Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cyrus Pringle

There's big excitement around here lately regarding the advent of locally grown and milled white flour which my brother-in-law Randy is completely excited about.

To fill you in: Randy and his wife Liza (my sister) are the owners of the Red Hen Baking Company in Middlesex, Vermont. It has long been a hope that there could be wheat grown locally that would meet the complex requirements needed to produce a local loaf that could meet or exceed performance expectations. Red Hen incorporates Vermont whole wheat into its breads (sourced from Gleason's Grains), but there is very little (almost none) in-state production of white flour. Three years ago, a farmer in Charlotte planted 30 acres of red winter wheat as a test plot with the intention of milling the wheat into white flour. The first two years, the wheat was tested and found to lack enough protein for bread baking (protein gives a loaf its loft) so the wheat was sold as animal feed. Borrowing a technique used by wheat growers in Quebec, in this third year the wheat was harvested early and dried under controlled conditions. In the hot and dry Kansas climate, wheat can dry on the stalk in the fields. Not so here. This third batch of wheat was tested and found to have promising results. Within a week, Randy was experimenting, using the white flour to make bread. He was heard to utter these words: "giddy with excitement." Once some of the logistics are worked out (and there are surprisingly a number of them), Red Hen plans to roll out a new loaf made from 100% VT wheat.

Stepping back slightly: there have been efforts to find or develop a variety of wheat that can do well in the short, damp growing seasons of Vermont. UVM Extension Agent Heather Darby found heritage wheat seed (in a seed bank in Washington State) and she's been working with several farmers to trail and cross breed these wheat varieties that were in significant use in Vermont 100 years ago when the state was known as the bread basket of New England.

Once we find a suitable wheat, there is the need to have the milling infrastructure available to then turn Vermont wheat into white flour. Small farm-based mills exist that do a good job of milling whole wheat flour, but to get a white flour, a large "industrial" mill is required. Fortunately, Champlain Mills, an organic mill, is located in NY on the western shore of lake Champlain. There is no in-state mill that we know of that can produce white flour in volume.

Some of the heritage wheat in the field trials was originally developed by Cyrus Pringle (no relation to the familiar Pringles chips) who was born in Charlotte, VT in the 1800's. Pringle was a botanist and wheat breeder who cross bred potatoes and apples and became notable in his field. Beyond this, Pringle was a Quaker. He was drafted into the Union army during the Civil War and refused to participate in military duties. This led to harsh treatment; he was granted a reprieve from President Lincoln.

Randy's been searching around for a suitable name for this new loaf of bread and was familiar with Cyrus Pringle from a presentation given by Heather Darby. Randy then put it out there to family and friends and a number of possiblities have surfaced: Pringle's Pride, Cyrus' Honor, Cyrus Pringle, and recently, Pringle's Progress.

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