Arizona Food Pioneers Sow Seeds for Quality Heritage Grains

The sustainable food movement has filled our plates with organic produce, grass-fed meats and artisan cheese. But what about grains?

“There’s been this big push over at least the last 10 years to get back to farm-to-table and locally-sourced produce and meat, but somehow we kind of left grains behind,” says Erich Schultz, owner-farmer of Steadfast Farm, a self-sustaining certified organic farm in Gilbert that’s dedicated to preserving urban agriculture. “The chefs for whom this movement is important are buying this beautiful produce and meat and cheese, but for some reason, they’re still sourcing your basic all-purpose, nothing-special, no-nutritional-value types of flour.”

In late December, for the fourth year in a row, Schultz finished planting three varieties of heritage grains: Khorasan, a Durham wheat commonly known as Kamut; Red Fife, a popular bread flour; and White Sonora, the oldest wheat variety in North America, introduced to Southern Arizona in the early 1700s by a Jesuit missionary. Right now, Schultz’s field is nothing but dirt—but soon, the six acres will be covered with the fresh green sprouts of the developing grain.

Once a leading crop in Arizona, most wheat is now farmed industrially in the Great Plains. And like all corporatized products, it has changed dramatically from its original form. Today’s mass-market wheat is produced not for its nutritional value, but for its high yield, and it’s been hybridized to make it more shelf stable and disease resistant. The end product may be an easy-to-work-with, forgiving and cheap flour, but it’s also been stripped of its nutritional value and flavor.

Southeast of Gilbert, in nearby Queen Creek, the father-daughter team of Jeff and Emma Zimmerman grow about a dozen varieties of heritage grains, which are then stone milled at their small downtown Phoenix mill, Hayden Flour Mills.

“Grain is kind of the last frontier in sustainable food,” says Emma Zimmerman. “When we started [the business] four years ago, we uncovered this whole story of how flour has been industrialized and was milled to strip out all of the nutrients. Dad said we needed to go back to doing things traditionally.

“I always say that bread should be four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. But that’s hard to come by in the grocery store,” she adds.

The Zimmermans and Schultz are just a few of a growing number of Arizona farmers, bakers and chefs who are working to bring back locally-grown, high-quality heritage grains. In fact, thanks to a number of local food pioneers­—including farmer Steve Sossaman, on whose land the Zimmermans grow their grains; restaurateurs Chris and Marco Bianco, owners of the renowned Pizzeria Bianco and Pane Bianco; baker Don Guerra, owner of Barrio Bread; and chef Charleen Badman of Scottsdale’s FnB restaurant—the state is at the forefront of the grain revolution. And with the 2015 release of “The Grain Divide,” a documentary that sheds light on this modern food crisis, these food activists hope to spread their message that the white flour we value today is nothing compared to quality whole grains. Zimmerman sums it up perfectly.

“If you’ve ever tasted Marco Bianco’s breads at Pane Bianco, it’s a revelation. You just get it. You ask yourself, ‘What have I been eating before? If this is bread, then that other stuff, I don’t know what it was.’ ”

By Rebecca Rhoades

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