Wild Hive Farm produces locally grown and milled flour unlike anything available in most supermarkets. Over his decades-long career, owner Don Lewis has been a baker, miller, retailer, and an educator. His thorough knowledge of all aspects of grain production has led to superior products as well as outreach initiatives that are changing food culture in the Hudson Valley and beyond.
Local grain came to Wild Hive through a chance encounter.
“Initially when I had the bakery, I met a farmer nearby here who had just grown his first crop of wheat for human consumption,” Lewis says. “He had a small mill, and he gave me a bag of flour. He said, ‘Well, you’re a baker. Maybe you can do something with this.’”
Working with stone-milled grains was an eye-opener.
“I took it home and when I touched it I realized that this was a totally different thing. It was pretty exciting,” Lewis says. “And then, I realized that this is how it was in the past. It’s not the commercial flour that we’re used to.”
The baker soon began incorporating his neighbor’s flour into his products.
“I figured out how to use it and then I started buying flour from him,” Lewis says. “I convinced him to grow more acreage and eventually to try to find more seed—which was not easy at the time—and to diversify some of the varieties. Within about six or seven years, we had enough grains that he had produced and milled to run my bakery 100 percent on local flour.”
Why go through all of the trouble of sourcing seed, growing grain, and milling? The industrialization of bread making has led to a sharp decline in food quality.
“When industry took over bread productions, small bakeries were replaced by factories,” Lewis says. “Even in the milling process, stone milling went to roller milling for speed. It takes a whole day to mill a ton of flour on a stone mill and you can do it on a roller mill in an hour. As he would find out through first-hand experience, that extra time creates a superior product that consumers just can’t find at supermarkets.
Industrial flour production also affects the nutritional quality of what ends up on people’s plates.
“They take a lot of the components out of the flour so it’s what they consider more shelf-stable. It’s not,” Lewis says. “The protein becomes rancid, and I believe that’s one of the reasons why so many people have intolerance to wheat gluten and corn: because it’s so old, and the gluten is the protein. The bran is the minerals, the gluten is the protein, and the amino acids are in the heart of the wheat—the wheat germ.”
Having created a product that keeps longer, these types of flours often sit on store shelves for extended periods of time.
“We have a three month shelf life on our flour products. I’ve yet to see such a short date in the industry, but that’s what I believe. Three months, and it’s pretty much lost its integrity,” Lewis explains. “You can store grains appropriately and they can be viable for years, but once you crack them, the clock is ticking.”
Industrialization has also limited the variety of seeds that had once been available to farmers.
“The industry has taken away access to a lot of the seed,” Lewis says. “They want you to buy their seed, their new seed—GMO seed. So, they’ve removed the other seeds from the marketplace and made them disappear so that you don’t have access to it. Local grain-based food systems are contradictory to that, and that’s important politics.”
Wild Hive has since branched out beyond its own bakery to help supply commercial operations with fresh, wholesome flour.
“My biggest customer is Eataly USA,” Lewis says. “They have a bakery where they bake traditional rustic breads from the north of Italy. The mother store is in Turin, Italy. When they came to the United States, they were not able to find flour to replicate the bread that they wanted to showcase from the mother store. I selected the wheat and the style of milling to replicate the flours for their bakery so that they could then replicate the bread products that they were trying to make.”
Eataly now has four stores in the United States, and Don coordinates the specific farming and milling needed to create their products. “I have at least 400 acres of wheat growing for them,” he says.
Outreach is another key component of what happens at Wild Hive, which over time, has spread its locavore version of grain production to other regions.
“With the grain project, I kind of induced farming,” Lewis says. “When I first started this 25 years ago, I knew it was a successful model and it could be replicated elsewhere. The same model is being done throughout the northeast now. There’s probably a dozen groups of people from here to the Canadian border that have a similar style of model, where they have a relationship between farmer, miller, baker, and retailer.”
All the effort has been worth it, he says.
“It’s really basically what I was hoping to accomplish. I never did this to be the king of flour in the northeast. This is about food politics for me.”