Food writer, cookbook author and farmers market organizer Deborah Madison is returning to Colorado Springs to attend her second Grain School at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in mid-January.
She'll be part of a group of gardeners, growers and baking enthusiasts from the Santa Fe, N.M., area who became good friends and decided to combine their efforts to research and advocate for heritage grains as a result of the first grain school they attended together in 2018.
"We didn't know each other when we went the first time, and we all had different reasons for going," Madison recalled recently. "When I heard about it, I just had to go. Other people were bakers or heard about it at a seed-saving conference. We all drove up together and became very inspired by the grains we ate. We all bought mills, and we've been involved with doing our own grain trials ever since."
The group, which calls itself the Rio Grande Grain Team, has spent the past two years conducting production trials and milling and baking tests on 52 different rare varieties of wheat, barley, amaranth and other grains, with assistance from the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.
That's the outcome founder Nanna Meyer was hoping for when she launched the first UCCS Grain School five years ago. Meyer, who started the UCCS sport nutrition graduate program in 2009, is a dietitian who has worked with athletes at the collegiate and Olympic levels and currently oversees various food and nutrition literacy initiatives on the UCCS campus.
She said the seed for starting Grain School was planted when UCCSs Dining and Hospitality Services dropped its contract with a big food service company in favor of doing all food sourcing in-house. When chefs at the school sought to buy locally grown specialty grains, they found it much more difficult than expected, especially considering how favorable the local climate is to grain production.
Those roadblocks led to an ambitious new goal.
"We decided we wanted to re-establish the local grain economy that used to exist on the Front Range," Meyer said.
Grain School is designed to generate the education and collaboration to help make that happen. The intensive three-day course, which can be taken for credit or noncredit, offers a comprehensive deep-dive into the world of grain, from breeding and agronomy to end uses like milling, baking and brewing.
In addition, it always includes an informative Saturday evening forum that is free and open to the public.
This year's Grain School runs Jan. 17-19 on the UCCS campus. The free forum on Jan. 18 will feature Fred Kirschenmann, founder of Iowa State's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. It is being held from 5-9 p.m. at Berger Hall.
Farmers can attend the school at a steeply discounted price: $350 for the entire three days, or $150 for Friday-only, which focuses on the farming aspect. (Rocky Mountain Farmers Union members get another $50 off the one-day registration.)
"We already have more than 15 farmers signed up, which is phenomenal," Meyer said in mid-December. "We're especially interested in attracting conventional grain farmers who are interested in transitioning some of their farm to specialty grains."
Grain is one of civilization's oldest crops. Grain School honors that history by dedicating one session to the cultural significance of grains and indigenous food traditions and knowledge.
But most of the workshop is dedicated to modern consumer trends and how to satisfy them by modifying the existing food system. The hands-on component helps explain the why behind these trends, as students get to touch, smell, work with and taste different foods and beverages featuring rare grains.
This year Meyer has succeeded in attracting several experts who have been at the top of her invite list for several years.
Chief among them is Glenn Roberts, the founder of South Carolina-based Anson Mills, whom many consider the father of the modern artisan grain movement.
"There's a fascinating story of African rice that came over with the slaves to the East Coast and then got wiped out by colonialism," Meyer said. "Anson Mills has been able to resurrect that rice, and it might even be something we could grow here in Colorado."
A prominent German scientist is also being brought in to talk about his efforts to cross modern traits, like shorter stalks, into ancient wheat varieties like einkorn and emmer.
A slew of local and regional bakers, brewers, malters and millers will help lead various workshops, including some familiar names from around Colorado, such as Moxie Bread in Louisville and the Colorado Malting Company and Gosar Ranch, both based in the San Luis Valley.
UCCS Grain School has always been a unique educational opportunity, but this fifth edition is extra special, because the program will be moving to a new format next year. Instead of consisting of one centralized workshop covering all aspects of the grain chain, it will branch out in a couple of new directions.
"The most critical part of Grain School is the experiential learning," Meyer said. "So we decided to try doing a version of Grain School in the field, which will be launching in the summer of 2020. It will be field-based and get students fully involved in doing fieldwork. We are going to start by working with heirloom corn for a tortilla project."
"Grain School could also travel across the state in the future, for example visiting a miller to see the actual milling or contracting with a baker to tour the bakery," she continued. "We're also looking at opening up Grain School as an apprenticeship, where a student would go to the bakery to actually learn artisan baking."
Meanwhile, the existing Grain School format will migrate online as a fully integrated university course that all students would take as background before going out into the field for more in-depth training, she said. It will be enhanced with the latest on-line learning tools, and enrollment will be open to anyone from anywhere in the world.
UCCS Grain School has sold out in recent years and is likely to sell out again this year. To register, or to see a full schedule and more details, go to UCCS.edu/SWELL and click on the Grain School tab.