Richard Knapp's Quixotic Dream

On a hot June morning, the summer sky was clear and still. Puffy clouds hung languidly on an azure background, like giant, listless parade balloons. Richard Knapp had left his shiny Mini Cooper in the driveway, favoring his dusty, dinged-up Subaru wagon to pick up his son, Oliver Knapp, and Gerald Crow. The first stop was a residential treatment center where Ollie, as his father calls him, lived. Down the street, Crow waited in his lived-in truck outside St. Francis House, a homeless shelter where he sometimes stayed.

“Hot damn, about time!” Crow exclaimed, as he snapped up from his supine position and bounded out of the truck’s cab. Knapp had enlisted both men to work a patch of land 11 miles southwest of his home in Columbia, Mo. It’s only 5.44 acres, a gentleman’s farm of sorts, except Knapp has big plans for the all-silt Missouri River bottomland.

It was an interesting crew: two men working through their troubled pasts, each on a new path. For Knapp, hiring Ollie and Crow, who some might consider liabilities, merely exemplified his belief in the healing power of “righteous work,” as he called it. “We have to get together to heal the problems,” Knapp said, matter-of-factly. “I am confident in the basic goodness and intelligence of ordinary people.”

In 2011, shortly after cashing in his retirement savings, Knapp bought the land and quickly fashioned it into something of a real farm. He designed and, with the help of friends and family, built a beauty of a barn, complete with a distinctive gambrel roof, a greenhouse and a cold storage room to hold grain. He bought a 1940s Ferguson tractor on Craigslist. He planted vegetables. And on 1 acre, as an experiment, he planted wheat. “I might call it Easy Digging Farm, but I don’t want to give folks the wrong idea,” Knapp said. “It hasn’t been all that easy so far.”

What hasn’t been all that easy is Knapp’s desire to do what is nearly impossible in Missouri: Grow organic hard red winter wheat for bread flour to mill and distribute locally. For those who didn’t major in agriculture, wheat is categorized by three basic characteristics: soft or hard, red or white, and spring or winter. Soft wheat is lower in gluten-producing protein, and its flour is preferred for pastries, cakes and cookies; whereas, hard wheat (bread wheat) is prized for its high gluten-producing protein, which gives bread its body, elasticity, heft and chew. Red wheat has an earthier, more robust flavor than white, while spring wheat is planted in the spring, and winter wheat is planted in the fall.

If Knapp’s enterprising spirit doesn’t strike you as a big deal, consider this: Hard red winter (HRW) wheat is not grown in Missouri on any commercially viable scale. In fact, a USDA report shows that of the 39 million bushels of Missouri wheat harvested in 2012, only 2 percent was HRW wheat; it prefers the dryer climate of the Great Plains states stretching from Texas to North Dakota. Making a living growing HRW wheat in Missouri is the agricultural equivalent of selling motorcycles in Alaska … in the winter … when it’s negative 60 degrees. Throw in the fact that Knapp wants that wheat to be organic, and visions of windmills and Don Quixote emerge.

Knapp is not a farmer, at least not in the typical sense. Although he grew up on a fruit farm in upstate New York, he didn’t begin tilling the land until after retirement. But he is an avid home baker, so much so that he built a wood-fired brick oven in his house, a skill he parlayed into a small oven building and consulting business. His love of baking whole grain, naturally leavened breads sparked his interest in growing hard wheat, but what turned interest into passion was the realization that there was an utter void in locally sourced organic bread flour.

For Missouri farmers, soft red winter (SRW) wheat is the real cash cow. Since 1970, Missouri has ranked in the top five states growing SRW wheat. It thrives in our high humidity, and farmers love its abundant yields; yet, even if Knapp wanted Missouri SRW wheat (which he doesn’t for his bread making), most of it is exported out of state – a reality Knapp finds disconcerting.

In an age when mechanization allows most everything associated with making bread to be untouched by human hands until we unwrap a loaf, grab a slice and slather on the PB&J, Knapp sees local wheat production, milling and distribution as the key to food sovereignty. He wants to produce wheat not as a commodity to be traded on the Kansas City Board of Trade and exported worldwide, but as a sustainable crop for local consumption. Kind of like it used to be. “The food security aspect of producing local food, including wheat, associated with the rising cost of fuel and the whole network of people that it takes just to produce something as basic as bread … it’s quite a complicated picture,” Knapp said.

Margot McMillen agrees. McMillen, of Terra Bella Farm in nearby Auxvasse, is an advocate for local foods, identifying herself as a locavore long before the word even came into fashion. She and a few farmers started the Missouri Grain Project in 2007 as a way to keep some of Missouri’s wheat at home. The agreement was that the farmers would grow the wheat, and McMillen would get it milled and then distribute the flour locally. “I just thought, ‘OK, all we need to do is start growing bread wheat [hard wheat],’” she said. But McMillen brokers mostly soft winter wheat from local farmers. “I had a farmer try hard red winter wheat in 2009, and he had a terrible experience.” Same for 2010. “It must be pretty much weather related,” she said. Protein is the key to making bread – the glue (gluten) that gives dough its strength and makes it hold up to high hydration. Hard red winter wheat that is between 11.5-percent and 12.5 percent protein is the most desired. This year McMillen worked with a mid-Missouri grower with some success. “It has been bountiful, but we don’t know the protein content yet,” she said.

