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Farmers Come Together To Grow Ancient Grains For Local Bread

Danny Jones, Dale Friesen, and Ed Hill with a field of Turkey Red Wheat behind them.
courtesy of Dorothy Lane Market
Farmers Danny Jones, Dale Friesen, and Ed Hill have teamed up to grow Turkey Red Wheat in southwest Ohio.

During the early 1800s, wheat production made Ohio one of the leading grain-growing states in the U.S. As prairie land was settled and major wheat growing moved westward, the grain became less important to the state’s agricultural economy. Corn and soybeans became the staple of farming, and now wheat fields are few and far between in the Ohio countryside.

When the bakers at Dorothy Lane Market wanted to find sources of locally raised wheat for their artisanal bread other bakery items, a trio of local farmers looked to the history books and found a solution.

Ed Hill loves a challenge. His motto is “Don’t ever tell us we can’t do something. Because we can, and we will.”

Ed is a seventy-something year old farmer who owns Hill Family Farms. In addition to raising and selling poultry, this farmer has a hobby of growing heritage and ancient varieties of grain.

“All generations back behind me were farmers, so I decided to study what my dad was all about, and my uncles. And that ended up being grain,” Ed says, sitting at a table with his friends Dale Friesen and Danny Jones in Danny’s barn in Waynesville, Ohio.

When Ed heard that the bakers at a Dayton area grocery store were looking for a locally produced hard wheat for making bread, he immediately thought of the ancient grain that was growing in a test plot on his farm.

Turkey Red Wheat stalks
Credit courtesy of Dorothy Lane Market
Turkey Red Wheat seed were carried to the U.S. by the Mennonites.

Before the Mennonites fled Russia under the Tsars, they had their children go out into the fields pick out the best wheat seeds, which were a variety called Turkey Red. The Mennonites carried those seeds with them, through Holland, before ending their transcontinental journey in the breadbasket of the U.S.

Dale Friesen’s grandparents were some of the children that harvested those original Turkey Red Wheat seeds.  Dale says, “That’s the wheat that our group of Mennonite farmers brought with them to the United States for seed wheat.”

Dale grew up in a sod house on the plains of Nebraska. He turned 90 on the day of our interview. He’s the historian of the group, and he has hard backed binders full of articles and photos about the wheat’s history.

“Later on, in the late 40’s I think, other wheats came in that stood shorter, because Turkey Red Wheat was a very tall wheat, that grew up to five foot, generally,” Dale tells me. “But the smaller wheat produced more and so the Turkey Red Wheat sort of lost out.”

Ed got a hold of some of the wheat seeds from a seed bank, and he and Dale grew a plot of the Turkey Red Wheat. The seeds produced a hearty, nutty-tasting wheat bread.  When the bakers at Dorothy Lane Market featured the ancient grain for a month, the bread was a success, and the bakers had to portion out the grain in order to have enough loaves of bread to last for the whole month.

With the help of a third farmer, Danny Jones, the three friends now grow fifty acres of beautiful amber waves of ancient grain, from October through July, on Danny’s Farm in Waynesville, Ohio.

“It’s a hard, winter, red wheat. Like Dale said, it grows really tall,” Danny says. “We’re still learning what it does here in Ohio. The wheat most people grow are soft, winter wheat, and it’s a hybrid. It makes a lot higher yield, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the flavor, or the qualities. I mean when you see a Turkey Red Field, that’s just something to see.”

Recently Danny decided to take their project one step further. A modern, stone mill is in the center of Danny’s barn. Danny sits at the grinder, which Ed fills with fresh whole grain. The ground seeds travels through a long fabric sleeve and form a pile of fresh flour in a clear plastic storage bin that Dale collects.

“We were having it milled away from here, and I wasn’t happy with the quality and what we was getting back, “ Danny tells me over the sound of grinding grain. “So we went to North Carolina and bought our own stone mill, and we’re grinding it ourselves now.”

You can sample products made with Ed, Dale and Danny’s Turkey Red Wheat at Dorothy Lane Markets.

Credit courtesy of Dorothy Lane Market

County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.