This spring, Inglewood Farm brought in the first commercial harvest of organic wheat that Louisiana has seen for generations.
A spread of about 4,000 acres on a former cotton plantation on the outskirts of Alexandria, the farm is today dedicated to sustainable agriculture.
Its wheat harvest this year, grown on about 100 acres, is tiny by the standards of any commodity crop. But it isn’t a commodity crop, and for New Orleans baker Grasion Gill, that makes it a potential game-changer.
So one hot summer morning, with production at his Bellegarde Bakery in full swing, Gill loaded up an old Honda with jars of flour samples and bread wrapped in paper and trekked across the state for a farm visit.
Inglewood’s grain is what Gill has been seeking for Bellegarde Bakery, for the flour he produces with a stone mill and for the baguettes and ciabatta and miche loaves he sells to restaurants and through markets and stores in New Orleans. He wants grains he can stand behind, the way chefs embrace their heirloom produce and farm-to-table meats, and he wants to source it close to home.
“The intention, my goal, is to be able to get varieties of grain that are flavorful, local and organic," Gill explained.
But before it could be milled for flour, the Inglewood grain needed to be cleaned. There are no nearby facilities equipped to do that job while also keeping the integrity of this distinct, organic harvest intact — that is, separate from the tides of commodity grain grown with chemical fertilizers. And so, apart from a small amount the farmers have set aside, most of this year’s Inglewood wheat crop will end up as animal feed on an organic dairy farm in Texas.
Still, Gill’s trip to Alexandria was fruitful. He networked with the Inglewood farmers, discussed their experience and shared contacts. From the samples in his trunk, he showed them the quality of flour their next grain harvest could yield and he handed around slices of the bread it could produce.
Inglewood will plant wheat again, and today Gill is zealously trying to cut new pathways for regional grain harvests like this.
“I get great grain today, but I have to send a check out of state and ship it in and there’s no excuse for that,” said Gill. "It's not like we’re trying to source oysters in Idaho. What stops us from getting organic grain and corn in Louisiana are political and economic reasons."
A baker on a mission
Trim, intense, restless and earnest, Gill has always imbued his baking business with a fiery sense of purpose. His bread bags are printed with treatises on bread and grain, and inside, he often slips passages from poems or sacred texts.
Not quite 29, he has more recently become a leading voice among the small circuit of those in the Deep South making an issue of the identity and quality of the grain we use.
Between the early morning hours of his bakery, Gill has been hitting the road trying to piece together a different system. He’s been speaking at conferences and sitting in at food policy meetings. He’s been a guest instructor for culinary school classes. He opens his bakery to tours, meets with farmers in their fields and peppers agriculture experts with questions.
Gill’s quest is aligned with a movement across the American food world to rebuild clearer pathways from the farm, the fishing boat and the ranch to the market and the plate. But while local and organic has gone mainstream in some facets of food, grain is a new chapter.
“At restaurants, chefs can talk to you about the wine, where their oysters came from, they know the farmers for their produce,” said Gill. “But that’s not being perused with grains, with the most ubiquitous ingredients at any restaurant. It’s strange to me that people aren’t carrying it across the whole menu. Flour is flavor too, and it should have flavor again.”
Issues of scale, or support
Some prominent chefs are now talking about grain, like Sean Brock, a South Carolina-based champion of Southern heritage ingredients, and Marc Vetri, whose Philadelphia restaurant Vetri makes pasta with flour milled in house. Others have focused on health impacts, including Michael Pollan, who covered the issue in his book and related Netflix series “Cooked.”
But in Louisiana, where organic commercial farming has only recently established a foothold, the hurdles for a local wheat harvest as Gill envisions are high – some suggest insurmountably so.
“I admire what Graison is doing, he has a lot of enthusiasm, but he’s facing an uphill battle,” said Steve Harrison, who runs the LSU AgCenter’s wheat and grain breeding program.
Growing suitable wheat varieties for bread in the humid climate of Louisiana is one challenge, but it can be overcome with the right breeds. The bigger issues, as Inglewood Farm discovered this season, are in the established systems for processing and shipping grain.
“The infrastructure is set up to process shiploads at a time,” Harrison said. “It’s there to handle a 20-traincar load of grain, not a few truck loads.”
Louisiana is a very small player in the American wheat market, accounting for about 300,000 acres of the 56 million acres planted with wheat across the country. Today, practically all Louisiana grain is combined in giant elevators along the Mississippi River and shipped overseas.
To preserve the organic and place-based qualities of a specific grain harvest, it has to be diverted from the commingled mainstream.
“The scale of production is the issue. You can grow organic vegetables on a small plot, harvest it yourself and sell it at a farmers market and make some money. You can’t grow and produce hard wheat by hand,” Harrison said, referring to the type of wheat used for bread. “You need very expensive equipment to harvest it and get it ready to sell and you need a lot of it to make that worthwhile.”
Local proponents of more organic grain say their fledgling sector needs more attention to move beyond that status quo, and more of the institutional and policy support other farm sectors receive.
