Interest in specialty and heritage grains is on the upswing, and health concerns are driving much of it.
That was the case with Sarah Owens, who was working as a ceramic artist for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden when she developed health problems that eventually led her to seek out pro-biotic, fermented, digestion-enhancing foods.
In her case, however, the healing properties of baking sourdough bread turned out to be mental as well as physical.
"Cooking is the gateway to a meditative activity. I just got hooked on the process," she said at a book signing earlier this fall in Tulsa. "It was very creative to me. So I set out trying to find ways to bankroll my passion."
She won a James Beard award for "Sourdough", her first book on bread, and followed it up with a couple more. She also began working with artisan millers on recipe development and taught bread-making workshops around the world.
Her latest book, "Heirloom: Time Honored Techniques, Nourishing Traditions and Modern Recipes", includes recipes that are somehow both timely and timeless, such as baked root chips and liver pate, as well as throw-back foods that honor her native Tennessee, such as sumac-roasted chicken.
Owens is moving from New York City to Northern California, where she plans to develop an educational program in conjunction with a specialty flour mill there.
"I've become more interested in involving myself in the agricultural aspects, the health of the soil and the need to pass that wisdom on to the next generation," she said.
Owens, like many others, believes cooperatives will be integral to creating a more diverse grain economy with more locally adapted options.
That view is shared also by Nanna Meyer, director of the sports nutrition graduate program at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and founder of UCCS Grain School.
Meyer plans to highlight the importance of the cooperative model at this year's Grain School, which runs January 17-19.
"Every year we have a theme, and this year's theme is create, cooperate and sustain," she said. "The most successful examples of specialty mills around the globe are all cooperative or farmer-owned."
To discuss how co-ops can help scale up production of specialty grains, she is bringing in representatives from Western Kansas' Heartland Mills as well as Denver-based Ardent Mills and co-op specialists from Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
Collaboration is already starting to put momentum behind the fledgling effort to re-localize and diversify grain production in Colorado. A new nonprofit organization called the Colorado Grain Chain has been formed to support the heritage grain movement and raise awareness and demand for more specialty products.
Efforts are also underway to develop new processing and marketing infrastructure that could provide farmers with more direct access to the marketplace.
"The food hub in Avondale has a commercial kitchen, and it has the capacity to develop into a grain hub," Meyer noted of the repurposed Excelsior School building along U.S. Highway 50. "There's interest in using it to develop the seed cleaning aspect for farmers in the Arkansas Valley watershed who want to switch from feed corn to food corn or culinary barley or other alternative grains."
While the interest in heritage grains is a national movement, it makes sense to grow it slowly from the ground up at the local level, she said.
"I think it has to remain regional. It's just too complicated to shuffle around tons of grain," she said. "And the infrastructure to do this is something that needs to be shared."