Seven peeling silos planted at the foot of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, Ariz., just east of Phoenix, mark the defunct Hayden Flour Mill. Established in 1874 by city founder and frontier trader Charles Trumbull Hayden, the mill helped sustain territorial Arizona. Hayden bought wheat from Pima and Maricopa Indians, established a network of trading posts, fed pioneer miners and made its Arizona Rose flour a staple of kitchens statewide. It was sold in 1981 to Bay State Milling, which closed the mill in 1998 because it consolidated state operations in Tolleson, 20 miles west. Today, as the city courts developers, windows in the old mill weep rust.
Then, as now, Arizona had an ideal climate for wheat — winters are just damp enough, and it’s parch-dry at harvest. The state remains a major exporter of durum wheat, largely shipped to Italy for use in pasta. But it was also ideal for growing White Sonora wheat, a desert-adapted variety introduced by 17th-century Jesuits keen to raise a white flour for Communion wafers. (The wheat variety later led to the wonderful world of flour tortillas, including burritos.) But by 1975, hybridized wheat bred for greater yields in the mid-20th century had swept White Sonora aside. Only the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix continued to grow it locally, and it was later inventoried by the indigenous seed bank Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Ariz., for some indefinite brighter day.
Dawn broke in 2009 when Jeff Zimmerman, a curiously determined high-tech quality manager from Tempe with no experience in milling or baking began wondering what happened to all the flour made in Arizona. “I was more concerned about sources of food and the flavor. I thought, ‘Are we missing out on something here? Could a loaf of bread made with heritage grains taste just as good or better than a loaf made with industrial flour?’ ” Zimmerman, often described as a fast talker, actually speaks quite clearly and passionately — and in such a persuasive manner that he managed to convince the Hayden family to let him use the old mill name. Then he turned his charm on the farmers.
To convince a farmer to grow any crop today, you talk yield. In the case of heritage grains, the yields are a fraction of modern-bread wheat; White Sonora delivers about a third of standard grain. To compensate, the mill decided to pay three times more for it.
“No one wanted to take a chance with an unproven variety, but 30 acres wouldn’t make or break me,” says Steve Sossaman, a fifth-generation farmer on an original 1916 Arizona homestead (now south-suburban Queen Creek). “Growing alfalfa is easy. Growing local wheat, that’s fun. It’s a bigger story.”
Like many people in the grain movement, the farmer believes preindustrial foods are more nutritious than modern varieties. Wheat itself emerged in an area known as the Fertile Crescent between the Nile and Tigris rivers about 9,000 years ago and spread with Western civilization. Developed in the 1960s to address hunger in developing countries, modern wheat crossed ancient breeds with sturdy, short grains to withstand pesticides and increase yield. Zimmerman saw the consequences of crossbreeding firsthand. He grew up on a North Dakota farm and remembers his father switching to the high-yield variety.