“We’re not getting any support now,” said Lee Weeks, chief operating officer for Inglewood Farm. “When we call universities and (agricultural) agencies, the message we get is that you’re crazy for trying to do this.”
Weeks says Inglewood will forge ahead, and in fact it’s doubling down. Because Inglewood rotates crops to improve its soil naturally, the next wheat harvest is planned for 2018 and it will be much larger than this year’s, planted across some 400 acres. It’s part of the mandate for Inglewood Farm, which was created by Keller Enterprises, a company that invests in projects with a philanthropic or community focus.
The farm has more resources than most. But still, Weeks acknowledges “a huge challenge” to make better inroads in handling and distribution before then.
That’s why he was so interested to work with Gill, a small baker 200 miles from his farm.
“Bellegarde wouldn’t be a huge customer for us, but what Graison is doing is bigger than that,” he said. “What I see is the doors he’s opening and the avenues he’s creating for farms of our size to be able reach more people. There’s no doubt he’s opening people’s eyes.”
Gill grew up in Los Angeles and arrived in New Orleans at age 20. He soon started making his own bread to sell at the Crescent City Farmers Market. His loaves, dark-crusted and full of flavor, turned heads.
Encouraged by the response, he left to train at the San Francisco Baking Institute and returned in 2013 to open Bellegarde Bakery, named in honor of the first commercial bakery recorded in colonial New Orleans in 1722. He set up shop bootstrap fashion, taking over an old boiled seafood market slotted into a tattered urban strip mall in Broadmoor (people still occasionally come in looking for crawfish). It’s a production bakery, with no retail storefront, few amenities and less curb appeal. But Gill’s Bellegarde brand quickly drew a following, especially among chefs and restaurateurs.
“He is so ingredient-focused, so determined to honor traditional recipes and sources for his product,” said Richard Sutton, proprietor of the specialty cheese shop St. James Cheese Co.
He started using Bellegarde bread for his sandwiches and soon went into business with Gill, partnering in Continental Provisions, a deli in the French Market.
“A lot of folks in the food business are passionate about their products but I’ve never met anyone quite like him,” Sutton said. “He is absolutely vested in making this work.”
Gill’s pursuit of local, organic grain is the next step in Bellegarde’s development, and it flowed from the stone mill he installed at his bakery last fall.
About the size of a walk-in closet, the mill occupies one flour-dusted corner of the bakery, between racks of baguettes and Gill’s cluttered office. It runs on electricity, but otherwise follows a design principle reaching back thousands of years to stone mills powered by water or animals.
The spinning stone, made of Vermont granite, breaks the grain and mashes together each of its elements – all the fats and acids, the protein and minerals of the entire wheat berry. That’s in stark contrast to many standard commercial flour brands, where the oily, perishable components are removed to make a nonperishable product.
This stone-milled flour is speckled, its aroma fragrant and slightly pungent. Dab a fingertip of it on the tongue and it tastes moist and full and already a little like bread. On his web site, Gill shares tasting notes on each of the grains he’s using, along with growing conditions at the farms where they originated in Wisconsin, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
Different grains will give different flavors to the finished bread, and that impels Gill’s campaign for more.
“I’m chasing flavor,” Gill said. “We could be getting thousands of different types of wheat, but right now if you look at what we get, it’s like we were only growing chardonnay grapes, only making cheddar cheese.”
By milling organic grain from farms building back their soil naturally, Gill’s approach also lands at the intersection of flavor and nutrition. That’s why he’s now getting an assist from Emily Paul, a grad student at Tulane University’s School of Public Health.
She’s been working closely with Bellegarde this summer, joining him in his advocacy efforts around the region and researching ways to link farmers, millers and bakers. She frames it in the perspective of food as preventative medicine.
“Healthier soil is healthier food and healthier people,” she said. “When you can create a smaller circle between the land and the food it produces, that brings a lot of health implications. With stone-milled grain, you're getting the whole grain and all its benefits.”
Hurdles in the harvest
For inspiration, Gill points to marketing efforts to lift fresh Gulf seafood above the tide of imported seafood, which has focused on its superior flavor and integrity. But when it comes to grains, there is scant local precedent for him to follow. In fact, a once-promising Louisiana example has recently soured.
In southwest Louisiana, in Kinder, longtime rice farmers Karen and Kurt Unkel committed to weaning their land off chemical fertilizers and producing organic rice. They branded it Cajun Grain, and it found a following at farmers markets and with some New Orleans chefs. But demand slackened, costs rose and this spring the Unkels did not plant a rice crop. Cajun Grain is out of business and Kurt Unkel, 59, is now working at a gravel pit near his farm.
“The people want it, there’s no question people want clean food,” Unkel said. “But these little farms don’t have the resources to advertise and publicize and make it work.”
Still, even after a disheartening experience, Gill’s advocacy for grain has stirred some new interest for Unkel. This fall, he intends to turn a patch of his one-time rice farm into a small research plot for organic grain.
“It’s not going to be much, but it’s something,” he said. “Graison is working overtime on this. He’s already got people changing things, and that’s what it’s going to take.”