The Return of White Sonoran Wheat
“The abandoned flour mills throughout Sonora,” said the Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Nuñez Noriega, “are the equivalents for Sonorans of the pyramids in Central Mexico.” Fulbright Fellow Maribel Alvarez of Tucson pointed out that although this comparison may seem lopsided, given the monumentality of the pyramids, it clearly communicates the central role that wheat has played in Sonoran culture.
By the end of the 19th century, there were close to 60 flour mills operating in Sonora. Wheat production continued to flourish as a part of Sonoran daily life until multiple factors brought about their demise. In the mid-1960s when Conasupo, an agency of the Mexican federal government, instituted aggressive regulatory practices that in a very short period of time, that contributed heavily to the closing of the majority of the Sonoran mills. Another factor that cannot be overlooked was the rise in prominence of the the cattle industry, it became more profitable to grow alfalfa and “salvado” for feed. -Other contributing factors included the 1950s drought and loss of water power; the Green Revolution and the switch from wheat to winter export vegetables once dams were put in place; and the buying up of all the mills by GAMAZA or whatever the Pan Bimbo /Wonder Bread company is called. Today, only ruins of these once prosperous mills remain.
Over the years, I have found these mills irresistible photographic subjects . Without any particular outcome in mind, I began accumulating photographs of the various mills scattered along the Rio Sonora Valley. It wasn’t until this year, when my friend Gary Nabhan, noted agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist, and writer about the plants and cultures of the southwest, invited me to be part of a two-part project; photographing what remained of flour mills in the American Southwest and northern Mexico as well as photographing current day efforts to reintroduce heritage grain varieties, specifically White Sonoran Wheat and Chapalote flint corn. www.garynabhan.com
Many of those photos became part of a traveling exhibit that is currently on display at the Pane Bianco restaurant in Phoenix. Several I already posted earlier in the week in the post I did about the iPhone. It is notable that those iPhone images printed brilliantly at 16×20.
This is not simply a story that reminisces about the past, for me, it represents a time of transition when the type of wheat that humans had been part of human civilization for thousands of years, took a dramatic turn and became something significantly different.
Around the middle of the last century, Norman Borlaug conducted seed-improvement experiments in southern Sonora that were the beginning of the Green Revolution. But the modern hybrid wheat that began its development in that era bears little resemblance to the old heritage or heirloom grains. At first glance, most of the changes and developments seem advantageous. It is 2 ½ shorter, supports a bigger head of grain, grows faster, is resistant to drought and fungi and in end, yields substantially more. But these advantages did not come without a cost. Modern hybrid wheat has been genetically modified, hybridized, crossbred and also contains a whole set of proteins that are not found in the parent plants. Despite the advantages gained, it has come under increasing criticism as being a major contributor to many problematic diseases, notably diabetes and obesity, and it makes little difference whether it is organic or not. In contrast, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the older heritage or heirloom varieties may be free of many of these disadvantages. This is not the place to discuss this in more detail, but trusty old Google will yield lots of related information on the subject.
In other words, modern efforts to bring the heritage varieties back into circulation signify much more than quaint efforts to save old varieties of seed and some cool old buildings. The photos of these old mills are a statement about a time when the production and processing of regionally adapted heritage grains was an integral part of vibrant local economies, where businesses and individuals could go directly to the mills and purchase fresh flour for their use instead of month’s old or year’s old bagged flour, most likely from areas other than where they live.
The number of organizations and individuals dedicated to these efforts continue to grow around the country. For example, this year in southern Arizona, a collaboration of farmers and organizations, that included Native Seeds/SEARCH, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Hayden Flour Mills, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, Cultivate Santa Cruz, Tubac Historical Society, Amado Farms Joint Venture, and Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage joined together in an effort to make heritage grains once again a significant part of regional grain production. As a result of this year’s efforts, a most successful harvest resulted.
