I swear that the earth gets bigger between Vermont and Kansas. Trees fall away, mountains sink, and rock walls reduce into blond grass and endless crop rows. With nothing in the way but grain elevators and the stubble of last season’s wheat, the view here continues until the earth turns a corner into Colorado. What interrupts my eye before the horizon? Nothing, I think.
I say “nothing,” but the farmers of Wallace County might knock my head with a good set of farm-hardened knuckles if they hear me — they know I’m overlooking the most important thing: Rows and rows of “nothing?” No. In Kansas, dirt is everything.
And that’s what I’m here for — the “everything.” I want to see the line as grain moves from farm to mill to bag. My co-pilot on this trip is Bob Morando, the CEO of Farmer Direct, a farmer-owned cooperative built on sustainable practices and on returning maximum value to farming families. It’s the exact view I’m looking for. Farmer Direct has worked with King Arthur for more than 20 years, providing us with our white whole wheat.
What is white whole wheat flour exactly? This unbleached flour is milled from hard white winter wheat — a lighter-colored grain than traditional red wheat — which yields milder-tasting baked goods. Consider it nutritionally on par with traditional whole wheat flour, but with baking characteristics (in texture and flavor) more closely aligned with all-purpose flour. This makes it a real boon to bakers who are looking to incorporate whole grains into their recipes. And beyond the kitchen, our white whole wheat is particularly special, as it’s identity-preserved. By partnering with Farmer Direct, we’re able to mill this flour using wheat grown from certified seeds, allowing us to trace the flour from the farm to the flour. And it’s all done using sustainable farming practices.
What I’m soon to learn is that these men and women who make my bread and biscuits possible are more than farmers, they are stewards.
“No Farmers, No Beer.” Have you seen the bumper sticker? How about “No Farmers, No Deep Dish” or “No Farmers, No Birthday Cake”? I would buy that shirt.
Bob and I left Salina, Kansas, yesterday heading due west on I-70. Out here, 80 mph seems like first gear — the road is a runway that might not stop until we hit the Pacific Ocean. I keep pressing the gas pedal; Bob keeps noting that they do have cops in Kansas. We’re a good match.
We stop at the farm of Bill and Wilma Mai. Bill’s family first farmed this land during the Dust Bowl years of the 20th century. They say Bill is in his 80s — shaking his hand for the first time, I have a hard time believing it. But then he rattles off the years since 1936 when they had significant crop failures. He knows the dates like I know the birth years of my kids. He describes the way a particular hailstorm developed, the size of the ice balls, and the resulting swath of destruction of a storm that hit over 50 years ago.
As he talks, I’m reminded of the risk and hope that farming requires. Farmers believe — they find the silver lining of a low-yield year (“better protein levels!”) or roll with crop disease and look for varieties that have better natural resistance. To say that it’s inspiring doesn’t quite capture what I carry as we walk the farm with Bill and his son, Carl.
It’s mid-September of 2019 and the Mai family is planting white winter wheat, which will be harvested in the summer of 2020 and make its way to retail shelves in King Arthur bags shortly thereafter. In the tractor cab next to Carl with a large seeder behind us, I have time to ask every dumb question imaginable during long passes across the field.
Thankfully, Bob worked through some of my early questions in the car. “What’s that big thing?” I said, pointing to a structure miles away that looked like a lunar launch vehicle. “That’s a grain elevator,” he replied, slowly, so that the greenhorn could absorb the new word.
By the time we reach the Mai farm, my knowledge has increased but my pointer finger is still working overtime. What’s going in that field? Why do you plant corn after wheat? Is there another Mai generation lined up to run the farm? Do I talk too much? Probably.
As we bounce along with the GPS steering the tractor, Carl has both hands free and points to fields around us. Some are fallow, others hold corn, and yet others are ready for seeding. The Mai Farm runs a three-year rotation that allows the soil to naturally recover nutrients and water between plantings.
I see irrigation equipment on adjacent farms, but none on the Mais’ land. Carl explains that Mai Farm employs dry-land farming, which seems to me like the “set it and forget it” version of planting and watering crops. Bill had watched water well levels drop consistently from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s. Concerned about sustainability, they began testing the success of their crops without irrigation — a leap of faith in Western Kansas, where 17” of rainfall is all you get in an average year (fingers-crossed!). After successful tests, they transitioned to dry-land corn in 1985 and by 1999 had switched to dry-land practices for wheat as well.
Carl notes that while the Mai family can make efforts that relate to sustainability, the community as a whole must make better choices, especially with water usage. The water wells that were drilled in the 1940s are at 25% of their initial level and continue to drop.
Regarding the wheat that they grow, Carl explains that Farmer Direct tracks wheat from the field to the mill and eventually, into each bag, connecting the flour to its source. In the traditional system, farmers sell their wheat to a mill and it goes to the grain elevator, but they can’t walk to a bag of flour in the supermarket and say, “I grew that.” Identify-preserved wheat and Farmer Direct’s traceability from field to the flour bag have changed that model. Their pride is palpable.
In my travels, I’ve heard more than one farmer refer to Bill Mai as a legend. “He’s a genius,” says Shayne Suppes, a football player turned Harley Davidson mechanic who eventually came home to the family farm and now grows white wheat for Farmer Direct. Shayne explains the ways that Bill, who should be sitting someplace with his feet up, runs circles around the young guys. He is ever-curious and ever-inspired.
This curiosity is nothing new. In the 1980s, Kansas State University approached Bill at the state fair and asked if he might test a variety of white wheat. He decided to give it a shot. Returning to the house with the early harvest almost a year later, he grabbed wheat from the combine for his wife to mill for their bread at home. When his kids reached for a second slice of her white whole wheat loaf, Bill knew they were on to something — he’d never seen them ask for more with red wheat.
As a baker, most of my roads lead to the kitchen. Car fanatics like the garage; sports fans gather around the TV; antique lovers slow down for discarded furniture on a curb. Me? I like cupboards and bread boxes. When Bill told me the story of the white wheat loaf, my ears perked up. I couldn’t resist trying to weasel my way into seeing the mill that the Mais use at home. After asking, and then reminding that I asked (just a little pressure!), we made our way through the house that Bill built one winter during a gap in the farming calendar.
The small mill on their kitchen counter has a hopper, a flour drawer, and a knob for fineness. Wilma has their table set with placemats for a quiet lunch. On the counter, she has a folder of printed recipes. Snooping, I see that it’s open to a printout of a hamburger bun recipe off the King Arthur website. They’re having pulled pork sandwiches for dinner. I also see our whole grain cookbook on the shelf. Today isn’t the day for me to impose any further, but I make a note: even if I have to walk from Salina to Sharon Springs, I will do it in order to return and make some of that “second slice” bread with Wilma — seed, to mill, to loaf.
Bob and I gather Bill and his family at their front door for a quick picture before we hit the road. We’re due back on the other side of the state and have a long slog from the high plains back to Salina.
Before we can leave, Bill gives me an old peanut butter jar full of his white whole wheat berries from the 2019 harvest. After several hours of my questions he must know that a gift of his wheat might shut me up. It works.
As we turn onto the gravel county road to leave, I glance at the golden seeds. My appreciation and understanding of the work required to fill the jar has grown. I see how Bob and the member-farmers of Farmer Direct keep an eye on “everything.” Their care for the earth and commitment to return value and financial sustainability to farmers extends well beyond the horizon. I also see the ways that the flour I choose ties me to the land and even the Mai family. I can’t wait to return to hilly Vermont and share the joy of this connection through scones, pancakes, and loaves. And in the meantime, I’m beginning to love the long views of beautiful Kansas.