Growing and Milling our own Grain on Cape Breton Island – a dream

This article, from NYT in 2008, which I got to from the Hungry Ghost Bakers site at :

is about my fantasy for where I want to end up in Cape Breton, namely running or living on a farm property which, amongst other things including dairy, chickens, vegetables, flours, theatre, hospice, intentional village etc., grows its own grains, mills them, bakes them and sells them locally.

I have talked to a few people since starting French Road Bakery with small farms and they have all told me that the soil conditions around here are not suitable. Having recently read Sepp Holzer’s book on Permaculture Farming (he grows oranges and lemons at 5,000m in the Austrian Alps and has turned acidic soils in Scotland into blooming farm land within 48 months), I know that we could grow wheat here if we wanted to, especially older strains which, along with being less efficient (when farmed with modern chemical inputs) are far more robust, not to mention tasty and nutritious.

So this post is a call to any Cape Breton farmer interested in applying organic permaculture methods to grow local wheats, spelts and rye, and/or give me an acre (or less) to move to on the property, lock, stock, oven and all.

OR: I might stay where I am in French Road on my rented 45 acres and learn how to turn this property around myself (currently it is just ex-tree-farmed scraggly pine and spruce, with one decent hill with abandoned quarry overlooking the lake, so it could be turned into a permaculture farm with lots of microclimates and so forth which engender the sort of biodidversity which such an approach both needs and fosters to the benefit of all involved.

Anyway. I want to grow wheat on Cape Breton Island, mill it and bake it. Any suggestions welcome. (I know nobody is reading this blog, but maybe later during the summer more people will come to it and hopefully see this post!)

Excerpts from NYT article: “This region is supposedly too rainy for hard red spring wheat, the high-gluten wheat planted in the spring and harvested in the early fall. But some are growing it anyway because it is good for making bread. Others are sticking with the soft white winter wheat, low-gluten grain that’s planted in the fall and harvested in early summer that was traditionally grown here and is generally used for pastry and cake flour.

Mr. Lewis called his first encounter with soft local flour eight years ago a revelation. He was picking up some organic feed for his hens from Mr. Earnhart’s farm, Lightning Tree, when he came upon a barrel of flour that Mr. Earnhart had made with a small mill.

“I stuck my hand in it and I said, oh boy,” Mr. Lewis recalled. “It felt different, it smelled different, it tasted different. It was intriguing.”

Mr. Lewis bought a second-hand milling machine and began grinding Mr. Earnhart’s wheat. From his bakery at Wild Hive Farm, Mr. Lewis now sells bagged flour as well as breads, cookies, scones, biscuits and pastries, all made from local grains.

Creating a market for local wheat takes more than just planting seeds.

Cheryl Maffei and Jonathan Stevens, who own Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Mass., have persuaded 100 of their customers to grow plots of wheat in their yards. A year ago, when they started seeking local wheat, Ms. Maffei said, their attitude was a tad naïve.

“We thought, we’re bakers, and we want our flour to be local, more local than North Dakota, and all we have to do is ask the farmers to grow it and we’ll buy it,” she recalled.

When she spoke to farmers, though, she found that nobody knew which varieties of wheat would thrive in the area, and the cleaning, milling and storage facilities needed for flour production didn’t exist locally. Ms. Maffei and Mr. Stevens began working with nearby colleges to identify wheat varieties to test, Ms. Maffei said. The customer plots, which were harvested last month, were trial runs and raised consciousness about the wheat. Already, Ms. Maffei said, the three patches they planted at the bakery have brought in curious customers. “They’ve never even seen wheat growing,” she marveled.

But there is a long road ahead. The closest miller who can produce the flour they need is in Quebec. “With our infrastructure here, we also lost the knowledge of wheat and milling and storing,” she said. “So we’re rebuilding it as we go.”

Somehow, I suspect the miller in question is the one I currently use: Meunerie Milanaise.

In any case, these people have been patient, creative and outgoing. I have only one of those three traits, and it’s neither the first nor last, so that’s two strikes right there!

Another problem is that in an ideal society, or even a Canadian/American society of 200 years ago, if someone wanted to set up a small farm, grow wheat and make bread etc., it wouldn’t be hard to be given land for free. Nowadays, you first have to pay tribute, usually in the form of decades of interest payments, to the international, private banking cartels who are licensed to oversee all credit issuances, which all our currency is these days, not to mention outright ‘loans’ of course. This is not a very efficient or fair system and in fact wastes a huge amount of human creativity and thus also productivity in the process. I read somewhere recently that about 75% of what you pay for a house ends up going to the banking boys. Am not sure if that’s accurate but probably it’s in the ballpark. Not good!

And is also why most of us don’t know what a decent loaf of bread tastes like, nor decent eggs, cheese, meat, vegetables etc. etc. Instead, we buy mass produced stuff shipped in from thousands of miles away. Moreover, in most community-related development projects, because there is no real community-based private banking sector any more, rather one has to supplicate various inter-lapping government agencies, rarely one but several because they like to ‘partner’ up, meaning that the project initiator (aka ‘you’ or ‘me’) becomes a minority voice on a larger committee of lifetime salaried experts who never ran any actual operation themselves, who then change the vision and thrust of the project based on their own criteria which usually favor exactly the sort of status quo that the project is creatively trying to work around. I am not saying that these official are not decent, intelligent, hard-working and well-motivated individuals, for most of them are exactly that. But the underlying or overlaying setup is borderline dysfunctional for all but very large operations it seems.

