ON THE ROMANTIC side of it, Keith Kisler grew up on a fifth-generation wheat farm in Eastern Washington, driving tractors by age 10 and running a combine at 12.
Wheat “is just a beautiful crop to grow,” he says — one that spans history, one that’s practically in his bones. “There’s something about a field of wheat that’s just mesmerizing.”
Then came the deeply practical side: the first-generation Finnriver Farm & Cidery on the Olympic Peninsula, generally known for its orchards and heirloom cider. Keith and wife Crystie are among Finnriver’s founders and also grow local grains there, working with Washington State University’s renowned The Bread Lab.
The Bread Lab director Steve Jones and his team have worked for years toward rebuilding regional “grain economies,” developing varieties that will grow well in a specific area’s climate — plus focusing on the need for infrastructure to harvest, mill and distribute the crops and produce affordable products. The Kislers had tested hundreds of varieties of quinoa, barley and other grains for the lab, and more recently farmed their own grain crops and purchased a “beautiful” 40-inch stone mill made from Vermont granite.
Then came COVID-19.
“A few weeks into the pandemic, I turned to (Keith) with a question about local food security,” Crystie says.
“He said, ‘We’ll have plenty to eat; there’s 40,000 pounds of grain in the barn.’ It made me very motivated to think about how we could make this resource available to the community, understanding that we were in new terrain as far as food systems’ resilience and stability.”
Before long, they started to hear about regional flour shortages.
Crystie says, “Definitely there was a moment of, ‘Get milling, man!’ ”
The Kislers launched a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in a separate endeavor known as Finnriver Farm & Grainery, which Keith operates. It provides subscribers with an array of 3-pound paper bags each month, with selections like whole-wheat all-purpose flour; bread flour; pastry flour; and milled buckwheat, rye and spelt.
The CSA boxes included an even more unusual harvest — sacks of hard, rice-shaped wheat berries, the edible portion of wheat kernels, encompassing the entire germ, bran and endosperm. While not a standard item in the modern U.S. kitchen, they can be milled into whole-wheat flour or cooked like any other grain for a nutritious meal.
“My feeling about the berries was, this was a storage form of food security, and people could be getting a bucket and stashing berries if needed,” Crystie says. “Which is a little apocalyptic of me to say, but it would be OK if people had a few bags of these things in their pantries.”
I don’t own a countertop grain mill myself (though many dedicated bakers do, or use a powerful blender), but I appreciated knowing I was only one tool away from having the power to make my own flour. Even so, the wheat berries contributed plenty to our meals. They can be cooked in water until tender, just like brown rice or farro. (Cookbook author Maria Speck, who specializes in ancient grains, suggests soaking them overnight before simmering them for 40 to 50 minutes, but I found Finnriver’s did not require soaking.)
Once cooked, they make an excellent base for grain bowls, or an addition to soups and stews. Some people eat the cooked berries for breakfast, like oatmeal, sweetened with brown sugar or honey, or bake them into energy bars or use the cooked grains to add texture to baked goods.
“Our favorite thing to do with it is cold salads, cooking it like rice so they’re nice and soft and chewy, tossing in all the tomatoes and all those Mediterranean salad-style bits and pieces. The other thing I’ve really enjoyed is cooking them and then putting them in a Pyrex with some olive oil and layering it with cheese and making a baked dish out of it,” Keith says.
My other shipments from the Finnriver CSA were an inspiring break in our usual baking routines, with added gratitude for the reliable supplies. We experimented mixing flours for breads, waffles and other baked goods, pulling out cookbooks like Megan Jordan’s “Whole Grain Mornings.” It’s useful to read about the flours and get comfortable working with them rather than just swapping them out 1:1 with commercial all-purpose flour.
Different types of flours have different flavors and characteristics, from gluten development to protein content, while flours from smaller producers are typically less standardized than industrial products, requiring more attention to the texture and feel of batters and doughs than strict adherence to recipes.
That focus brings added rewards — and new perspectives. We were never “out of crackers” at our house once we realized making a whole-grain batch from scratch took no more time or skill than baking a potato.
“It’s fascinating to understand how many of these food items that we rely on could be produced if we made the time, and produced (them) with whole grains that have such charisma and value to the community nutritionally,” Crystie says.
Her family’s no exception. While Keith’s grandmother baked bread regularly on their childhood farm, he didn’t learn the skill himself until he started growing his own wheat. The couple considers themselves simple cooks, but the rich flavors of the whole grains expanded their palates. The effort they put into their crops made refined white flours, where the bran and germ have been discarded, suddenly seem like a waste — “throwing part of what you’re taking out of the Earth away.”
Looking beyond all the sourdough starters, the pandemic emphasized why people have been working all these years toward reregionalizing our food system. And for many people who thought they were already focused on food, an appreciation for wheat fields is suddenly on their own horizons.
“There’s so much attention and love for locally grown carrots and kale and those kinds of things,” Keith says. “It always felt like grain was a missing element, or the forgotten piece of something most people eat almost every day.”