The Local Ingredient: A Red Fife wheat resurgence on Martha’s Vineyard

Go local with this recipe for wheatberry salad. — Photo Courtesy of Cathy Walthers

A resurgence in small-scale grain farming around the country has found its way to Martha’s Vineyard, leading to the Island’s first commercial grain production.

“It’s more like an experiment,” says Dan Sternbach, who with Allen Healy of Mermaid Farm planted and then harvested nearly 2,000 pounds of Red Fife wheat from fields off State Road in West Tisbury, across from the Polly Hill Arboretum. They also grew oats and rye from three fields formerly farmed by the late Donnie Mills.

Ground whole wheat flour and whole wheat berries are can now be found at Mermaid Farm off Middle Road in Chilmark, and will be available at the Saturday Farmers Market this year. Two Island bakers, Olivia Pattison and Kate Warner, are already testing the local wheat in their artisan breads.

The impetus to grow wheat and other grains came from Mr. Sternbach’s interest in knowing his food sources, and from his talks with Glenn Roberts, a seasonal Chilmark resident who founded the Anson Mills grain company in Charleston, S.C. Mr. Roberts, whose mission with Anson Mills is resurrecting flavorful organic heirloom and Colonial-era grains, offered Sternbach and Healy enough Red Fife to get the commercial project off the ground.

“Actually, five bushels of seed just showed up on my doorstep,” Mr. Sternbach recalls. “Glenn and I have been talking about this for a couple of years.”

Red Fife was a hugely popular wheat variety from the 1850s to the turn of the century, known for its good flavor. Before the modern era of grain production, one of the main criteria for choosing a particular grain was flavor, Mr. Sternbach says. “That all went by the board when we went to white flour. The small-scale knowledge and infrastructure were lost when grain production became a massive, investment-dependent, industrial-scale project.”

But returning to any smaller-scale production isn’t easy. Besides readying the soil and plowing the fields, Mr. Sternbach and Mr. Healy needed machinery to plant and harvest the grain, and fans and tools to aerate it after the harvest, as well as milling equipment.

Luckily, the two seem pretty resourceful. Mr. Healy, good at mechanics, came across a discarded used grain drill machine to plant the wheat. He took it apart and fixed it up to a usable condition. Mr. Sternbach bought a vintage combine to harvest the wheat, a popular model from the 1930s and ’40s. He traveled to Iowa to pick it up. “It a doesn’t have a motor; you tow it behind a tractor,” he said. Mr. Roberts has lent them specialized milling equipment from Anson Mills.

“It was all a learning process to grow it on that scale,” says Mr. Sternbach, who had been experimenting with growing smaller plots of grain for the past few years. “I was probably checking the fields every week.”

Mr. Sternbach visited some of the newer grain operations in New England and New York, once known as the “breadbasket” of America. Among the many skills they needed to learn, for example, was knowing when the wheat was dry enough to harvest. “You need to have grain moisture content down low enough to go through the combine,” Mr. Sternbach says. “If it’s green and alive, it tends to clog the combine.”

As part of the milling process, Mr. Sternbach says, he’s making a big effort to grind at low temperatures. If flour temperatures get over 110° in the grinding process, the oils can be compromised and micronutrients killed off. Their flour is being held in a freezer, and sold refrigerated.

“I would love to see the local production of grain,” Mr. Sternbach says. “If you are interested in local food production, and you start thinking about it, you realize grain is one of the main things people need to sustain themselves and/or their animals. It’s really quite basic.”

Mr. Sternbach says he would like to keep it going if the economics work: “I enjoy growing grain, the rhythm of it. It’s been an experiment and learning process every step of the way.” The men have already planted another round to harvest this coming spring: four acres each of Red Fife and rye, and one acre of emmer, another type of wheat.

Artisanal baker Kate Warner said she will be offering a naturally leavened (i.e. without commercial yeast) made with the local Red Fife next week for her bread CSA, the Vineyard Bread Project. She bakes a variety of breads for about 60 households, who pick up from her West Tisbury kitchen each week. Before adding the bread with local wheat to the roster, she said she needed to test the recipe about 4 times to get it just right, due to its lower moisture content.

“Any time you use new flour, there’s a learning curve. That’s true of Dan’s wheat. It isn’t as absorbent of water, you either use less water, or work with a stickier dough,” Ms. Warner explains, adding she was pleased with the taste of the loaves. “Everyone who tried them really liked them, everybody.”

Olivia Pattison, who started the new Cinnamon Starship bakery, is also working with the Island-grown grain in her favorite bread, pain de lodève.

I sampled Ms. Warner’s bread, and found it one of the best whole wheat breads I have ever tasted. It made me happy to eat a wholesome, nonwhite bread that was so satisfying. I also cooked the whole wheat berries and put them into a grain salad, one of my favorite uses for whole grains. You can try that sample of the local wheat with this grain salad recipe.

Catherine Walthers’ Wheat Berry Salad

1 cup Vineyard wheat berries (about 3 cups cooked)

1 pint blueberries

1½ cups frisée lettuce, thinned, or Mermaid Farm pea shoots

½ head radicchio, cored and slivered

Citrus Vinaigrette

6 Tbsp. fresh orange juice (from half an orange)

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

4 Tbsp. olive oil

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

2 tsp. shallot, minced

½ tsp. kosher salt

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the wheat berries and a few teaspoons of salt. Simmer, partially covered, until pleasantly chewy, approximately 1¼ to 1½ hours. Drain, cool. Place in a bowl, and top with blueberries, frisée or pea shoots, and radicchio.

To make the dressing, combine the orange juice, lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, shallot, and salt. Taste with a bit of the salad, and make any adjustments needed.