Why is it so hard to bake bread with Georgia wheat?

Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery
The loaves at Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery are among the few in town baked with Georgia-grown wheat.

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

Consider the BLT a microcosm for the locavore movement. The lettuce and tomato could be plucked from a raised-bed garden just outside the kitchen door. The pig that offered its belly for bacon could have rooted on pasture the next county over. Mayonnaise, the only condiment rightly allowed by BLT purists, could be whipped using yolks from backyard eggs.

But what about the bread? Perhaps the crusty sourdough slices came from a neighborhood boulangerie specializing in old-world baking traditions, but the flour likely traveled hundreds of miles to reach Atlanta from Midwestern prairies and mills. When it comes to loaves, Georgia lacks a local grain economy—the bread corollary to farm-to-table. It’s a logistical and agricultural problem that bakers and farmers hope to correct.

Wheat is a cash crop in Georgia but ranks well below soy and cotton when it comes to acreage sown. The variety cultivated by farmers here—soft red winter wheat—makes wonderful, fluffy biscuits and cookies, as well as good forage or feed for animals, but produces lousy loaves.

Only one Georgia farm, DaySpring Farms in Madison County, currently grows the kind of wheat preferred by bread bakers: hard red winter wheat. They’ve done so organically since 2014, even though Georgia’s wet and humid climate makes that a difficult task. DaySpring’s workers grind wheat berries, the kernel of the wheat plant, into flour using the farm’s own stone mill.

Why is it so hard to bake bread with Georgia wheat?
Georgia-grown hard red winter wheat at La Calavera Bakery

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

Despite the artisanal process and close proximity to metropolitan bakers, DaySpring’s flour struggles to compete with the ones most bakeries typically employ. The challenge with the flour, according to the farmer who produces it, isn’t how it tastes but how it performs on a baker’s table.

“What we produce is different than commercially available flour that [bakeries] founded their businesses on,” says Nathan Brett, whose family owns DaySpring. Brett grows a strain of wheat called Catawba, bred by plant scientists at North Carolina State University.

Because DaySpring’s stone mill grinds the whole wheat berry, it churns out coarse flour compared to pure, white flours from large companies. It’s also fresh, which gives the flour greater nutritional value, Brett says. (A wheat scientist I spoke with confirmed that freshness, among other factors like soil quality and processing, increases flour’s health benefits.) “It’s a live product,” Brett says. “It’s not going to respond the way a flour that sat in a warehouse for a few months would.”

For most culinary uses, restaurants could easily replace industrial flour with local flour. But bread is more complicated.

Bakers are picky by necessity about the flour they use because even the slightest fluctuations in their process can throw off production. Catawba is a flavorful, delicious wheat, says Chris Wilkins, co-owner of Root Baking Company in Ponce City Market. But it’s low-protein, which affects a loaf’s shape and texture.

Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery
Wife and husband Dale Ralston and Eric Arillo of La Calavera

Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti

Every batch of commercially grown and milled wheat arrives at a bakery with consistent gluten properties and ash content, which are dependable qualities prized by bakers, explains Eric Arillo and Dale Ralston, the husband and wife duo behind Decatur’s La Calavera Bakery. La Calavera is one of the few Atlanta-area bakeries that has fully incorporated DaySpring flour into its operation. (Brett points out that two women-run, pop-up microbakeries—Sarah Dodge’s Bread is Good and Betsy Gonzalez’s Osono Bread—also use DaySpring flour in their bread; Osono relies entirely on flour from DaySpring and from artisan growers in North Carolina.)

A small grower like DaySpring generally can’t match the predictability of its industrial counterparts. For La Calavera, that means working with DaySpring flour has required “a lot of hit-and-miss experimentation,” Arillo says. He and Ralston now consistently bake a sprouted grain bread made entirely with fresh DaySpring wheat berries that Ralston mills herself. For other loaves, they use a mix that’s 50 percent Georgia flour.

Wilkins’s experiments with DaySpring wheat have yet to yield customer-ready results at Root Baking Company—but he’s close. He’s had better luck with inventive loaves that rely on locally grown grits and field peas, both from DaySpring, rather than wheat. Like his La Calavera colleagues, he’s committed to supporting a local grain economy. “If farmers go out of their way to do it, we should show good faith and see what we can do,” Wilkins says.

But good faith doesn’t guarantee good loaves. Despite the rise of artisanal bakeries and increasingly sophisticated eaters, “our tastes are attuned to a certain type of bread that’s different than what a local grain economy might give us,” Arillo says. He and Ralston try to bake what they call “bridge loaves,” bread that pairs unfamiliar grains with crowd-pleasing ingredients. “We respect the old processes,” Arillo says, “but we throw some bacon in it to make people eat it.”

Wilkins says it’s not up to farmers or consumers to strengthen Georgia’s grain economy. Bakers must make the case for more local flour—with irresistible bread.

“People should have high expectations of bread,” Wilkins says. “Bakers are craftspeople. It’s up to us.”

This article appears in our June 2019 issue.