On Wednesday (February 8, 2017), my wife Cindy and I drove 45 minutes or so south down Rte. 301 to visit Next Step Produce in Newburg, MD and purchase organic flour. It was a gorgeous afternoon with the thermometer registering temperatures in the low 70s in mid-February, which was ridiculously warm for the time of year. Washington, DC’s previous record warm temperature for the date was 64° set in 1887 (and tied in 2008); the new record: 73°.
Next Step Produce farmer Heinz Thomet grows a variety fruit, vegetables, and grains. I love to bake, so my goal for the trip was to get some of his organic flour. I had ordered two pounds each of Turkey Red Wheat and Abruzzi Rye flours (once there, I added a bag of Hmong sticky rice), and asked to see some of the operation while visiting. Thomet, who speaks with a bit of a Teutonic accent (indicating his Swiss origin), is an enthusiastic and voluble guide to his organic farming .
Thomet first took us to the sorting room. This is where they separate the grain from the chaff, dirt, and other unwanted materials. He uses a variety of machines and methods to do this. Physical size may be used, as the material is shaken through various sizes of screens or sieves. Specific gravity is another sorting factor, given some materials are of different weights, say the grain is lighter than a piece of gravel.
The most high-tech sorting method uses a scanner to sort the material. First a digital image is provided to the machine showing what the target bean or grain is, along with another picture of the stuff that isn’t wanted. Thomet says it works well sometimes, and not so well others, depending on the settings and targets. Photographs of a couple of the sorting machines appear in the photo gallery at the end of this article.
Once you’ve got your grain cleaned and sorted, the next step is to grind it into flour. Some home bread-makers will grind their own. There are old-fashioned hand grinders, as well as modern attachments that you can add on to your stand mixer. I, for one, though have never wanted to take it to that level. But being able to get locally grown and milled flour is a nice option.
Grinding flour by hand was the earliest method, but it’s not easy work. Seeking a way to make the job quicker and easier led to some of earliest water-power technology: the grist mill. The earliest examples date back to perhaps the third century before the current era (see Wikipedia article). Fortunately, modern farmers, such as Thomet, have access to modern technology and electricity. He can grind his organic flour on a fairly large scale.
Once Thomet harvests his beans and grains, sorts them and packages them, he will then store them on site in cloth bags and cellophane packages. His storage room keeps everything cool and dry, using an air conditioner and dehumidifier. Keeping moisture out is especially important, as it keeps mold from forming. Depending on market demands and prices, Thomet said he can store a lot of his inventory for up to two years in this environment without any degradation to the products. On such a warm day in February, it actually felt kind of nice to get into the storage room. I imagine it must feel especially wonderful come July and August around here.
Of course in winter, we weren’t really expecting to see much in the way of greenery. But, in addition to open fields, Thomet also uses greenhouses made of metal tubing with a plastic covering. He took us inside one, where it looks like summer with everything green and growing. Hoses hanging from overhead provide the indoor version of rain. A picture inside the greenhouse is included in the photo gallery below; just click on an image to enlarge it and work your way through the rest of the gallery.
Organic flour photo gallery
Stay tuned for future stories from this trip, as I do some baking with my newly acquired flour. ♦