Spreading the Good Grain Word


Ancient grains and the benefit of local grain economies

Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of spelt flour. But now I’m sitting in Seward Park, just steps away from Mel the Bakery, munching on the bakery’s spelt baguette, still hot from the oven. The smell is mouthwatering. It’s tangy, nutty and salty all at once. The baguette is nothing like the hollow-feeling bread I buy from my grocery store. It’s weighty and more flavorful than I’m used to. It turns out that spelt, along with other ancient grains and locally grown whole grains, not only tastes better, it has unique health and environmental benefits too. 

When Nora Allen, Partner and Executive Head Baker at Mel the Bakery in New York City, began her career almost 12 years ago she asked a question that changed her entire approach to baking. If we care so much about where our meat comes from and where our produce comes from, why not flour? Ever since, she’s been sourcing organic regional grains and experimenting with ancient grains like spelt.

“I think food where you're not connected with where it's coming from, it's just not as rewarding,” says Allen.

Ancient grains are grains that have been minimally changed by breeding. There are three ancient grains: spelt, emmer (called farro when the hull or outer shell is removed), and einkorn. Modern grains, on the other hand, have been improved with breeding. But neither ancient nor modern grains are inherently less healthy than the other.

Spelt baguette from Mel the Bakery. Photo: Marissa Roberge/Bluedot Living

“The argument that modern grains are not as nutritious or healthy as ancient grains is largely a myth,” says Mark Sorrells, Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University who has been studying organic grains, including ancient grains, for the last 12 years. “Breeding is largely targeted towards agronomic traits — higher yields, better disease resistance, better weed competition — to try to minimize the use of insecticides and herbicides. So in that way breeding actually contributes to healthier grains and healthier foods.”

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In reality, it’s the milling and refining process, not the grain itself, that affects the nutritional value of your flour. If you compare super-refined flour, like most white flour you find in the grocery store, to the whole grain and ancient grain flour used at Mel the Bakery, Mel’s flour is far more nutrient-rich. That’s because Mel uses primarily high extraction flour or flour where the bran and germ are not removed during the milling process.

All grains are made up of bran, germ and endosperm. The bran is the outer layer and a rich source of fiber; the germ contains antioxidants, vitamins and heart-healthy unsaturated fats; and the endosperm is the largest part of the grain containing complex carbohydrates and protein. In refined flour (or low extraction flour) the bran and germ have been filtered out, giving the flour its white appearance and a longer shelf life. But removing the bran and the germ removes much of the flour’s nutritional value and flavor.

Mel the Bakery’s flours are all organic regional flours from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The grains are milled into flour in-house from whole wheat berries rather than using pre-milled flour. This does a few things: the berries are shelf stable, so Allen can buy in bulk from wholesalers without worrying that they’ll spoil, and it retains the grains’ rich flavor. Mel’s spelt baguette uses a high extraction spelt flour sourced from Small Valley Milling in Halifax, PA. Spelt is a good source of carbohydrates and dietary fiber and is rich in iron, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, and vitamin B. 

Most specialty grains, like ancient grains, are grown and sold locally. This means Allen is supporting the local grain economy with her bakery which is good for the environment, the local economy, and food security.

Barley and rye wheat berries. Photo: Mark Stebnicki via Pexels

​Since the grains do not have to travel as far from farm to consumer it helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and means the grains arrive fresh without preservatives. Plus, growing grains in general is good for the environment. “[Grains] are low input crops,” says Sorrells. “They don't require very much in the way of herbicides and insecticides and fungicides. So that means that there's less fertilizer runoff into the streams.” In addition, grains prevent soil erosion, add organic matter to soils, and build soil fertility.

By buying locally you increase the diversity of products farmers can grow, which in turn helps their business and strengthens the local ecology. Biodiversity on farms is essential for soil health and speciality grains play a role in a farmer’s crop rotation.

