Chef Dan Barber's new book, "The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food", opens with the story of a New York wheat farmer who became disenchanted with conventional agriculture after a bout of disabling muscle spasms. Klaas Martens, attributing his troubles to years of spraying pesticides, shifted to organic production. But his growing methods failed to stir the same consumers who coo over local tomatoes and asparagus.
"Local grains are often left out of the farm-to-table conversation, despite being such an essential part of our diet, and our agriculture," Barber told the online environmental journal Grist when one of its writers asked him to recount Martens' story.
Grains are so compelling to Barber that Glenn Roberts' name first appears 42 words into "The Third Plate." Yet South Carolina's Anson Mills can't singlehandedly prop up small-scale grain farmers and reshape the national market. As Barber wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed column, the success of a comprehensive farm-to-table philosophy requires stretching out the equation to include more local millers (as well as canneries and vegetable processors.) "As heretical as this may sound, farm-to-table needs to embrace a few more middlemen," he wrote.
Steven Bashore, manager of Mount Vernon's gristmill, believes broadening the definition of farm-to-table could represent an unprecedented opportunity to restore the historic mills dotting the Southern landscape.
"I think there's an opening," Bashore said after speaking at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival about his mill's collaboration with a northern Virginia bakery. "I hope it will lead to saving more traditional mills."
According to Bashore, there were about 40,000 water-powered mills nationwide in the 1830s. Now, just 800-1000 mills survive, and only about 100 of them are functional.
Bashore concedes it's not cheap to rehabilitate a rusted-out mill. There are only five men in the country capable of restoring mills. But Bashore hopes craftsmen with capital will consider making the same investment in stone milling that's invigorated brewing and distilling in recent years.
"Modern mills are roller mills," he explains. "They make great products, but something is lost in the texture."
Still, gristmills are so foreign to most enthusiastic eaters that the festival program's capsule description of Bashore's session began, "We were a little underwhelmed when the idea of a seminar on George Washington's Grist Mill was presented. " It's hard to imagine the same language attached to a session on whole hog butchering.
"Maybe it seems like a boring industrial subject," Bashore told his audience, before tracing the field's history back two millennia.
The gristmill at Mount Vernon produces meal for Bayou Bakery's cornmeal and malt for the estate's distillery, among other items. Despite the surge in craft distilling, very few liquor makers are buying locally-made malted grains. When Americans first started making booze, of course, they had no other choice.
"The next time you drive by an Old Mill Road, think about what that means," Bashore said.