One recent Saturday morning, I awoke to an amazing aroma coming from my kitchen. It was slightly sweet, yeasty, and tangy, all at once. The smell was like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold night. My wife had just baked bread from the dough I made the day before, and it was time to eat—heaven on earth, as far as I could smell. As I sat eating breakfast, homemade sourdough toast with a local egg, I thought to myself, this bread is the perfect example of supporting our local food system.
In a local foods system, farm businesses produce and/or harvest local foods or food-grade crops and utilize regional supply chains for raw materials. Those crops are purchased by customers for a fair price as close to the producer’s location as possible. Ideally, some of those customers are other local businesses that specialize in turning raw food crops into value-added food products for sale directly to consumers, at farmer's markets, to grocery stores, and wholesalers.
It is key to remember, the local foods system responds to the consumer. The consumer guides and supports the farmers and food entrepreneurs by voting with their food dollars. If a breakfast shop opened in Bloomington-Normal and sold breakfast sandwiches on freshly baked bread made from local flour, each sale would impact more than just the sandwich shop. If the shop found success, then their loyalty to their bread recipe guarantees the local wheat grower a regular customer. The grower will keep purchasing (and growing) that specific wheat variety supplied by a local seed saver.
A renewed interest in locally grown foods and food-grade grains has created an opportunity for farming to grow and diversify. More grain demand means more farms growing food-grade grains. This, in turn, increases demand for local mill operators to produce specialty flour for businesses making value-added products – like breakfast sandwiches or fresh-baked bread.
By purchasing local grains (heirloom varieties of wheat, rye, corn, or oats), consumers become stewards of ancient lineages of grain dating back centuries. For example, the heirloom winter wheat grain in my bread, ‘Turkey Red’, was long stewarded by generations of Europeans, some of whom emigrated to the U.S. and passed it down through the ages.
As farmers try to meet an increasing demand for organic grains in the face of increasing input costs and climate change, they turn to history. Heirloom grains that were grown before the technologic breakthrough of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are showing promise for their performance in sub-optimal soils and reliance on organic fertility inputs (manure and wheat straw) in management systems with cover cropping and crop rotation. These grain varieties, grown all across Europe over centuries, are well-adapted to harsh climates and conditions, some quite similar to the Midwest. In this race to discover new ways of growing, it may be the rediscovery of old varieties that helps us face adversity and feed our future, locally.
If you would like to learn more, consider getting your hands, and kitchen, dirty with a little water, yeast, and locally milled flour – may the sweet aroma of fresh baked bread also be heaven on earth to your nose.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Frillman is a Local Foods and Small Farms Educator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A fourth-generation graduate from University of Illinois, Frillman has a B.A. with a double major of Political Science and Spanish and a M.S. in Crop Science with a focus on crop production. Before joining Illinois Extension, Frillman completed a field season of CSA and farmers’ market-style production at a small “beyond-organic” vegetable farm in Sandy, Oregon.
ABOUT THE EDITOR: Liz Repplinger is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Coordinator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A Bloomington-Normal native, Liz earned a B. A. in Animal Science and an M.S. in Animal Science from Illinois State University. She has enjoyed contributing to the multiple facets of Extension including previous support of the 4-H Youth Development Program as a program coordinator and current support of Unit and Statewide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives.