Thinking they might use history to Daisy’s advantage, Poorbaugh and his colleagues wondered what the mill’s very first customers used to bake bread. “Before 1850, the hard wheat most of us use for bread really didn’t exist,” says Poorbaugh, 65. Hard wheat has a higher protein content, which helps to develop the gluten that’s crucial for high-rising, springy loaves. But hard wheat doesn’t grow well in the mid-Atlantic region’s temperate, moist climate.
“My uncle once told me that at least as late as the 1920s and early 1930s, his family took soft wheat grown on their farm to the local flour mill,” Poorbaugh said. “That was milled into flour for the farm kitchen. It was all they had for pancakes, muffins, cakes, bread and everything else.” Daisy’s bread flour, which is around 12 percent protein, is now milled from organic Midwestern hard wheat, while the local soft wheat becomes pastry flour with about 8 percent protein, ideal for flaky pie crust and tender biscuits.
“We have an agronomist on staff here, so in 2004 I put him to work researching what kind of wheat was grown in the Colonies,” Poorbaugh says. The agronomist discovered that some old varieties of soft wheat had as much as three percentage points more protein than the modern ones, enough to take a loaf of bread from leaden to ethereal. As scientists crossbred varieties to yield shorter stalks and easier-to-harvest seedheads, those old flours fell out of favor; most haven’t been planted commercially since the Eisenhower era.
Poorbaugh contacted the National Small Grains Collection, the USDA’s seed bank, and acquired a handful of seeds for 20 historic varieties. His seven-year roll of the dice was underway.
Planting started with the 10 varieties that seemed most promising. At first, there were so few seeds that Poorbaugh barely needed a farmer. “We only had a pinch of seed. I could’ve put it in my garden,” he chuckles. But his back yard isn’t certified organic, so he contracted the seed out to a farmer who was already growing wheat for Daisy Flour. Each year the yield increased, from a few square feet to a few acres, but until 2011 there wasn’t enough grain to both mill and save for seed.