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Our Wheat Field of Dreams

By: Jennifer Clark | Coffee Bar Director
On: September 28, 2016

DLM has a wheat field. And we’re not talking about just any wheat field that’s full of the pale stalks you are used to seeing. Our wheat is tall and majestic—think Amber Waves of Grain. This is the wheat songs are written about. The idea of growing our own local wheat from which to bake an exclusive loaf of artisan bread has been on my mind for years. And now, it’s a reality thanks to Dale Friesen, Danny Jones, and Ed Hill.

It is a variety called Turkey Red Wheat, an heirloom strand passed down through generations, and the story of how it got in our hands is fascinating.

Sowing the Seeds, Taking a Chance

My obsession started after I read about a small bakery in another part of the country that grows its own wheat. Unfortunately, I was told by all of the bakers I know that only soft winter wheat, which does not contain enough gluten needed to make good bread, can be grown in our area. It makes great cakes and cookies, but that wasn’t good enough, I wanted bread.

Luckily, I ran into our good friend and overall “Renaissance man” Ed Hill, whose chickens we’ve carried for years. We started talking and his eyes lit up. I had found the right person to draw into my obsession. Ed knew Dale Friesen who had been growing Turkey Red Wheat (you will not believe this) in his garden. It’s wheat in its original form, never having been cross-hybridized. It can even be traced back thousands of years as it’s been preserved by the Mennonites, including Dale’s family, for many generations.

Preserving an Ancient Grain

The incredible journey of our Turkey Red Wheat to the United States began way back in 1549. Dale is the great-great grandson of Claas Johann H. Friesen, who was a member of a group of Mennonites who fled the Netherlands to Russia. In 1787, Russian empress Catherine the Great offered immigration in exchange of land to the Mennonites in an effort to provide food for her people. The Mennonites were known to be exceptional farmers and were each given 175 acres of land to produce a great amount of food for the region, including the Turkey Red Wheat that they brought with them. Under Catherine the Great’s reign, the Mennonites were treated like royalty, and enjoyed many freedoms.

Those freedoms came to an end when the Tsars took power. They revoked the Mennonites’ privileges and drove them out of the land. In an effort to keep their traditions in place, they set their children hard at work picking through bags of seed, separating the largest, most viable ones into a bucket so that Turkey Red Wheat could be carried with them for many generations to come. In 1874, after sending groups ahead to find the best farmland, the Mennonites fled to Canada and the U.S. Some arrived in Nebraska and others in Kansas, either buying land from the railroad or receiving free land from the government. The Turkey Red Wheat seeds traveled with them where they were transplanted, and their families flourished along with the crops that created the Bread Basket of America. Dale provided seeds for our experiment from the same strain. Next, we needed to find just the right place to plant them.

Making History and Good Bread

Ed was desperate to plant the seeds in his field, but the soil wasn’t ready. So when he bumped into local farmer Danny Jones, who has been doing some really cool stuff with growing heritage grains for local micro-breweries, he knew he had found the ticket. They planted two and a half acres of seed and we held our breath. Turkey Red Wheat isn’t usually grown commercially due to its height. The hearty wheat that you see in fields today has been cross-hybridized, resulting in a shorter plant that’s less susceptible to flopping over in the field to be ravaged by mold or disease. These factors led to doubt that we would have any yield from the tall Turkey Red Wheat.

On July 2, I got a call to get out to the field quickly as Danny was jumping in the combine to harvest. I grabbed my car keys and zoomed out to see the prized little field of wheat being threshed. Danny even let me ride in the combine where I had a great view of the combine’s rotating thresher. We had enough wheat to mill and to save 1,000 pounds to plant next year!

The first hurdle was crossed—we had wheat! But, we still had a ways to go. We really had no idea how much flour it would yield (and even if it would produce good bread) until it had been milled. It had to rest first for three weeks. Then, up to Stutzman Mill in Holmes County it went to be milled with a 30-inch stone. This antique way of milling flour allows the bread to not only be more flavorful because the germ and bran remain intact, but is also thought by some to be more nutritional. Protein levels are maintained due to the cooler milling temperatures, which helps in the bread baking process.

Our adventure with Turkey Red Wheat was well worth the effort—and was just plain super awesome. So much that we are now planting ten full acres and crossing our fingers that our crop will bear some nice wheat berries next summer. In the end, our field produced a yield of 2,400 pounds of flour—just 28 bags—that we expect will amount to about 2,500 loaves of our new Turkey Red Wheat bread (so grab yours quickly).

It’s exciting that the vision of baking bread from wheat that we grew ourselves came to fruition! This bread that really has been un-messed with and carries a very good flavor and texture. I hope you think our Turkey Red Wheat expedition has been captivating. We are already looking forward to more delicious pieces of bread history from next year’s crop!