When Steve Sossaman, a fourth-generation farmer and owner of Sossaman Farms in Queen Creek, Arizona, met up with Jeff Zimmerman for coffee five years ago, little did he know how fateful the meeting would be.
Up to that point, Zimmerman — a former tech consultant who’d acquired the rights to Hayden Flour Mills, a shuttered mill in nearby Tempe — had been courting area farmers (for two years, to be exact) in hopes of finding one who’d share his passion for growing and milling heritage grains. As earnest as his efforts were, he couldn’t find a match.
But something in that meeting clicked with Sossaman. So much so that within a couple months, they were planting grain.
Today, Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms is a thriving business. They’re on target to complete a new building in 2017 — “five times the size of the original one,” says Sossaman — to focus on pasta production, a part of the business that’s “really taken off.”
Given how eating healthfully is on everyone’s minds nowadays, maybe the success of Hayden Flour Mills doesn’t come as a surprise. But what might surprise you is its location: central Arizona.
Despite what you think, central Arizona (particularly Mesa, Gilbert and obviously, Queen Creek) has surprisingly prime conditions for farming. In fact, it’s one of the few areas in the country where you can farm every day of the year and produce a bounty of diverse crops, including citrus fruits, olives and, obviously, grains. (It’s become such a destination for culinary-minded travelers that the Fresh Foodie Trail — a self-guided agri-tour on which you can experience small, locally owned businesses — was launched last year.)
Recently, I chatted with Sossaman about the importance of heritage grains, why he loves farming in Arizona, and the allure of Tibetan Purple Barley. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
First things first: What are heritage grains?
“Heritage” is an encompassing word for grains that have never been hybridized. A hybrid is when you take pollen from one species of grain, then take pollen from another grain, and cross-pollinate. Now you have a mix of these two.
But how are heritage grains different from ancient?
These terms are pretty interchangeable in modern days, but heritage isn’t as old as ancient. Heritage grains can be a couple hundred years old, whereas ancient grains are much older. For example: Farro is over 2,000 years old and is also known as “Jesus wheat.” Heirloom is another category altogether. These are younger versions of grains. Much like heirloom carrots and tomatoes, the seeds were kept around as a novelty. But now they are popular again because of their color.
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Why are you so interested in them?
Because not everyone has them, maybe some seed banks. Our work requires a lot of research because the seeds don’t produce as heavily as hybridized varieties. Their yield is lower, and they’ll typically produce one third to one half of a hybridized seed.
It sounds like a lot of work, though. What’s the upside?
The majority of grains originated in the Fertile Crescent (a region in the Middle East that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt). The climate there is the same as central Arizona’s (hot and dry), so we have perfect growing conditions. I’ve also grown grain my whole life, the normal varieties like alfalfa, cotton and wheat. This was something very different that has a long story all over the world. It keeps my interest up. The work has also opened me up to the foodie world, which is totally fascinating. My family is all foodies, and now I have a more intimate connection with the local community, along with chefs, brewers, bread makers, and people who love their craft from all over the States. And I get to do this on our farm with my kids. It’s the best of everything.
How is farming heritage grains different from conventional?
We’re doing this with a more modern way of growing, with minimal tillage. It enables me to not use any commercial fertilizer, only cow manure. Our rotation crop is alfalfa, which takes nitrogen from the air and puts it back in the soil. The soil is then being built up over time, so our grain crops don’t need any added nitrogen. And they use half the water of conventional wheats and barleys. Our farm turns 100 in two years, so it’s important to be efficient with all our inputs. We’re preserving our ground and soil for future generations.
You’ve gone to great lengths to get people back into eating heritage grains. Why?
It’s a good foundation for a healthy diet. On top of that, since these grains have never been hybridized — which dwarfs the wheat’s root system — their stature never changed. Our grains have root systems that are up to two to three times more extensive than modern grains. It’s like growing wine grapes. With these deep root systems, all the elements of the earth (the terroir) get pulled up into the plant and you get flavor that no one’s experienced. Chefs tell me the flavor is amazing. And some nutritionists say where there’s flavor, there’s nutrition.
What are your favorite Hayden products?
The mixes. But my favorite is the purple barley pancake. It gives you lavender pancakes with seriously good flavor because it’s made with Tibetan Purple Barley. We also have flours, whole grains, and four kinds of crackers, which Eataly loves. Another part of our business is semolina, flour to make pasta. That’s going to be the next thing to hit the market. We’re already supplying some local restaurants now.
Okay, I have to ask. What are your thoughts on gluten?
There are too many fad diets. So if you have an issue, you’re going to blame something, right? Celiacs aside, which make up 1 to 2 percent of our society, I think you need to look at the bigger picture. Look at history, and track when industrial wheat came about. During the World Wars, bread was a staple food, so grain was being grown fast. We switched over to massive mills, and were baking bread in less than an hour. It was quick.
Now, bakers are finally going back to fermentation. And when people with gluten sensitivities go to Europe (where fermenting dough is the norm), a lot of them are surprised at how they can eat croissants and baguettes with no problem.
This is what I say: Support your heritage bakers. Support them being crafty with their breadmaking and long fermentation. Ask them, “Hey, what’s the fermentation on this? Is this an 18-hour sourdough?” Yes, these breads are more expensive, but there’s so much more going on. The taste alone will be worth it. As I say, “Enrich your life, not your flour.”