Bakeries Urge Customers to Plant Wheat

To combat the skyrocketing price of flour, several Massachusetts bakeries have taken on a project that's part Little Red Hen, part World War II Victory Garden. The bakeries are recruiting their customers to till up their lawns and gardens and plant wheat.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. In this time of record high wheat prices, some bakers are taking the do-it-yourself philosophy to new heights. From member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, Tina Antolini reports.

TINA ANTOLINI: On a muddy April afternoon, 40 people are weathering a chilly spring breeze in front of a popular bakery in Northampton, Massachusetts. They're here to learn how to dig up lawns and replace them with wheat. Local farmer Lesley Cox (ph) is providing the crowd with a tutorial.

Mr. LESLEY COX (Massachusetts Farmer): Wheat likes hot weather. The center of origin for wheat is what? Israel, you know, the Middle East, fertile crescent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANTOLINI: Northampton is no fertile crescent, but the pioneer valley does have some of the richest soils in the country, yet no one has grown wheat here on a large scale since World War Two. That frustrated Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei, the pair of bakers that own the site of this unlikely gardening workshop. As the sort of community-minded bakers who hand out poems with their loaves and leftovers to their friends, Stevens and Maffei wanted to get their flour from closer to home.

Mr. JONATHAN STEVENS (Owner, Hungry Ghost Bread): We should be thinking ahead, and as we are, about where the food's going to come from, and do we want commodity traders in Chicago deciding how much our wheat is going to be.

ANTOLINI: But bringing local reproduction back was no easy task. Most of the farmers Stevens and Maffei approached said they just couldn't afford to take a risk on relearning how to grow the grain, what with New England's notoriously unpredictable weather. That, Maffei says, is when they struck on the idea that's part wartime Victory Garden, part Little Red Hen.

Ms. CHERYL MAFFEI (Owner, Hungry Ghost Bread): What if we have our customers grow the wheat. It's a good way to find out what will grow here.

ANTOLINI: Nearly 50 people have signed up to carve a ten by ten plot out of their own lawn or garden to test several varieties of wheat. One of those customers is Scott Fulford (ph). On a recent Saturday morning, he set out to perform surgery on his front yard.

Mr. SCOTT FULFORD (Resident, Massachusetts): Goodbye, lawn.

(Soundbite of child speaking)

ANTOLINI: As his three-year-old son, Max, runs around, Fulford digs up hunks of sod. In this shady suburban neighborhood full of well-manicured lawns, his brand-new wheat patch may stick out a little. But he says losing this grass is no sacrifice.

Mr. FULFORD: This is an improvement and enhancement. Less grass means less lawn mower.

ANTOLINI: And less yard maintenance, as the wheat shouldn't require any watering. Maffei and Stevens say it could take a couple of years before they have enough hard data to entice a bunch of local farmers to take the wheat growing plunge, but, in the meantime, they're already envisioning this summer's harvest. They're planning a bicycle brigade of volunteers, going from plot to plot, all wielding scythes. It's like a cheerier version of the Grim Reaper, bringing the pioneer valley's wheat production back from the dead. For NPR News, I'm Tina Antolini in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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