How N.C. Wheat Goes From Field to Bakery
Billy Carter never set out to be a rising-star “farm to table” supplier when he planted the first round of organic hard red winter wheat eight years ago. At the time, it was simply a way to grow a cold-weather crop on certified-organic land where tobacco flourishes in the warmer months, and hopefully cultivate a small client base of local millers who would appreciate his product. Without knowing it, he jokes, “We were on the cutting edge of that trendiness.”
These days, Carter Farms, a 1,500-acre spread in Eagle Springs, dedicates 200 acres to hard red winter wheat and trucks 3,000 to 4,000 bushels each year to millers in North Carolina to be ground into flour for pastries and artisan bread. Currently, most of the grain is sent to Carolina Ground in Asheville, where millers painstakingly crush it between stones, leaving the germ intact. The result is an unbleached, cream-colored flour believed to be more nutritious than its roller-milled counterpart, with a slightly bolder taste. Some bakers claim breads made from hard red winter wheat rise better than those made from the soft red that is more often grown in the Southeast. (And yes, to the trained eye, the wheat is slightly harder and redder than the soft type generally used in crackers or animal feed.)
Each year, the seed is sown in October and by March is developing stalks. The crop is harvested in June. But growing hard red winter wheat in North Carolina – it’s primarily grown in the Midwest – isn’t easy. For one thing, it’s more humid here. The soil isn’t always the best for this type of grain, and not all varieties will thrive in the Tar Heel state, so farmers must often learn by trial and error. Then there’s the erratic winter weather, which can confuse the seedlings.
“This is something they do in their sleep in the Midwest, because their climate and growing conditions are much more suited to growing hard red. It’s not as well adapted to the Southeast,” Carter explains. “Basically, in the Midwest they get their wheat planted, it gets snowed in and when it thaws out, the ground’s good and moist and it’s ready to go. Here, we might have a week of 75-degree weather in December and then have snow and ice the following week.”
So why do it? Primarily for the strong partnership with loyal, enthusiastic customers who want, more than ever, to buy local ingredients from local sources.
“We enjoy doing the wheat because, quite honestly, these millers are very passionate about what they’re doing. It’s always nice to be around someone like that,” Carter says. “Whenever you deliver them some grain, they’re really into it. They feel it and touch it and grind it and bake it, and they’re really excited about it. And they enjoy having a really unique, artisanal product. In the end, whenever they go to the trouble of knowing more about who grows their wheat and how it’s produced and how it’s handled, they can be more assured that their product is unique and something that people enjoy.
“If it weren’t for their interest in being connected to the geography of where it’s grown and ultimately consumed,” he adds, “it would be just as easy for them to call a broker somewhere in the Midwest and say, ‘I need a tractor trailer load of good, high-protein hard red wheat.’ ”
For the past few years, Chef Lionel Vatinet, owner of La Farm Bakery in Cary, has been working closely with Carter Farms and Carolina Ground to replace all of the shop’s whole wheat and rye flours with locally grown and cold-stone milled, organic heirloom products. Vatinet trained with European bakers, and in 2015 the prestigious James Beard Foundation recognized him as a semifinalist for Outstanding Baker. He uses Carter Farms wheat in some of his breads, including Piedmont Sourdough, Cinnamon Raisin Walnut and the bestselling La Farm Signature Sourdough, a 5-pound, intensely flavored boule (the traditional flattened, round loaf of his native country), his personal favorite.
“We believe in supporting our local farmers, our economy and sustainability, providing our customers with local healthy ingredients,” Vatinet says. “What makes [Carter Farms] so special is they are among the first farmers to grow winter whole wheat for bread purposes as well as being organic.”
Carter laughs when asked about his ability to discern the taste of his own grain in pastries and breads. “I don’t have a sophisticated enough palate to tell you whether it’s my wheat that’s in it or somebody else’s,” he says. “But it’s always kind of nice to have that connection.”
– Nancy Henderson