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Kneading Conference West: Reviving regional grains

Aug 1st, 2012 | By | Category: Features

by Jessamyn Tuttle

A few years ago, Dr. Stephen Jones, wheat scientist and director of the WSU extension research facility in Mount Vernon, was invited to speak at an event in Skowhegan, Maine, called the Kneading Conference. Jones gave a keynote address and presented a workshop on local grains. There were only 40 people, he said, “a very folksy sort of gathering” with a strong focus on wood fired ovens, plus home baking and local grain production. “I fell in love with the culture…people restoring grains to their community.”

Fresh baked bread. COURTESY PHOTO

As the conference grew over the years, Jones returned to Maine to give more talks and then proposed the idea of putting on a West Coast event associated with the original, but geared to a different community. In 2011 the Kneading Conference West was born and held at the WSU extension research facility. This year the event will take place September 13-15. Kneading Conference West has a separate steering committee and presenters, and includes workshops, field trips, discussions, meals and more.

One member of the steering committee, Scott Mangold, is the owner of the Breadfarm bakery in Edison. He works with Jones by testing different wheats for use in artisan breads, and is invested in Jones’ efforts to connect growers, millers and bakers. “I knew the energy I put in would be well utilized,” he said.

The West Coast conference includes a similar range of topics as the original, but taught by people involved in reviving the local grain economy here in the northwest. “Knowledge is coming back,” Jones said, as people rediscover that grains can, and have been, grown in and throughout the Pacific Northwest. “It’s not out of place, it’s just been gone for a while.”

A workshop during the 2011 conference. COURTESY PHOTO

It’s also not just about baking. “A critical part of this conference is to meet farmers, millers and scientists” as well as bakers, Jones said. Although the conference doesn’t have quite as strong a focus on wood fired ovens as the Maine conference, they’re still there; over the course of the event a clay oven will be built on site under the instruction of oven expert Kiko Denzer.

This year’s keynote speakers will be Naomi Duguid, a cookbook author, traveler and photographer from Toronto, and Andrew Whitley, a baker and artisan bread advocate from Scotland. They and many other experts will offer workshops on bread, pizza and pastry baking, grain growing, grain tasting, malting and brewing, milling, and building a grain-based business.

One special aspect of the West Coast event is the professional baker track. “It’s unique to this conference,” added Jones. Bakers from the Breadfarm, Grand Central Baking Company, Macrina Bakery, and Essential Baking Company (among others) will share their knowledge in hands-on workshops throughout the conference, using a professional-quality bread oven and mixer. All classes are open to all attendees, and nobody is locked into the professional track.

Bagels going into a wood-fired oven. COURTESY PHOTO

There will also be workshops focused on making artisan bread in a home oven. The focus will be on the science behind bread baking, said Jones, “to show functionally and chemically how bread works.”

Mangold, as a professional baker, fully supports the home baking component of the conference, saying that it “helps people recognize how good bread can be.”

The conference addresses the entire gamut of grain production. “Farmers are ready to grow it, we’re ready to bake with it,” Mangold said, but they still need to work on the infrastructure for milling and marketing to create a reliable supply. Fairhaven Flour Mill, a mill that started in Bellingham and moved to Burlington, as well as the Camas Country Mill from Eugene, OR, will be present at the conference, and representatives will give a workshop on starting a grain mill facility.

Total attendance is capped at 250 individuals, including speakers and helpers, so registration is limited to around 200. Last year the conference filled up by early August, and they expect the same to happen again (there were only 50 slots left as of writing this article).

Mangold worries that the small size of the conference means they’re preaching to the choir, and would like to see the message reach a wider audience, but currently it’s all the facility can handle.

Both conferences are sponsored by King Arthur Flour, but the West event has plenty of local support as well. “We’re real happy with the sponsors we have”, said Jones, noting the Port of Skagit and the Skagit Valley Food Co-op. Also, local bakers have offered scholarships to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. Last year there were people from 12 states and 3 provinces, ranging from the Bay area to BC. “It’s a local food endeavour – a way to invigorate our local economy,” says Jones.

The best part of the conference, said Jones, is simply getting people together. “People form these meaningful connections,” he said. “I think it’s fascinating to go out at lunchtime and see groups sitting around talking about wheat and bread and brewing. There’s a tremendous energy.”

Mangold agreed, adding the last conference “really connected people.” It’s a great networking opportunity, allowing everyone with an interest in bread and local grains to meet and brainstorm, and giving time for participants to meet and discuss what they’ve learned. The clay oven workshop, in particular, creates a bonding opportunity for people, and he’s interested in the role a neighborhood oven can take in community building. It’s amazing, he said, “to think that an oven can change the world.”

The conference registration fee is $300 and includes all meals. For more information, visit kneadingconferencewest.com.

This article was published in the August 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine.
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