Farm to table
GRUB’s Tim Elliott collaborates with baker Dave Miller to make bread from locally grown wheatLocal food lovers collaborate on a totally local batch of bread
In case you missed it, 40 loaves of bread practically flew out of the Miller’s Bake House stall at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market on Saturday, Sept. 24. Packaged in nondescript white paper bags with “GRUB” handwritten in black Sharpie ink on each one, the outside appearance of the loaves did not announce, “Hey, look at me!”
But the contents of the bags—freshly baked, aromatic loaves of bread made from wheat grown, harvested, threshed, winnowed, milled and baked locally—caused a frenzy at the market that day. This writer was lucky enough to have had one of the hearty loaves set aside for her. (At $5 a loaf, all the proceeds from the sale of the bread went to the local GRUB Cooperative’s nonprofit educational program to help establish and maintain local preschool and community gardens.)
Tim Elliott, a wheat and pig farmer at the GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies) Cooperative on Dayton Road, is the man responsible for instigating this exercise in totally local deliciousness.
“I did it because I like to make bread and I wanted to make a loaf where I’d grown my own wheat—and I wanted to understand the process,” the 32-year-old Elliott said during a recent interview. “It’s certainly not profitable.”
After getting his feet wet planting wheat at the GRUB property in 2008 and 2009, with some success, in November 2010 Elliott planted a quarter-acre with Sonora wheat, an heirloom wheat variety first brought to California around 1820 by either the Portuguese or the Spanish via Mexico, and a favorite of longtime Yankee Hill bread baker Dave Miller, with whom Elliott consulted prior to planting.
Planting and growing the wheat were “quite easy,” said Elliott, who sowed the wheat by hand into soil cleared by his Berkshire-cross pigs, which “ate down the weeds and helped amend the soil.” Sonora wheat is particularly suited to winter planting—it did not need any watering other than seasonal rainfall.
Harvesting and processing the mature wheat, on the other hand, was “very labor-intensive.” Over the course of two weeks in June, Elliott used a small sickle every morning before leaving for his job as a computer programmer to harvest the wheat, which he tied into bundles called “shocks” and left to dry in the field.
Once the wheat was dry enough, Elliott—with the help of four others, including his wife and Miller—laid the shocks on a clean white cloth on the concrete floor of GRUB’s pole barn and beat them with a stick designed to loosen the kernels of wheat from the stalks.
“The grains fall off onto the floor, including chaff and pieces of straw,” Elliott said. Next comes winnowing—the process of separating the wheat from the chaff by pouring the threshed mixture between two baskets in front of a blowing fan.
Elliott processed about one-third of the grain this way.
“It took four people three hours of threshing and winnowing to process one bucket of grain—about 25 pounds,” said Elliott. The remaining two-thirds he took to his friend, local organic-rice farmer Greg Massa, who offered the use of a small combine to thresh and winnow the remaining wheat bundles, which took “about 10 minutes,” Elliott said, smiling. “That was about 50 pounds of grain. It was amazing. It was like magic.”
Miller, owner of Miller’s Bake House, milled 20 pounds of Elliott’s wheat—enough for 40 loaves of bread—on the Thursday evening before the farmers’ market, and mixed it with water and bread starter. At 5:30 Friday morning, Elliott and fellow GRUB resident Max Kee arrived at Miller’s bakery and began the day-long process of cutting, weighing and shaping balls of dough, and setting them aside to rise before baking them all into bread in Miller’s Italian-made wood-fired oven. Resident GRUB farmer Sherri Scott arrived in the early afternoon to help as well.
“Tim is highly motivated, and it’s fun to work with someone with that level of interest,” offered Miller. “What Tim and the others are doing at GRUB fits right into my own belief that total transparency, when it comes to growing and processing our food, is very important. Tim’s idea of going full circle with this particular food—wheat—from growing, harvesting, threshing, winnowing and baking into bread really is an education. I know he learned a lot. Not everyone goes to such lengths to learn about the food they eat.”
Miller added that Sonora wheat “has a very long history in Chico and California. John Bidwell grew Sonora. It’s a wonderful wheat, and Tim made very nice bread with it. I was impressed.”
For those interested in small-scale wheat growing, Elliott suggests planting a “pancake patch”—a small patch of wheat that can be freshly harvested and prepared just before making a batch of, say, pancakes on a weekend morning. He actually borrowed the term from Ohio farmer/writer Gene Logsdson, who uses it in his book Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers, which Elliott highly recommends.
“You don’t need that much space, maybe a fifth of an acre,” said Elliott. “If you have a big enough yard, you could definitely do this.”
Elliott, for his part, plans to repeat this year’s field-to-table success (“Definitely!”). He’ll start planting his new wheat crop come November.