COLUMBIA — Margot McMillen enjoys knowing where her food comes from and how it is produced.
McMillen founded the Missouri Grain Project after she realized local farmers’ grain rarely stayed in the area after harvest. She recently connected Uprise Bakery in Columbia with a locally-grown product to include in their bread: hard wheat. The grain, used to make flour for Uprise’s Honey Whole Wheat bread, comes from Paul Lehmann’s 167-acre farm near Fayette. The harvest of hard grain, used for bread products, has lacked success in Missouri in recent years. McMillen said last winter’s harvest proved to be an exception.
“It might be just luck,” she said. “It could also be because it was so dry. Wheat is a very mysterious crop. It just kind of has its own way, and I think a lot of it just has to do with if you’re lucky.”
McMillen said consumers care more now than ever about where their food comes from and what it's made of. Increased consumer demand for local products, she said, is what gets them on grocery shelves and in bakeries such as Uprise. McMillen said she talks with her grocer to recommend local foods she wants to see when she shops.
“It all starts with the consumer,” she said. “You have to just decide, 'this is important to me,' and you just ask for the stuff. Usually the stores can find it. If they can't, maybe you can. It’s sort of a combination.”
McMillen said because the hard grain was able to grow last season, she has hope that the seeds will adapt to the ecosystem to successfully yield more of it in the future.
McMillen started working with Lehmann, who has used his land to produce soybeans, black turtle beans and red clover seeds, a couple of years ago.
Lehmann bought his plot of land in 1992 and has been organically farming part-time since. Some of his previous crops were marketed nationally, but he sees the economic and environmental benefit of selling locally even if it presents a bigger challenge.
“It’s a personal goal of mine to buy into this idea that we can save on the transportation cost of our products rather than ship them all over the country,” he said. “If we can raise as much as possible locally, then that can cut down on fuel consumption and keep the money in the local area.”
Lehmann said keeping farmers’ products in the area would mean more jobs for small-scale farmers and lower produce cost for consumers.
Lehmann said consumers benefit from locally-grown products because they can talk directly to the farmers and know what chemicals, if any, are used in the growth process.
“People are concerned about their health,” he said. “They see the quality of their health slipping, and so they’re turning to various ways to deal with that, and of course, food is a big part of living long and healthy lives.”
He said it’s not always easy for restaurants to include local products on their menus because unpredictable Missouri weather can affect the quantity of food produced.
“There’s not enough stability in the supply-side for the restaurant owners to rely on that,” he said. “It takes a lot more effort to try and work with restaurants.”
McMillen said Uprise Bakery owner Ron Rottinghaus had to put extensive effort into adjusting his bread recipe to include the local grain in the product. Hard, red winter wheat grown in western states has a certain lightness that Missouri-produced grain doesn’t have, Lehmann said.
“He worked with that flour until he got a recipe he was happy with,” McMillen said. “It’s been a really hard process for him, and I think it’s a joyful process because it’s fun, and you get to see how the different flours behave.”