One of the world’s most ancient and primal human activities has become a symbol of stay-at-home life in a pandemic.
A sudden, enthusiastic uptick in home bread baking has led to temporary shortages of flour and yeast in stores across the country, and in Nelson.
“What draws people to grain in hard times is the reconnection to our cultural roots,” says Nelson author and food activist Jon Steinman. “It creates a sense of empowerment because it is such an important part of the diet.”
When it comes to locally grown food, people usually think of vegetables and fruit, and perhaps meat. Grain has always been on the periphery, he says.
Steinman is part of a project that’s been operating under the radar in Nelson since 2012 – a co-operative of 20 people who own a flour mill.
Each member of the Nelson Flour Milling Co-op has a key to the mill’s warehouse location. Whenever they run out of flour they visit the mill, pour in some grain, flip the switch, and go home with fresh flour.
The co-op members do not jointly buy grain. Each member purchases it independently from Creston farmers or from retail outlets in Nelson.
In addition to self-sufficiency and support for local farmers, Steinman says, the reward is in the quality of the flour.
“It is the freshest flour possible, with all the nutrition and flavour possible.”
Just after being milled, “it smells incredible, there is a tiny bit of warmth, a bit of a fresh bread smell.”
He says much of the flour on grocery store shelves is rancid, or at least very stale, from having been packaged for months or years.
“Over time as we left our food supply to industrial methods of production and corporate interests,” Steinman says, “we have detached ourselves almost completely from the sources of our grains.”
The co-op’s mill can grind a variety of grains into flour: soft or hard wheat, oat groats (dehulled oats), rice, triticale, kamut, spelt, buckwheat, barley, rye, millet, teff, quinoa, amaranth, sorghum and field corn.
Steinman says the history of grain growing in the Kootenays is visible on the landscape in the Creston Valley.
“Those grain elevators are a reminder that Creston was once a very active grain producing region.”
Most of the grain produced there in the past has been for animal feed. But now several Creston farmers and millers are part of the new movement to localize grain production for human consumption.
The Star will visit some of those farmers in an upcoming article.
Meanwhile, the manager of Nelson’s Safeway says he’s been hard at work finding alternate suppliers for flour and yeast.
“It’s definitely a market trend,” says Jamie Simpson. “A close second to the toilet paper shortage.”
He has had to buy yeast in bulk and package it in-store, and while he is able to stock the popular kinds of flours he’s had to let go of some of the more exotic varieties for the time being.
It’s been the same at the Kootenay Co-op, where the shortage has extended to sourdough starter kits.
“It usually takes us a long time to sell our stock of those,” says grocery manager Erin Morrison. “But they were gone in a couple of days.”
Steinman says the flour mill co-op would welcome more members. It doesn’t have a website, but he can be reached at email@example.com.