While waiting for another loaf of bread to bake on a windy spring afternoon, my partner Alec and I were discussing the reputation that wheat has gotten over the past few years. There seems to be a trend to single out gluten, and wheat in particular, as the bad guy. It’s been a staple in the Western diet for thousands of years and only recently blamed for a range of health problems, from digestive upset to behavioral issues and everything in between.
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At one point or another both Alec and I have cut it completely out of our diets. He didn’t like the way he put on weight with processed wheat. “It was like bacon. I just wouldn’t stop eating it,” he said. And it made my blood sugar spike and then fall, leaving me feeling tired and in a mental fog.
But wheat is our livelihood, and we figured it couldn’t be all that terrible. By digging beneath the surface of wheat’s negative reputation, we found that it isn’t whole-grain wheat, but processed wheat, that causes so many problems. Most processed wheat products have vital nutrients removed, with sugar and extra gluten added. If we mill our own, use it fresh and as part of a diverse diet, it’s nutritious and filling. From tilling the rich soil for planting, to harvesting, to milling the grains and baking our bread, we are intimately involved in the wheat that we eat.
Milling Our Own
We don’t buy products in the store that have wheat in them, which might seem odd coming from wheat farmers. Our own flour is milled in small batches from whole-wheat berries that we’ve grown. Fresh whole wheat flour is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and micronutrients. Studies show that whole-grain foods may help lower the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Whole, un-milled grains can keep for years, but it’s best to use milled flour right away because unsaturated fats in the wheat germ oxidize and go rancid quickly.
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B vitamins are destroyed by light and air. Beneficial enzymes are activated immediately, then deteriorate quickly. Flour can be stored in the freezer, but the sooner it’s used the better. Milling only takes a few minutes and is a quick step in the food preparation process. If you’ve ever tasted fresh-milled, just-baked bread, you know there is no comparison to the store-bought kind.
For most of my life, I didn’t have a direct relationship with my food. I’m a city girl farmer transplant. I grew up in suburban Colorado but inherited farming genes from my Volga German great-grandparents, who immigrated to the eastern plains of Colorado from the high steppes of Russia to continue their tradition of farming.
Alec is a fourth-generation wheat farmer. His great-grandparents homesteaded the farm we live on in southwestern Nebraska. Most of the farm is leased for pasture and to another farmer who cultivates the fields. We farm about 20 acres, and rotate wheat with other crops. Because we want to grow the healthiest and tastiest wheat, we test varieties to decide what to plant in the coming season.
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Living a self-sufficient, homesteading lifestyle is both fun and challenging. To us, that means growing, foraging, preserving and eating as much of our own food as we can. We reuse, repurpose and build a good deal of what we need on the farm inside and outside of the home. The equipment and vehicles are run on oil that we process from soybeans
Our “bread-and-butter” income is a seed-cleaning business. Farmers buy new varieties of wheat seed every few years. In between, they replant some of their harvest. Before it goes into the ground, the weeds and damaged seeds need to be cleaned out, so Alec built a system to do this. The seed-cleaning business keeps us really busy a few months out of the year, which leaves the rest of our time for small-scale farming, experimenting and playing.
During the coldest months, we’re far away from the frozen farm, taking a break in the desert Southwest, hiking and four-wheeling in his custom-built rock crawler. When I started farming, I never realized that I would enjoy it so much. Homesteading and farming together is a dream come true for us.
We use an older combine to harvest a few hundred acres of wheat a year (our own fields and a little custom harvesting for neighbors). The local farmers always seem a bit surprised to see me driving this old workhorse and running farm equipment during harvest. It is noisy, greasy, dusty work. At the end of a long harvest day, I get as dirty and scratched up as the rest of them, and am up before the sun doing it again. I don’t think they ever know quite what to expect from this “city girl.”
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A combine cuts the wheat plant (stalk and all), runs it through a thresher to separate the seeds into a bin up on top while it spits the rest of the stalks and chaff out behind. All this happens while the combine is moving down the rows. There are dozens of pulleys, belts, gears, wheels and mechanisms in this machine, all running in unison.
After being harvested, most of the wheat is taken to a grain elevator where it’s mixed with other farmers’ wheat. Wheat is like chocolate or coffee in that all of the varieties that are grown are usually thrown into a collective “pot” and sold on the commodities market, so that almost any all-purpose flour you buy at a store is a combination of many varieties.
A little of the seed will be held over by the farmers, cleaned and “drilled” or planted in the fall. It will begin to grow, then go dormant over the winter and continue to grow in the spring with warm weather and moisture. It’s called “winter wheat” because part of the growth takes place over the fall and winter. Winter wheat is almost exclusively what is grown on the High Plains. Other types are planted in the spring in different regions.
A Crack At Heritage Wheat
I experiment with small batches of heritage wheat. We don’t grow these in larger amounts because the stalks don’t do well in modern combines and generally they are not as resistant to insects and disease as modern strains. Next season, I’ll be growing Turkey red winter wheat. It has some great characteristics and I am excited to find out if there is a notable difference in the baking quality and flavor. Almost all of the hard red winter wheat grown in the Midwest is descended from this landrace wheat. Turkey red was introduced in the 1870s from the Ukraine region. It is the source of winter hardiness in modern varieties as well as the general adaptability that made the hard red winter wheat industry possible on the Great Plains.
Up To The Test
We want to plant the best variety of wheat possible. If you read through the seed advertisements for the new varieties, the descriptions always state “superior milling and baking quality.” That is a little too vague for us, so we do our own baking tests to find out for ourselves which variety has the best rise, texture, moisture and flavor.
Last fall, farmers gave us samples of about 15 varieties of seed wheat that they brought to be cleaned in the seed cleaner. After milling the flour and baking several loaves of bread, we tried each one to decide which would meet our culinary criteria; we also considered drought and disease tolerance. To make sure that everything in our process was constant except for the wheat, a bread machine was used and ingredients were measured exactly, using Alec’s favorite bread machine recipe.
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Back in the kitchen, we laid the slices of bread out side by side. All were made from hard red winter wheat except one, which was hard white winter. The white had a better rise (bigger bubbles), but the taste wasn’t as complex as that of the hard red. My past experience baking with whole wheat had resulted in dense, heavy loaves. We were pleasantly surprised that all of the loaves that we baked were fairly airy and fluffy.
Most of the varieties had very similar flavor, but there was definitely a difference in the mouth feel and texture between the hard reds. Some were denser than others. Some were richer and nuttier, and some had a finer crumb. In the end, we chose Karl 92. It had a better rise than the other hard red wheat, but it still had that great complex flavor.
After slathering our last slices of warm, fresh bread with butter, we agreed that all the bread was delicious. We also agreed that regardless of what type of wheat you use, making bread yourself is definitely the way to go.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.