For anyone who assumes the Golden Age of home baking is over for good, the National Festival of Breads, scheduled for June 8 in Manhattan, Kan., offers proof the time-honored tradition still attracts legions of avid followers eager for a hands-on pastime that combines creativity and craft.
Natural coloring agents, exotic flavors and creative shapes were among the baking trends identified by the judges as they sifted through 300 entries in this year's contest, according to Cindy Falk, a nutrition educator at Kansas Wheat and chair of the biennial event.
Eight finalists will participate in a live bake-off and judging panel during the festival, which will also include baking demonstrations and bread sampling, technical classes and live Q&A sessions.
Activities for the kids will include a tabletop mill, provided by Ardent Mills of Denver, which separates wheat kernels into milled components of bran, endosperm and germ.
The entire event is free, although participants are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the local food pantry.
Kansas Wheat and the Home Baking Association, both based in Manhattan, host the festival with assistance from a long list of co-sponsors that includes mills and bakeries, ingredient suppliers and other agricultural commodity organizations. King Arthur Flour and Red Star Yeast are title sponsors.
The last time the event was staged was two years ago, and it attracted 3,000 participants with representation from every state in the nation and a few foreign countries, Falk said.
Celebrating and encouraging home baking has become increasingly important to the wheat and flour industries as consumer preferences and lifestyles change.
From 1999 to 2018, per capita flour consumption in the U.S. fell from 144 pounds to 132.1 pounds, according to data from USDA. The 2018 number actually represents a slight rebound from 2016 and 2017.
According to research funded by the Wheat Foods Council, based in Denver, the bread category overall is declining, driven by health concerns, but growth is occurring in the "indulgent" category, which includes croissants, muffins and cakes, Falk said.
The festival's large array of educational sessions are designed to make home baking more fun and accessible, but it's also being used to showcase modern wheat production and flour milling.
It's no coincidence it coincides with wheat harvest.
"What better place than Kansas to host a national conference like this?" Falk said. "The reason we hold it in June is so our guests and members of the media can learn about how wheat becomes flour and makes its way to the dinner table."
For the eight finalists, their guests, and several media representatives, John Deere sponsors a pre-festival field-to-flour tour, which this year will include a visit to Joe and Geena Kejr's farm near Brookville, Kan., the Farmer Direct Foods flour mill in New Cambria and the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center and test kitchen in Manhattan.
In follow-up evaluations, the experience of visiting a wheat farm and meeting a real farmer is always a highlight, Falk said. The field-to-flour story stays with the finalists long after they return home, she added.
"When you've been through a flour mill and know something about what it takes to produce a crop, you realize it's such a bargain to be able to buy a 5-pound bag of flour for under $5, especially when you consider how many products you can make from that," she said.
Farmers will be among the 90 volunteers helping out at the festival, which gives them a chance to interact with baking enthusiasts from around the country and the world.
"I think it's a positive thing to get the farmer out in front of consumers," Falk said.
The work being done in Kansas to promote wheat-based foods is the envy of other states. Wheat commissions with smaller staffs and budgets, such as the one in Colorado, are somewhat limited in how much direct outreach they can do, said Madison Andersen, communications director for Colorado Wheat.
Colorado's wheat organization conducts consumer education in conjunction with the National Western Stock Show, the Colorado Farm Show and special events like Pedal the Plains, the eastern Colorado bike tour scheduled this year for Sept. 14-16 in the far southeastern communities of Lamar, Holly and Springfield. But being involved at the national level helps supplement those efforts, she said.
"Most of our outreach is done through contributing to groups like the Wheat Foods Council and the Home Baking Association," Andersen noted.
Serving as Colorado's designated representative on those boards, she has seen first-hand what they do and has come away impressed.
The Home Baking Association, for example, works with youth programs like 4-H and Family Career and Community Leaders of America and provides lesson plans to family and consumer science teachers covering topics like food safety and baking science.
"They work to ensure the future generation knows how to use flour and how to bake," Andersen said from her office in Ft. Collins.
The Festival of Breads is clearly one of the association's crown jewels.
Over time, it has evolved into an opportunity to tap into the growing popularity of social media networks like Instagram and Facebook, communication platforms that allow successful home bakers to attract huge followings and turn their hobby into a full-time job.
Some of the bloggers who will be at this year's festival are successful enough to hire their own film crews to produce their video content.
"It's fascinating stuff," Andersen said.
Social media's growing influence has been incorporated into the bread festival format, now in its sixth rendition, with creation of a new category for food bloggers, which accounts for four of the eight finalists.
Among them is Kristin Hoffman, of Chicago, known in the blogging world as Baker Bettie, who put her aptitude for math to good use by delving into the science of bread making.
She was first introduced to the National Festival of Breads contest while attending the Wheat2Bread farm tour for food bloggers, conducted by Kansas Wheat, in 2018.
"They told us about the festival and told us there would be a blogger division this year, so I decided to enter," Hoffman said.
The farm tour for bloggers is something Falk said Kansas Wheat hopes to offer in alternating summers when the Festival of Bread is not being held.
Gemma Stafford is another popular blogger who will give live updates throughout the festival. She's originally from Ireland and now based in Santa Monica, Calif., where she and her husband, Kevin, run the Bigger Bolder Baking blog as a full-time business.
"All of the baking shows on TV, the Food Network, Facebook and Instagram have helped to promote bread making," Falk said. "People are interested in this, and it's men, too, not just women. I think the publicity we get from the food bloggers will just continue to grow."
For a festival schedule and more details about this year's event, go to NationalFestivalOfBreads.com.