To fill out the collection of mill photos, Gary and I traveled to western Sonora during the late June, without dispute it is the most dreaded time of the year to be there due to the intense summer heat. However, within our circles of friends, there are always other foolish people willing to do the same. We made it a group adventure that included our mutual friend Dennis Moroney of the 47 Ranch and the Sky Island Brand, producers of natural grass fed beef, lamb and goat, his intern Marion Daguane from France, Gary’s intern Caleb Weaver and his partner Annie Silverman.
There is probably no need to point out that we were not disappointed when it came to the temperatures we encountered. Bleached white mid-day light, when the temperatures exceed 110 F, heat radiating from the pavement, is something special. It has a distinct look and feel all its own. Clearly, it’s not something that I would seek it out without reason, but I have to admit, there is something kind of magical about that summer heat as it approaches monsoon season. Come afternoon, the cloudless sky of the morning can yield tall beautiful thunderheads that tease of rain in near future (one hopes.) Retreating into a tiny air-conditioned seafood restaurant during the heat of the afternoon for a shrimp cocktail and a cold beer is reasonably good antidote.
Late August, Athena and I traveled with Gary to Phoenix to photograph the old Hayden Mill that is located next to the Salt River that once upon a time powered the mill. Once again, no disappointment when it came to the heat. Our first stop that morning was at the restaurant Pane Bianco to meet Marco and Chris Bianco, who as restaurant owners are playing a dynamic role in the revival of these heirloom grains by making them a major part of their regular menu offerings, including their pizza and bread, that are considered to be some of the finest in the country. The Bianco family currently has three restaurants in the Phoenix area – Pane Bianco, The Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria Bianco – www.pizzeriabianco.com By all means if you have a chance to eat at any of their restaurants don’t pass up the opportunity.
Marco played host, touring me through the restaurant and bakery while Gary interviewed his parents. In the back of the restaurant, there was a beautiful small scale stone mill that I came to learn was the property of Jeff Zimmerman and his daughter Emma, who purchased the brand name, “Hayden Flour Mills” to market their products under that label and to tell the story of early wheat production in Arizona.
The original mill operated in Tempe, Arizona from 1874 until 1998. When the Hayden Mill opened it was one of 23,000 mills in the United States, in 1998 when it closed, only 201 mills remained with four companies producing 70% of the volume. www.haydenflourmills.com
Jeff and Emma are working with local farmers to grow heritage grains on their existing farms and in turn, mill and market them under the Hayden Mills label. They package the flours themselves and sell them at local outlets, but the majority of the flour is now the base for the Bianco’s award-winning pizza dough’s, breads and most recently, the polenta and meatballs dish served at the Bianco’s new “Italian Restaurant.” The Hayden Mill flours are currently sold at the front of Pane Bianco, as well as at the Singh Family Market on Saturdays, the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, and FnB’s new Bodega market. The classic old style stone mill allows Jeff and Emma to grind their flour as fine as they need for a variety of uses, and to fill specific orders as for the chefs at Bianco’s Italian Restaurant who like the polenta so coarse it takes a couple extra hours to cook.
A couple of weeks ago, at Gary’s home in Patagonia, AZ, I was able to spend time with Jeff Zimmerman and Marco Bianco, making pizzas in a wood-fired clay oven that was built during a workshop I led last June. It was kind of fun to have the miller, the baker and the oven maker all together at the same time. To be honest, I’ve never been a great wheat enthusiast, bread has never been something that got me particularly excited. I do admit, really good artisan bread I do appreciate. However, the dough the Bianco’s use to create their focaccia, bread and pizza give new meaning to those words. In every respect, they are “to die for.” Perhaps it has something with their grandfather’s starter.
Once again, these prints are currently hanging in the Pane Bianco restaurant in central Phoenix and I have to give full credit to Richard McBain and staff at Centric Photo in Tucson for the superb job they did printing and preparing the photos. www.centricphoto.com
To close, I want to thank everyone else that played a part in making this short piece possible, specifically those about whom I wrote. I love learning and being a part of exactly this type of innovative and revolutionary effort.