Direct relationships between farmers and retailers are on the rise. For one Perth baker, a global search for good wheat led to the gates of a homegrown agriculture legend.
FARMER grows produce. Produce goes to market. Market finds retailer. Retailer sells to consumer.
It is the way the well-oiled production machine works and, for the most part, it serves us well.
But in a world where food providence is on the mind, nifty Western Australian farmers and retailers are finding ways to pursue something more than an arms-length relationship.
In a field way out beyond and long written off as marginal country, the deep green shoots of wheat offer a stark contrast amid a parched landscape.
We are in Mollerin, one of those WA places you have never heard of, 230 kilometres north-east of the big smoke.
“It is right close to the edge of where farming ends and pastoral country commences,” Mollerin farmer Dianne Haggerty said.
The Haggertys are considered regenerative farming pioneers and have put decades of work into building a farming system around soil health, perennial plants and unreliable rainfall.
As Ms Haggerty says, they have been doing regenerative farming since before it was dubbed regenerative farming.
Tireless effort has been put into water infiltration and retention to make use of what little rain there is for the property’s meats, grains and wool.
The barber wheat
For the past year their 65,000-acre property has played host to a new trial, a passion project by a baker for which the Haggertys were only too happy to help with.
“The Barber wheat at the moment we’re only putting in small hectares as we are just giving him that trial,” Ms Haggerty said.
“We have had a really dry season so it’s going to be very interesting.
“I think it probably preferred the soil type we added on last year, which was a lot more free-draining country, so we are going to probably put it on a mix of soil types next year and just see how it goes.
“We want that wheat to be accessing the best of … what the microbiome within our soils can provide; that will be what will give it its optimum flavour profile.”
The project is the brainchild of Mark Taylor, a former environmental scientist making a name for himself in Perth’s high-end bakery scene.
Inspired by a stint in Copenhagen where mills and local grains were commonplace in bakeries, Mr Taylor started research into bringing unique flavour back to bread.
The problem wasn’t so much in the quality of bakers in Australia, it was the quality of off-the-shelf flour available for use.
Existing products just didn’t have nutrition or flavour diversity.
“I think they started messing around with it after the war because they just needed to feed people,” Mr Taylor said.
“So, it was a good reason why they changed it but … along the way you have lost the taste of wheat.
“There are so many different tastes of varieties of wheat out there, it seems criminal not to have different tasting bread.”
Mr Taylor’s research led him to Bread Lab in Washington, which put him in touch with Tuerong Farm in Victoria where a strand of wheat known as Barber II, developed by Michelin-starred New York chef Dan Barber, was being trialled.
Barber wheat was highly praised in baking circles in the mid-2010s, with a New York magazine in 2014 describing the grain’s developers as “heroes beyond words”, but it remained a little-known entity in Australia.
Mr Taylor had the wheat but he needed someone in WA to grow it.
“I went to the Small Business Corporation in Perth CBD … and I met someone on the course, a farmer doing some dried beef,” he said.
That farmer put forward a handful of names, including the Haggertys.
“Our name came up in the conversation, so he just contacted us, and we said ‘yeah, that sounds like a great idea’ and we have just sort of been with him since beginning, as we have pulled this together,” Ms Haggerty said.
It was a strong match.
The Haggertys’ commitment to soil ecology was the butter needed for Mr Taylor’s dream of flavoursome and nutritious bread.
His labour of love manifests itself on the shelves of his family-owned Lake Street institution Miller + Baker.
And the wheat varieties are not the only unique aspect of the operation.
Miller + Baker is the only bakery in WA to mill its own flour, another product of that Copenhagen trip.
Neither the wheat nor the mill were economic decisions.
Mr Taylor made it clear he could likely save a pretty penny and plenty of time by doing things the simple way but the popularity of the store showed the gamble had paid off.
“It is a really beautiful smell that comes off the wheat when it is going through the sifter and being milled,” he said.
“Most people have never experienced what wheat smells like; it is actually quite a nice smell.
“It would be great to get it more cost competitive; I think it would just take an outlay to start with to bring that base price down.”
Mr Taylor said he was aware of another baker that was in the process of setting up a stone mill, which he said would be great for the Perth baking scene.
Back in Mollerin there are some good benefits to working directly with a baker.
“Now we won’t eat any other bread,” Ms Haggerty said.
“It is very rewarding, and it is just so encouraging to know we can buy some food that is nourishing for our bodies, because that’s pretty challenging to achieve out there a lot of the time.
“Our aim is to be able to produce more of our own food from the property and (Mark) has made it an opportunity we can really benefit from.”