March is National Flour Month, so we spent some time chatting with local producer Ben Penner of Ben Penner Farms. Penner has been farming in Minnesota since the fall of 2009, and grows alfalfa, hard red winter and spring wheat, and food-grade soybeans. All of his wheat and flour is certified organic by MOSA and is stone milled and packaged by a miller with 40 years of experience. Keep reading to learn more about Ben Penner Farms and read more about our local producers.
Tell us a little about your farm.
I currently farm 55 acres in three locations in Scott and LeSueur counties, growing Winter and Spring Wheat (both heritage and new varieties). I’m also the only grower of Turkey Red Winter Wheat in Minnesota.
Turkey Red is a heritage variety that was hand-selected and brought to Central Kansas in a trunk or large suitcase in 1874 by Mennonites who were fleeing persecution in the Ukraine. I grew up as a Mennonite in that community and my relatives grew that variety well into the 1950s. Later in the 1960s, higher yielding Green Revolution varieties that were bred to grow shorter and produce higher yields were introduced, and Turkey Red became a fond memory for those in the community, though never forgotten. It is widely viewed as the variety that popularized large-scale Winter Wheat growing in the Midwest. A few years ago I heard that there was an interest in this variety in decided to grow it in Minnesota on an acre as an experiment in 2015. It grew very well. I have expanded my acreage every year, and now have 19 acres planted for the 2018 season.
What does “heritage variety” mean?
Heritage variety is a phrase that can have both cultural and scientific meaning—though not necessarily in equal measure. For wheat, it broadly means varieties that were adapted before the typically higher-yielding Green Revolution varieties were developed by Norman Borlaug in the 1960s. For Turkey Red, the variety has a specific cultural meaning which also includes its genetic variation and adaptation to the location where it is grown. In other words, the story of the Mennonites bringing it to North America in a trunk, and the fact that it was partly responsible for that particular group of people’s economic and social success on the Plains, means that is defined as having a heritage specific to a place.
The story is very compelling to me as a cultural touchstone, plus it has several benefits in the organic system that I use. First and foremost it is a very tall wheat, and therefore it out-competes the weeds that can easily be present in an organic system – it shades them out. It also has a different flavor than some of the newer wheats. I am still working to define the contours of those flavors, but it essentially an “earthy” or “light” aroma compared to some other varieties of spring wheat that I grow, which have more of a “red” or “sweet” flavor (specifically a newer variety that I grow, Forefront from the University of Minnesota).
What’s special about Ben Penner flour?
There are two main priorities that animate my farm—the first is that local food should not only be sustainable, but it should have exceptional flavor and freshness and be accessible to more people. We don’t buy wine, chocolate, or coffee by a generic flavor or as a utilitarian product – we want a particular flavor based upon variety, land and how it was grown. I think wheat and flour should be the same way and that bread and baked good lovers, no matter their economic situation, should be able to identify not only who grew the wheat for the bread they are eating and where they grew it, but they should also be able to tell how the different characteristics inherent in the land make the bread they are eating so flavorful. This will serve to make the eating pleasurable and nourishing. So, I am trying to develop flavor characteristics with my wheat that bakers and bread eaters can easily identify.
The second priority is that I believe we need more farmers on the land. That’s why I’ve started my own farm, which I hope to use as a platform for others to make the jump into agriculture. Eventually it should be normal for there to be local small grain farmers, millers, and bakers working together in a community. My mission is to inspire human flourishing through agriculture and help build a local agricultural economy that provides nourishing food and a sustainable livelihood for farmers at all scales of operation.
What’s coming next from Ben Penner Farms?
I am working with River Rock Kitchen & Baking Company in St. Peter, some other bakers, and my miller to develop an all-purpose flour that can be used in a larger quantities in bakery. I hope to brand and package this same flour for sale in stores. I have experimented with lentils and other pulse crops in the past and want to continue to develop the agronomic practices that will make using these environmentally-friendly crops viable in this part of Minnesota and an important part of my crop rotation.
Learn more about Pen Penner Farms:
- Farmer, miller, baker, maker: Baker’s Field Flour & Bread and the future of a local grain economy
- Kansas heritage grows on Ben Penner’s Minnesota farm
This interview has been edited and condensed from its original version.