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Carolina Ground Launches New Mill in Asheville

Story and photos by Tim W. Jackson

Buy Local has long been a mantra around here, and an innovative project is helping area bakers to get one of their primary ingredients from a local mill. A couple of things came together to make this new mill possible.

One is the creation of a space for the mill, which came through the expansion of Annie’s Naturally Bakery. Well-known in Sylva, owners Joe and Annie Ritotta decided to expand their operation with a wholesale and production facility at the former Square D plant at Bingham Road in Asheville. With 21,000 square feet, the facility had room for a mill. And thus Carolina Ground, L3C, was created.

The second was that, in 2008, the price of wheat spiked for myriad reasons, including the drought in Australia and the floods in Northern Europe. But the situation was made much more complicated with investor speculation along with the lowering of interest rates, decreasing value of the dollar, and other factors. The bottom line is that there was a groundswell of interest in connecting the farmer, miller, and baker locally.

This resulted in the formation of the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project (NCOBFP), an effort to combine the strength, ideas, and resources of North Carolina farmers, millers, and bakers. Its mission is to provide a viable, sustainable economic market for organic hard and soft wheat and other small grains.

And from that, Carolina Ground was formed as a mill which will grind regionally grown wheat and supply it to local bakers. Annie’s Naturally is obviously a part of this co-op, but other bakeries are also getting involved: Farm and Sparrow, Flat Rock Village Bakery, LoafChild, Wake Robin Breads, West End Bakery, and Wildfl ower Bakery.

Baker and NCOBFP coordinator Jennifer Lapidus says the Carolina Ground dream gained momentum when the bakers sampled the wheat coming off the trial plots.

“Once the bakeries realized this was totally possible in terms of the bread wheat’s performance in the bakery,” says Jennifer, “we got down to the business of how to actually make this happen. I asked the bakers where they thought a mill should be located and they unanimously agreed that it should be located in the largest bakery’s facility. Annie’s had not yet secured a location for their wholesale facility, and so at that point they began to factor the mill into the equation.”

In the first year, the mill will be working with a small handful of farms across North Carolina. A large portion of the grain is coming from Looking Back Farms, Inc., in Tyner, which is in the eastern part of the state. The Hofners Dairy, in the Western Piedmont, grows Appalachian White—a variety of (hard) white bread wheat. Hilltop Farm, in the Triangle region, is also growing grains. And Jennifer says the mill may be bringing in some heritage grain from Tris Waystack in St. Mathews, South Carolina. “Grower John MacEntire of Peaceful Valley Farm in Old Fort is also growing grain, but specifically for Farm and Sparrow Breads,” Jennifer says.

She adds that right now seed is being planted for the next year’s crop. (Wheat is planted in fall and harvested in early summer.) Jennifer says, “We will have grain growing in eastern North Carolina, as well as in the Sandhills, and two farms in the Western Piedmont.”

Getting back to that local idea, you might wonder how all this fits together.

“We hope that it means financial security for both the grower and the baker,” Jennifer says, “allowing us to exist apart from the global pressures of commodity pricing. We also hope it is going to make better bakers out of us, because we will not be the standard mill that ‘blends to spec.’ We will have a fresher product, which will hopefully inspire the baker to showcase these local flours.”

Jennifer says she hopes to see more rustic pastries. “Our mill will be producing stone-ground whole grain and sifted flour,” she adds.

“What this is going to mean in terms of fl avor and locality (each baker’s interpretation) is still to be determined, but I see a lot of promise for some truly distinctly local products coming our way.”

To learn more, visit their Facebook page (Carolina-Ground-L3C).