Farmer + Miller + Baker
Jennifer Lapidus - November 11th, 2013
After years of owning and operating Natural Bridge Bakery in Marshall, North Carolina, Jennifer Lapidus traded in her apron for coveralls and added the title of miller to her resume. Now at Carolina Grounds in Asheville, Lapidus reports on taking the role of the “quintessential middle man” between baker and farmer.
Between the farmer and baker stands the miller, the quintessential middle man. To understand the needs of the farmer while still appreciating the challenges of the baker is dually our task. I set out to launch Carolina Ground Flour Mill with the intention of closing the gap between the farmer and baker in the South—to create a market for our large scale organic grain growers, and reduce food miles for our bakers. What this has meant for us, the middle man, is that we engage our growers when choosing varieties to plant, and inquire as to their rotation schedule. For the quality of the crop will be the result of what the farmer can control—growing practices and seed variety; and what the farmer cannot control—growing conditions (namely weather). We also hope to inspire our bakers to interact with their ingredients in a way that they may not have done in the past. As a former baker myself, I speak to our bakers in the language we bakers know—of bakers percentage, hydration, autolyse, bulk fermentation—when navigating the challenges our Carolina grains may present. To both grower and baker we speak of protein and falling numbers—measurements that can affect the performance of said grain to flour in the bakery, and can be a deciding factor as to whether a crop will be purchased by the mill.
I had been told, when I got the idea to launch this mill, that historically the farmer, miller, and baker had not gotten along so well. The farmer was accused of this by the miller; the miller was accused of that by the baker. And yet, farmer, miller, and baker clearly need each other. Our needs just tend to differ. Plainly stated, most farmers just want to sell their crop. The miller needs grain free of insects, void of mold and other toxins, and the grain must meet certain milling quality standards set by the miller to ensure the baker’s ability to produce a loaf of bread. And the baker needs flour that performs well in the bakery. And of course, at a price point that can be passed along to the consumer for a loaf of bread. Additionally, the farmer can grow a lot of grain in a single field, on average—with sifting taken into account—about a ton of flour per acre. There’s one crop per year, though it is unlikely that the miller can purchase his or her entire year’s worth of grain at once, which means the farmer will likely have to store the crop with payment trickling in throughout the year as the grain is sold, and with the risk against storage insects carried by the farmer.
When I stepped into the game, it was apparent that farmers in the Carolinas had, in the past, been burned. And so, from the beginning I knew that the success of our mill would need to be rooted in good and lasting relationships with both our growers and our bakers. We launched with a mission of sustainability—both environmental and economic—but once we began actually milling, our charge very quickly morphed into the goal of producing the highest quality product possible. It would not be enough to just use the grain from our region to produce a local flour. As a former baker, I was well aware that—ideology aside—the quality of our flour would likely eventually outrank its place of origin. And yet, the choice of how we approached the processing of grain to flour could give prominence to our regional grains. And so we chose stone over steel to process our grain to flour. We embrace the age-old tradition of grain crushed between stones, whereby the three elements of the grain berry—endosperm, germ, and bran—remain intact from grain to flour, with the oils from the germ spreading into the starchy endosperm flour, creating a beige hue for even our most sifted product. Our process is unlike most modern mills, whose roller mills employ steel rollers to strip away the germ from the endosperm and bran, removing the oily, prone-to-rancidity germ from said product, and therefore producing with total efficiency, a lily white flour with extended shelf-life. Our flour is less than white, our shelf-life is limited, and our process leans more toward craft than industry, but shelf-life becomes a moot point when milling on demand and marketing regionally. And our craft-like approach has brought bakers to our doorstep. Unlike most modern mills that blend their grain to spec, we mill single variety grains, maintaining the province of the grain—who grew the crop and where. Our flours have character, delivering flavor and nutrients to the loaves of bread they are to become. And to our bakers—they are becoming better bakers through bake testing for the mill and sharing feedbacks with each other. As the middle man, we work to cultivate a deeper level of understanding amongst bakers, and between baker and farmer.
A couple of months ago I stood in a field of wheat with grower Billy Carter and baker Lionel Vatinet. Lionel asked Billy why he was willing to grow wheat for our mill (instead of just finding a quick sale on the feed market or industrial flour mill). Billy said that, unlike his other crops that are either accepted or rejected by a market, where quality usually goes unnoticed, his wheat that heads to our mill is treated differently. It is not simply a commodity, it is not fungible, not blended into obscurity with other lots of grain. He gets feedback—thanks and loaves of bread and bags of flour—from the miller and baker, who feel lucky to get to work with his wheat. He said the longer he farms the more this matters to him—the meaningful value found in this type of relationship between farmer, miller, and baker.