Flour power: Inside the new local grain industry
Eating & Drinking

Flour power: Inside the new local grain industry

Before the days when air freight brought mangoes, strawberries, and avocados to our stores year-round, and before a globalized food system raised our expectations to absurd heights — dark red cherries at Christmas, sushi spotted far from any ocean — we ate what was produced locally.

In a limited way, those who shop at farmer’s markets and subscribe to CSA deliveries do this now, to the extent that the Canadian climate allows. However, when it comes to flour and bread, this has always been more difficult. Grains, mostly produced over thousands of acres of monoculture and plied with environmentally harmful fertilizers and pesticides, are shipped worldwide, severing the link between producer and consumer. For our daily bread, it has been nearly impossible to know your farmer.

However, Gabrielle Prud’homme, the owner and miller at Almanac Urban Mill and Bakery is endeavouring to change this. “We are working with small growers to transform what comes off their fields into good food for people close by,” she says, “to rebuild a local grain economy.”

Prud’homme founded Almanac Urban Mill in 2019, selling freshly milled flour made from heritage grains at farmer’s markets and through specialty stores. In 2021, mid-pandemic, she added a sourdough-driven bakery location in the Canotek Business Park. All the grains that she mills for flour come from Canadian-grown heritage wheat and grain varieties, such as Red Fife, originally developed in Peterborough, Ont., in the 1840s. And she’s finding the network for these grains is building in eastern Ontario.

All grains milled for Almanac products come from Canadian-grown heritage wheat and grain varieties. Photo courtesy of Almanac Urban Mill and Bakery

“Almanac’s mission is to deliver good food by supporting better farming. We’re doing this by seeking out regional farmers following restorative agricultural practices that promote environmental resiliency, with a view to conserving the land for future generations.”

Nate Heuvel is one such farmer. Heuvel, who met Prud’homme at a market, farms 70 acres near Spencerville, Ont., and harvested nearly 40 tonnes of grain for her during the 2022 season. For 2023, he’ll be planting buckwheat, spring rye, winter rye, and Red Fife wheat.

However, Heuvel has found his own gaps in the local grain economy. The equipment for seed cleaning is expensive and hard to come by. But it is particularly necessary as these organic grains come off the field with weeds among them, which need to be removed. “If we put the work in now and solve these problems, the local grain industry could become an incredible market to buy, sell, and work in,” says Heuvel.

Prud’homme also buys spelt from Sonset Farm near Inverary, Ont., and is in discussion with several other local farmers, including one near Wakefield, Que. “Working with local farmers is a more intimate experience,” Prud’homme says. “I can let them know when things change, when, say, there’s too much moisture. In that way, I can really get to know the flour and how the weather, the seasons, affect it.”

Prud’homme mills her flour between two massive round discs of granite, which are rough and scoured with grooves. These marks on the stones — called lands and furrows — act like knives, grinding the grain into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually producing flour. After two years of constant use, they recently needed sharpening.

Gabrielle Prud’homme examines the Almanac machinery that grinds grain into flour. Photos courtesy of Almanac Urban Mill and Bakery

But first time around, Prud’homme wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish this. Anthony Togeretz from Brodflour in Toronto came to the rescue, sharing his knowledge, with the understanding that Prud’homme will in turn pass it on to the next miller who may be stumped. The pair spent a day lifting the 1,000-pound stones using a small crane that comes with the mill, flipping them to reveal the grinding faces. Then they used a tool similar to a pneumatic hammer to dress the stones, roughing up the smooth surfaces, making tiny holes.

“This was all part of the ‘missing middle,’ ” says Josh McJannett, Prud’homme’s partner and co-owner of Dominion City Brewery just next door. He’s been watching the knowledge and supply gaps that hamper the cycle from producer to consumer in the grain sector. For his own beer business, McJannett is working on plugging another supply chain hole: the one between barley-grower and maltster, that essential product for craft brewers.

Scott Denyer of Dominion City, left, talks with Dean Bowes in a field of barley at Bowes’ Mississippi Mills farm. Photo courtesy of Almanac Urban Mill and Bakery

Dean Bowes is a farmer and owner of Mississippi Mills Malting Company in Pakenham, Ont. He produces 2.5 tonnes of malt weekly, and sells to many local breweries, including Dominion City, as well as small distilleries. “All of our barley comes from within a tractor drive from our malthouse,” says Bowes. “We grow about half of our annual production, and a few of our neighbours grow the rest. We plan for roughly 200 acres of barley annually to supply our malthouse, with plans for future growth.”

“We believe that a mill, even a small one like ours, has the power to transform the relationship in a community between people, food, farmers, and the environment for the better,” says McJannett. “We think bringing back this simple, ancient machine has the power to transform our local food system by making it possible to grow grains to make bread to feed people in a small, closed loop right here in our own backyard.”

And the same is true for beer. Good beer, good bread, made right here, with raw materials produced from 100 km of Ottawa. This defines truly local food.