A taste of history
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
Methow Valley, best known for its miles of Nordic skiing and other outdoor recreation, has developed a new note, one that lands it in Seattle's culinary scene. The rare heritage grains from Sam and Brooke Lucy's Bluebird Grain farms have found their way onto the menus of some of the city's eateries.
Two histories intertwine in this story—the history of farming in a secluded mountain valley, and that of a cereal that once fed both kings and common Roman soldiers.
The grain, called farro, or emmer, is a primitive wheat that retains its outer hull. One of the first cereals to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, it was cultivated throughout the Stone Age and the Bronze Age in Asia, Europe, and North Africa. Today it’s found in just a few fields in northern Italy and Ethiopia.
Farmers abandoned emmer after 4,000 BC in favor of common wheat, which has no hull and is much easier to mill.
But among those who continue to grow emmer, it’s prized. “In Italy there’s a whole cuisine based around it,” says Sam Lucy, who recently opened his farm near Winthrop for a public tour. “It’s ground and used like polenta, it’s made into flour for bread, or you can find it in pasta.”
Emmer came to the United States in the 1800s to be grown for animal feed because of its high protein content. Acreage devoted to the crop peaked in1900, when farmers in the Dakotas tried it. But it likely never made it to the remote Methow Valley until the Lucys introduced it.
Sam moved to the valley about 15 years ago and found work with a local farmer. He also created a job for himself doing rangeland restoration. It was the combination of jobs that got him thinking about growing specialized organic grains on some of the valley’s neglected farmland. His wife, Brooke, a Wenatchee native and avid Nordic skier, was willing to build a life there. “I like what I’m doing,” says Sam, standing in one of his fields and turning to look at the Cascade Range. “And as you can see, it’s not the worst place in the world to work.”
About a decade ago, the Lucys formed Bluebird Grain Farms and started growing rye, heritage wheats, and flax. They found a niche market among local customers, and developed a healthy Web and mail order business for people hungry for whole and fresh-milled organic grains. “It is one of the only farms in Washington producing flour for our Washington markets, and the only one milling right on the farm,” says Marcy Ostrom, director of the WSU Small Farms Program. The farm came to her attention when she found a bakery in Wenatchee using their flour. She contacted the Lucys to learn more about their efforts and successes. Then she organized the public tour of the farm in October to demonstrate how small farms can succeed in producing crops for in-state consumption.
She wanted farmers and students to learn from the Lucys and tour through their granaries. These are large, traditional wooden structures that the Lucys say are better than metal silos for storing grains, because the wood can breathe, allowing moisture to escape, rather than condensing inside. Taking their business to heart, the couple has built their mill and storage structures just a few feet from their home near the small town of Winthrop.
The acres they farm lie on properties just a few miles away. On one site, the land belongs to several families with second homes in the valley. These often absent owners share their farmland with the Lucys, knowing that no pesticides or synthetic chemicals will go into the soil and that Sam will keep the weeds at bay.
While other heritage grains brought them steady business, the Lucys found that emmer is their most popular product by far. They were pleased with the yield, the nutty taste, and the high nutritional value of the grain, says Brooke. It also seems to be less problematic for people with wheat allergies, she says. “Their timing is great,” says Ostrom. “There’s a revival of interest in ancient grains and alternative wheat crops, especially for people with food allergies and nutritional interests.”
In 2006, the couple took their emmer to the Seattle Farmer-Chef Connection, a King County event with a number of sponsors, including WSU Extension and the WSU Small Farms Team. There it caught the attention of several reputable chefs who put it on the menus of restaurants like The Herbfarm in Woodinville and Lark in Seattle. At Lark this winter it was served as a whole grain farro with chanterelles and caramelized parsnips.
While they enjoy the reputation they’re building on the culinary scene, the Lucys are just as pleased with their local customers, including East 20 Pizza near Winthrop, and Local 98856, a restaurant/plantstand on the Methow Valley highway. They love being able to go out for pizza and knowing that it’s made with flour they grew and milled, says Sam.
The couple splits the duties of the farm. Sam takes on the bulk of the fieldwork, and Brooke handles the sales, Web site, and marketing. They sell several versions of their emmer online—as fresh-milled flour, as cracked cereal, and as a whole grain, as well as their rye, flax, and wheat.
With these rare and unique grains, the Lucys literally are offering Washingtonians a taste of history.
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