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May 30, 2008

Two bakers enlist customers to revive wheat-growing and the local economy in western Massachusetts

Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei – the owner/operators of Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Massachusetts – make some of the tastiest bread around. Their shop, a small brick building with a wood-fired oven, doesn’t just sell bread; it functions as an informal social commons. Customers stop by to buy a few loaves and chat with Stevens and Maffei – and with other customers — as lumps of dough are put into the oven to bake. Hungry Ghost is a cherished local fixture. The smell of the place is heavenly.

Stevens and Maffei were disturbed that their bread had such a large carbon footprint, however. They could only purchase organically grown wheat that had been grown in the Dakotas, milled in North Carolina, and then trucked to Massachusetts.

Before World War II, the Connecticut River Valley was once known as the “breadbasket of New England.” The first wheat harvest in North America reportedly occurred in the state, in 1602. But for at least fifty years, ever since cheap oil, centralized agri-business and pests obliterated local wheat crops, no one has grown wheat in Massachusetts.

Stevens and Maffei, inspired by the writings of Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry, began to wonder if it would be possible to bring wheat-growing back to western Massachusetts. They wondered – from the tens of thousands of known wheat varieties, could they identify the ones that would grow well in the local soil and climate, andproduce good bread and an economically viable harvest? Could the technological infrastructure for cleaning, threshing and milling – which long ago migrated to the Midwest – be re-invented? Could a new generation of farmers be persuaded to grow wheat?

This is the story of how two local bakers with a loyal clientele decided to launch an ambitious experiment in reclaiming local agriculture and economic self-sufficiency while improving the environment. The story is still in progress – it is unclear if these two citizen-bakers will succeed – but they have already shown great leadership in educating people about local agriculture and local markets and their connections to the well-being of a community and nature.

In embarking on their quest, Stevens and Maffei took inspiration from the Nativo Bread Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A few years ago, Wilem Maltem, a Zen monk and owner of the Cloud Cliff Bakery in Santa Fe, successfully resurrected the growing of wheat in northern New Mexico.

That region used to grow some 250 varieties of wheat in the 1880s, much of it celebrated for producing fantastic bread. A century later, however, New Mexico farmers were growing only one variety of wheat. The Nativo Bread Project showed that local farmers could be organized to grow wheat and customers would eagerly buy it.

Stevens and Maffei knew little about agronomy, agricultural economics or milling technologies when they set out on this project, so they taught themselves what they needed.

Turning first to the nearby land-grant college, the University of Massachusetts, Jonathan Stevens was disappointed to find that no one could really give him useful agricultural advice. “Here is one of the formerly premier land grant colleges, and they don’t know anything about wheat.” Stevens also called agronomists around the country, but few had knowledge of the local soil and climate, and even fewer had time to spare to give free advice.

Stevens and Maffei also approached Hampshire College in nearby Amherst, which runs a farm center for its students. The center’s director, Leslie Cox, was skeptical about the feasibility of reviving wheat-growing in the area, but was willing to help out.

At a local grain conference held at Hampshire College in the spring of 2007, Stevens and Maffei came up with radical idea: invite bread customers to grow a potion of the wheat they consume. “Imagine receiving a handful of wheat berries along with your loaf of bread and going home to plant them in the backyard – or the front yard or the side yard!” they wrote.

So began the Wheat Patch Project. Hungry Ghost Bakery put out the word that they wanted volunteers to grow ten-foot-square patches of three types of wheat – red fife, A.C. Barrie and ingot – in their lawns. A separate planting of winter wheat is scheduled for later this year. The goal is to see which varieties will grow best in different conditions and soils.

Stevens and Maffei are hopeful that red fife will succeed because it has already made a big comeback in Nova Scotia and the northeastern United States in recent years. These regions have also seen a rising interest in growing food locally.

Once they learn which wheat varieties grow well, Stevens and Maffei hope to persuade farmers in western Massachusetts to undertake larger-scale plantings of the most promising wheat varieties. This will help reduce the economic risks to farmers and make the project seem realistic. As Cheryl Maffei explained, “Yields can vary. It could be a bad year. You need the equipment to harvest it. You need to build the wheat into a five-year crop rotation because it’s all about building up the soil.”

After putting out the word to the local press and hosting a public meeting, more than 100 people (including me) have stepped forward to grow at least one patch of wheat. At the end of the season, in late August, a group of bicyclists will pedal to each plot of wheat to harvest it with scythes: a great opportunity for publicity and public-education about the local food economy. “People have no idea that wheat is a grass,” said Stevens, who points to a swath of wheat growing outside the front door of the bakery.

Stevens and Maffei insist that the project is “more than a gimmick.” To them, it is “a radical approach to food production, economic participation and agricultural reintegration.”

The Wheat Patch Project has attracted widespread attention since its launch. National Public Radio did a feature story on it, as did Cable News Network. Stevens and Maffei have also heard from people around the country who would like to emulate the project.

At this point, it is unclear how many western Massachusetts farmers will actually take the plunge and grow wheat, but the Hungry Ghost Bakery wants to take one step at a time before making any hasty commitments. “We had an offer to plant a big field of wheat, but we refused,” said Stevens. “We don’t want people to get frustrated, lose money or face liability.”

The bakery has already secured silo space for the wheat and a grant to build a small mill. Later, if the first crop succeeds, they hope to recruit farmers to grow entire fields of the most promising wheat varieties.

Eventually, Stevens and Maffei hope to re-introduce the technologies for processing the wheat through some sort of farmers’ cooperative. “Massachusetts doesn’t consider itself an agriculture state,” said Maffei, “which we think is one of its problems.”

Whichever wheat varieties are ultimately grown, Stevens and Maffei are calling the final product “Daniel Shays’ Wheat” – a populist counterpoint to King Arthur’s Wheat. In 1786 and 1787, Shays, a farmer who lived in Pelham, Massachusetts, led an armed uprising of 3,000 small farmers – “Shay’s Rebellion” – to protest crushing taxes, predatory bankers and debtors’ prisons. It was one of the earliest and largest attempts by average citizens in the young American republic to assert their economic independence in the face of powerful financial and political interests.

By bringing back local wheat, the Hungry Ghost Bakery hopes to re-introduce the people of western Massachusetts to a radical idea – a commons-based economy that supports local self-reliance and respects the environment.

In September: an update on the first harvest of Daniel Shays’ Wheat.