The Process of Wheat: From Field, to Mill, to the Flour we Bake With
Join me on the Wheat2Bread Tour as I go to Kansas to learn the process of wheat from field, to mill, to the flour we bake with.
A few weeks ago I went back to my home state of Kansas for a trip in partnership with Kansas Wheat and Red Star Yeast to learn about the process of wheat from the farm, to the mill, to the flour we bake with!
Joining me on the trip to Kansas was Abby from Heart of a Baker, Stefani from Cupcake Project, Lori from The Kitchen Whisperer, Sally from Sally’s Baking Addiction, Jessica from A Kitchen Addiction, Annalise from Completely Delicious, Adriana from Adriana’s Best Recipes, and Jamie from Love Bakes Good Cakes. During the last half of the trip, we were also joined by Zoe of Zoe Bakes and got to spend the day baking with her (I’ll share more about that below!).
We were also accompanied by several members of both the Kansas Wheat team and the Red Star Yeast team, as well as a nutritionist, and a Kansas wheat farmer. These people were invaluable resources during the trip and we were able to learn so much from them!
One thing became clear to me on this trip: I am very disconnected from where my food comes from. It is so easy to grab things at the grocery store and never consider how they truly came to be. I absolutely loved the experience of becoming more connected to the source of wheat, which is such a huge part of my life.
Where Wheat Begins: The Field
To begin our journey of learning about wheat it was only natural that we started at the beginning of its life-cycle: in the field with a farmer who grows it. We began at Scott Van Allen Farm in Clearwater, KS where Scott graciously told us his story of his family’s farm and allowed us to participate in a little wheat harvest for ourselves, sitting beside him in the combine! Believe it or not, this was my first time setting foot on the land where wheat is grown.
We learned that Kansas mainly grows a class of wheat called hard red winter wheat. This class of wheat is planted in the fall and requires a long cold period (called vernalization) to properly grow. 95% of all wheat grown in Kansas is hard red winter wheat and this is what all-purpose flour is made out of.
As we stood in the field, blowing in the Kansas wind, it really hit me what an incredible source of life wheat is. We learned that 20% of all calories consumed in the world comes from wheat. That is just insane to think about. And so I asked Scott what he wished the everyday consumer understood about his product? He responded, “I want people to know that I’m producing a safe product. I think there is a lot of fear around where our food comes from. But hopefully coming straight to the source you can see that we take pride in what we do and we want to produce food that is safe to eat, because our family eats it too.”
One thing became clear during this experience is that harvest time is a race with the clock. Once wheat is ready to be harvested it is important to get it done as fast as possible because one bad storm could dramatically affect your yield. But it is also a waiting game at times. You cannot harvest when there is too much moisture in the grain or you can be penalized once you get to the grain elevator. It’s all a balancing act.
After we chatted with Scott for some time, and took a ridiculous amount of pictures of the wheat field (wheat is incredibly photogenic), he picked some stalks of wheat and rubbed them in his hand to check the moisture level to see if it was ready to be harvested. There had been a light rain the night before so it needed to dry slightly before we could begin cutting it. Scott nodded his head and said “Alright, who wants to be first in the combine.” And of course I jumped on the opportunity immediately.
We each took turns riding in the combine, cutting a row of wheat. What an incredibly powerful machine! It was such a cool experience to look down and see all of the wheat getting cut and separated.
Once the wheat is cut and loaded into trucks, it is taken to a grain elevator and weighed. The price of wheat works much like the stock market. It fluctuates day to day depending on supply and demand. So when the farmer takes the wheat to the elevator they can decide if they want to go ahead and sell it, or pay a fee to have the wheat stored but hold onto ownership of it and sell it at a later date.
On this day the price per bushel was $4.50 which we were told was a moderate price. Unfortunately, there are times when farmers must sell when the prices are low because they financially cannot hold on until the price rises. When you think that 1 bushel of wheat can make 70 loaves of bread it really puts the price into perspective.
Where Wheat Becomes Flour: The Mill
After the wheat is harvested, half of it is exported and the other half stays in the US to be milled. So following wheat’s life cycle we headed to the Farmer Direct Food Flour Mill to learn more about wheat becoming flour. This particular flour mill prides itself on tracking the wheat from the field to the mill to the store.
This particular mill specializes in whole grain flours and specifically mills quite a bit of white whole wheat flour. In fact, much of King Arthur’s white whole wheat flour is milled right in this mill. If you remember from our lesson about wheat flour varieties, whole wheat flour is milled from the entire wheat grain, including the bran and the germ where most of the nutrients lie.
Where Wheat Research Happens: The Kansas Wheat Innovation Center
The last part of the this trip involved a tour of the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center in Manhattan, KS where they are working on the latest innovations in wheat research.
As we toured the facility we got to see greenhouses growing lots of different varieties of wheat, including some truly ancient grains. We also stepped foot into a seed bank that housed thousands of varieties of wheat from all over the world.
The researchers at this facility are working hard to breed varieties of wheat that are tolerant to a variety of climates and diseases. This does not mean that they are producing GMO wheat, in fact, all wheat is non-GMO. Rather wheat is being cross bred for desired characteristics, including breeding genes from ancient varieties into modern wheat. They are even exploring breeding wheat that would not contain the protein that develops into gluten. It was all very fascinating.
Baking with Wheat Flour and Yeast!
Our wheat tour would not be complete without some baking included! So to close our trip we spent the day baking together with wheat flour and Red Star yeast guided by Julene DeRouchey who works in the test kitchen for Kansas Wheat, as well as Zoe Francois from Zoe Bakes! (If you are new to bread baking, I highly recommend Zoe’s book, The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. It is fantastic!)
I can’t think of a better way to spend the last part of the trip with these amazing people I met than to bake together. It is absolutely one of my favorite things to do! We had such a fun day creating all of these amazing creations!
Thank you so much to the Kansas Wheat team and the Red Star Yeast team. This was a trip to remember! Kansas has always held a special place in my heart but you helped me see it through a new lens. <3