situation.”
Coiner says the CGA hopes, eventually, to organize cooperative infrastructure—grain processing equipment, cold storage, and so on—that could be used by multiple members. For now, though, building a market is a key goal.
From studying similar initiatives in other regions, Coiner says, “The main lesson we learned is you have to start with the demand, and the supply will follow. You’re not going to get any farmer saying ‘Sure, I’ll grow 100 acres of grain’ without knowing it’s going to be sold. We’re starting with bakers and consumers.” A nonbinding “baker’s pledge” has CGA bakers aiming to purchase at least 10 percent of their grain and flour from within the network this year. “It’s modest,” she says. “Some are already doing more, but it’s driving home the point that it’s you, bakers, who are going to make the difference.”
Of course, consumers have to be on board too, willing to pay the higher cost of small-batch local grain. Coiner says that if people are willing to ante up for high-quality local meat and eggs, they’ll do so for grain-based foods, too—and she knows because she’s already established a customer base for her breads. “People who are buying from me at the farmers market are shopping there not because it’s convenient or inexpensive,” she says. “They want to give money to local farmers, and they value community. They’re able to spend their dollars in line with their values.”
Bloem points out that besides a smaller carbon footprint and that warm-and-fuzzy community feeling, there are other benefits too: “If we can, within the boundaries of Virginia, grow what we need, it’s not sensical to me to ship the stuff in from a thousand miles away, and we can keep all of that tax revenue within the state,” he says.
Back at Woodson’s Mill, black and white photos of previous owners stare out from the office walls, a reminder of its long lineage. Brockenbrough says he knows of just two idle periods in the mill’s entire history. “Our miller has been involved for 35 years,” he says. “It’s an 18th-century mill, milling 19th-century grains.”
Coiner says that lineage isn’t lost, though it may be hard to see. In her view, the infrastructure for a grain economy is still around—just barely out of sight—throughout Virginia. “It wasn’t that long ago that small- to mid-size farms were growing grain, storing and milling it around here,” she says. “The mills, silos, that old combine sitting in somebody’s barn, are still there.”
It’s worth noting that many CGA members—and all of them quoted in this story, except Albemarle Baking Company—are businesses founded within the last decade. If they’re part of a wave of new interest in local grains, they have energy and enthusiasm on their side. Coiner knows they’ll need it.
“We talk about this a lot,” she says. “What are we doing, trying to take on the grain economy? But you have to start somewhere.”
Looking for local?
If you want to buy wheat direct from the farmer and grind it yourself, Greater Richmond Grains—Pete Sisti’s farm—has a website where you can purchase 50-pound bags: grgrains.com.
Woodson’s Mill, in Piney River, sells its products through a number of local stores like Foods Of All Nations and J.M. Stock; get a complete list at woodsonsmill.com, where you can also order online. The mill welcomes visits from the public the first Saturday of each month in summertime, 10am-4pm.
Wade’s Mill in Raphine is also open for visits, Wednesday through Sunday, 10am-5pm. You can buy products on-site, online, and at several local shops including Greenwood Gourmet Grocery.
Flour from Deep Roots Milling is available at MarieBette and at restaurants and retailers in Blacksburg, Harrisonburg, Richmond, and Roanoke.
Lots of Charlottesville-area bakeries are using local flour. Little Hat Creek Farm sells breads and pastries at Charlottesville City Market, Nelson Farmers’ Market, and several retail stores; more info at littlehatcreek.wordpress.com.
Albemarle Baking Company’s goods may be found at a number of local stores and, of course, at its own location in the Main Street Market.
Althea Bread specializes in breads made from local and ancient grains; sample them at the City Market or at Farmers in the Park (in Meade Park on Wednesday afternoons).
Learn more about the Common Grain Alliance and its members at commongrainalliance.org.