“By rotating different crops each year, you break up that seed bank of weeds and reduce the insects that attack each crop and you reduce the foliar diseases that sometimes are present in crop residues,” says Sorrells. 

However, even in optimal growing conditions, ancient grains yield less than modern grains. The low yield of ancient grains coupled with the expensive processing costs of removing their hulls for human consumption, makes them a less attractive crop to farmers. And, there is currently limited demand for them in the marketplace. Allen’s desire to use local grains at Mel the Bakery is well and good, but if she was the only one it would be difficult to convince local farmers to grow it.  

Part of Sorrell’s grant research with the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative includes genetically removing the hull of these ancient grains so that they can be harvested like wheat. While removing that hull, Sorrells and his team are also trying to introduce genes for higher yield and selecting types that have resistance to foliar pathogens. His team plans to make a variety of hull-less emmer available commercially to farmers in the next year.

“We think that it will create substantial demand for the ancient grains by removing the hull genetically. And that's because the de-hulling process is very costly and time consuming. And it'll reduce the cost of these ancient grains for consumers to the point where I think they will be more receptive,” says Sorrells. 

Improving the grain to make it more attractive to farmers and affordable to consumers is an important step in strengthening the grain economy. An equally important step is building demand for it in the marketplace by educating shoppers and bakers, like Allen. 

Whole wheat berries going into the miller at Mel the Bakery, and coming out as flour. Photo: Marissa Roberge/Bluedot Living

June Russell, an expert in regional food production, began working with Sorrells on his grant research in 2011. At the time, Russell was working for GrowNYC’s Greenmarket, open air farmers markets dedicated to promoting regional agriculture. One of the greatest ways Russell helped build demand for these grains was by developing Greenmarket’s Bakers’ Rules, requiring Greenmarket bakers to source at least 15% of their flour from local farms and mills. Russell says that Covid-19 revealed the fragility of centralized food systems or systems that rely on a handful of large farms to feed a wide area. We have a need for decentralized food systems that are more resilient, diversify the supply chain and make us less reliant singular food sources from far away. To start building capacity for regional grain economies, GrowNYC started with the 15% rule.

Russell worked to introduce local farms and mills to city bakers. After two years, the average baker reported using 50% local flour in their baked goods. Russell has since left GrowNYC to join Glynwood as its Director of Regional Food Programs and the GrowNYC’s Grain Program has evolved, but the work she started stuck with bakers.

Nora Allen, Partner and Executive Head Baker at Mel the Bakery. Photo: Marissa Roberge/Bluedot Living

When Allen came to New York in June of 2017, she quickly got connected with Russell. Although Allen didn’t open Mel’s until September 2020, she began incorporating local grains immediately in her work as AM Lead in Roberta’s Pizza bakery and later as a Sous at The Standard Hotel. Many of the farms Russell introduced to Allen years ago are the main suppliers for Mel the Bakery to this day. 

Allen is passionate about “spreading the good grain word,” supporting local farms, and getting tasty, nutritious breads and pastries into the hands of New Yorkers, but it takes a village of scientists, farmers, millers, and more to make that happen. 

So, are ancient grains inherently healthier than modern grains? No. Are they better for the environment? Not necessarily. But is supporting local grain economies by purchasing grains locally healthier and better for the environment? Absolutely. Lucky for us there is a team of people building demand for these goods in New York City and beyond.

Support New York’s Local Grain Economy:

Check out some of the many bakeries and restaurants working with ancient grains in New York State:

(list provided by June Russell)
Or check out GrowNYC’s Northeast Grainshed Map to identify local grain farms and mills in the northeast.

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Marissa Roberge
Marissa Roberge
Marissa Roberge is a Brooklyn, NY-based communications strategist and freelance writer with a passion for the environment, social justice, and community storytelling. Marissa received her Master's from the Columbia University School of Journalism and has written for a number of nonprofit organizations. In her free time, Marissa can be found watching ‘When Harry Met Sally’ for the umpteenth time or cooking for friends and family.
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