The Oliveto Grain Project unofficially started in June 2007 when a group of local farmers, millers, bakers, and distributors got together for a series of meetings to discuss the possibility of a local grain (wheat and heritage corn) economy here, in Northern California. At that point, Oliveto was more of a facilitator than a participant in these meetings, providing an opportunity and a space for interested parties to connect. It became quickly apparent that there was indeed interest, and several valuable relationships and ideas arose from those initial conversations. And for Oliveto, it was the beginning of a deeper interest.

A key moment came during a discussion with Herb Vogt, a researcher with the UC Davis Department of Plant Science. I knew from travels throughout Italy that Italian wheat made very good pasta and I was telling Herb of my intention to bring back some prized Italian soft wheat varieties in hopes of growing them out here in California. Herb said, “Why do that? They won’t be the same when they grow here.”

[We did grow out some Italian wheat in 2009 and just as Herb said, when tested by the California Wheat Commission the results were very different from the results of the same varieties grown in Italy.] Herb brought to that meeting maybe thirty different bags of wheat samples. He offered them to us and the farmers and bakers present and said, “So…what do you want?”

I didn’t know. I’m not a baker or a cook. I knew that Italian wheat grown in Italy made very good pasta, but I didn’t know any of the attributes of that flour other than, IT MAKES GOOD PASTA. But what does THAT mean? What qualities does a flour need to make good pasta and how are those qualities represented in the diagnostics the California Wheat Commission was showing us? The cooks and bakers I asked also had difficulty answering the question. It became apparent that there was no common language (when talking about grain) shared by farmers, seedsmen, millers, cooks, and bakers. So in truth, it was Herb Vogt’s question that marked the official start of the Oliveto Wheat Project, because it required us to develop some common terms as a means to getting at what it was we were looking for.

Of course there are many terms established already, but they are mostly in the domain of the industrial grain business. Over the last fifty years, grain in America has primarily become an industrial product in seed development, in farming, milling, storage, cleaning, and end use. Artisan bakers and cooks may want to experiment with new or heritage flours but there is no language to convey what they are looking for to the people that produce it. While it is true than an experienced baker can have very good results from almost any flour there are some flours that offer more flavor and nutrients, and can be more earth friendly and many of the bakers we spoke with were eager to learn about them.

To fully imagine an artisan grain economy in northern California with the common goal of delicious, healthful food – every part of the chain from seed variety selection, farming practices, cleaning, storage, milling, cooking to baking would have to be approached as if for the first time. For me, the first step in this process of creating a new model was to create a definition of terms, so that everyone involved could start off on the same page.

So, here are the wheat terms we’ve come up with; in the future we hope to¬†add milling and baking terms as well.