And another moreover: if the economic models these agencies promulgate were effective, the economy and population of beautiful Cape Breton Island, for example, would not have been steadily declining the past few decades – like so many other similarly rural and/or ex-industrial areas in the developed world – many parts of rural France are incredibly bleak, with untold numbers of depopulated villages with around thirty houses, all but two of them being empty. The current models are destroying local community culture, and with it over the longer term, any authentic national culture, not to mention so much of the wisdom and skills passed down for generations, most of which have been lost in the past hundred years due to technological expansion and the resultant industrial and commercial centralisation which literally dis-locates most of our culture and thus is especially obvious in the way rural communities have steadily been going the way of the dinosaur. How many of us – compared to our ancestors of only 5-10 generations ago, can do the following:

make our own clothes

grow our own food

preserve vegetables, fruits and meats through the winter

make furniture

build a house using mainly natural materials

mine and work metal, create simple garden, let alone more complex, tools

hunt our own game or run a small farm to grow meat and vegetables.

Make paper and ink.

(Write half way decent poetry!)


These are very, basic, human skills, and yet most of us ‘advanced’ people in the developed West don’t have a clue about a single one of them. Is it just me or is there something a bit wrong with that picture?

The whole thing is twisted but if you dwell on it overmuch, you become twisted yourself.

Somehow we have to find a way to do things differently and better, which probably means mainly without the help of the existing governmental agencies who hold the purse strings for public credit, which also means that in most cases this has to individual, not communal, effort, which further means that in most cases it is less likely to succeed and even if it does, such success has very limited effect on local community culture because that culture is already so fragmented and compromised. And so it goes.

Hmm…. just discussing growing wheat locally clearly involves many other related issues, many of them political, societal, global, financial and so forth!

Well, this is supposed to be a positive post, not a complaining rant, so I’ll leave it right there having ranted way overmuch already!

Related article, also from the Hungry Ghost links/articles page:

2 thoughts on “Growing and Milling our own Grain on Cape Breton Island – a dream

  1. I’ve spoken to lots of people who advocate detonating the causeway and raising the skull and crossbones over Cape Breton. We have everything we need here bar coffee and sugar cane, but we could plant beets and I’m sure we could find someone willing to trade natural gas for their fine arabica beans… point is we used to grow EVERYTHING here and now the temperatures risen by half a degree or so it should be easier to do that again right? So what’s stopping people? High levels of personal debt, meaning that they have to ‘go to work’, burn themselves out and buy trinkets like shiny new cars or 40″ tvs to make them believe they’re happy. Viva La Revolutione mon amis, and power to the students who refuse to sell themselves into fiscal slavery.

  2. Well, I understand about the Causeway, but really what that means is to run the island as an independent country or if not that, then its own Province again as it was until 1840 I believe(?). I have felt strongly for years that if an international port was developed in Sydney as its founder and Cape Breton’s first Lieutenant Governor Des Barres envisaged, then the entire island would immediately both rise up and settle down. We don’t want to become the next Montreal or New York (both big port and financial-cultural centres) necessarily, but it would be good if the island economy was vibrant and thus self-sustaining.

    That said, my personal preference at this point is to reduce interest in international/systemic stuff and focus on immediate local, and preferably, rural matters. Like helping to run a farm or some such. And just digging down into local community culture which is what Cape Breton is about and letting everything else fade out of the picture. Including cyberspace at some point.

    In any case, in order to have a viable alternative ‘non-shiny-new-car-endless-indebted’ life, you have to develop very solid skills, be able to make a solid, long-term plan based on good vision grounded in aspects that are both true to your character and talents and fundamentally decent, and then follow through for a couple of decades at least. One of the blessings of the modern era is that we really do have a huge amount of freedom compared to most of our ancestors. If you are willing to work hard when you are young and do so in a way that both nourishes your character and is profitable, which takes considerable ethical and other juggling skills, then you can still build a great life. But there are many many sidetracks and traps (most of which I fell into when younger and which I am still trying to crawl out of and may never succeed!).

    In any case, in terms of a relatively simple thing like growing wheat for local bakers, our modern society has made this a relatively complicated thing. The nearest professional miller is in New Brunswick and the one I use is in Quebec. So then you have to mill it yourself. This is a real skill which takes years to master and in any case: how many people know how to make a proper stone mill (still the best method of grinding)? And how many strains of wheat are available and where do you get them? And then of course you have the actual growing – most people here believe we have the wrong soil, the wrong weather etc. etc., but as the story linked at the beginning shows, this is largely untrue (especially if we had access to many more strains that seem to have gone the way of the dodo of late). So nowadays it’s not so easy, all this stuff, as incredibly basic as it is in theory. Again, though, the thing is not to rant and complain (as I have done on this thread unfortunately!), but to find a way to go ahead notwithstanding.

    Hmmmm. maybe I SHOULD approach a govt. agency about starting a non-profit wheat growing enterprise in order to give Cape Breton a little more self-sustainability, not to mention growing strains that other farmers, bakers and millers can use…….

    All the best to you, mate!

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