Knapp decided he wanted to do something similar to McMillen’s grain project, except only focus on organic HRW wheat. Before he began though, he knew that if he was going to be commercially successful, even on the smallest scale, he couldn’t do it alone on his postage-stamp-size farm. He needed more land and like-minded, organic farmers willing to take a risk.

On that June day, a Toyota Corolla spewed blue exhaust as it limped up the gravel road leading to Knapp’s not-so-easy-digging farm. Paul Lehmann extracted himself from the driver’s seat. Lehmann, 63, is a tall man with the quiet disposition of a minister, which he was for 34 years in the United Church of Christ. He jimmied open the hood and calmly examined the engine. Knapp ambled over. We all stared at the hot engine, offering theories. After determining that oil had flooded the spark plug chambers, Lehmann removed the plugs and shoved cloth in to soak up the oil, seemingly unconcerned; Knapp and Lehmann are no strangers to small setbacks.

The two men have known each other about four years. Knapp was part of a small network of central Missouri farmers interested in food and farming. “A woman was organizing a work party to help Paul harvest beans by hand, and I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting,’” Knapp said, describing how he and Lehmann met. Both follow organic farming practices. (Lehmann owns a much larger farm in Fayette, about 25 miles northwest of Columbia, and he’s an independent inspector for an organic certification company.) Both have a populist, limited government bent: Lehmann is a progressive libertarian; Knapp is a communitarian. (They would make good survivalists, only without the guns and underground shelter filled with supplies.) Both are given to wearing wide-brimmed straw hats. Both are bachelor farmers, but as Lehmann pointed out, without a hint of irony, “Bachelor farmers aren’t looking. We continue to look.”

When Knapp first approached Lehmann, the initial deal was that Knapp would share the costs of production to use Lehmann’s land to plant rye, barley and a lot of HRW wheat. When Knapp asked about using 4 acres, Lehmann offered 30. “I suddenly found myself in the grain business at a much larger scale than the little experiment I had originally planned,” Knapp wrote on his blog, Knapp’s writing has the straightforward narrative and contemplative feel of Annie Dillard’s classic Walden-esque Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. He wrote, “Anticipating a yield much larger than I could use myself, I began to think of how I could sell it, and at some point it occurred to me that flour would be much easier to sell than wheat berries, so I started looking into purchasing a mill and some land to build a mill and warehouse building.” He bought a seed cleaner and an old 24-inch Meadows belt-driven stone mill with the aim to create a market for local growers and a supply of flour for local bakers and farmers markets, where he envisioned making vegan pancakes.

Yet, there were problems that Knapp’s dreams just couldn’t solve. First was the ordeal of getting 3 tons of organic seed from north-central Kansas back to Lehmann’s farm in a pickup and a trailer (blown tire, late nights). The tractors were on the fritz. Winter wheat needs to be planted early in the fall if the yield is to be high by harvest the following summer, and it was getting late. When Lehmann got the grain in the ground in early November, there wasn’t enough time for the roots to grow long enough to survive the cold of the winter. The harvest the following July was lousy, with only 3 bushels of rye and 60 of winter wheat, and the wheat measured weak in protein. Knapp’s business partnership with Lehmann has since dissolved, yet the two remain good friends, as evidenced by Lehmann’s visit to the farm to talk about their plans of the past, present and future. “There’s a glitch between the farmer and consumer, and Richard would fill that gap,” said Lehmann, affirming his faith in Knapp’s vision.

Knapp is wiry, his body appearing far younger than his 70 years. Even his white Fu Manchu mustache belies his age. He comes across as soft-spoken – meditative, almost – with a calming presence and cadence, like a patient father would be with a small child. You would not be surprised to discover that he studied Eastern philosophy or that he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Knapp is a vegetarian and a self-described anarchist, a term that conjures up images of bearded Eastern European men lobbing round bombs at fat capitalists or scraggly punks smashing storefront windows. Knapp’s interest in anarchism is rooted not in violence, but in the writings of Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political activist whose philosophy is more about organizing society away from authority than overthrowing governments. Knapp is new to Chomsky but not to the idea that people are truly free when they have control over their work and the enterprises in which they work. “[Chomsky] gave me the word that defined what I’ve felt and believed for many years,” he said.

The issues of control and authority figure heavily in the production of wheat. In his latest book, Cooked, food activist and journalist Michael Pollan writes: “The white flour industrial complex so completely dominates the food landscape … that to wish for anything substantially different seems, well, wishful and nostalgic.”

Supply and demand, crop versus commodity, local versus corporate production; these are all big, complex issues … all over bread. What is it about bread that drives people like Richard Knapp to go against the grain – in this case soft wheat – and take such risks? After all, it’s just water, salt, flour and yeast.

Pollan writes in his book, “Few things are as ordinary as a loaf of bread, yet the process by which it is made is extraordinary – and still something of a mystery even to those who study it or practice it every day.” That’s certainly true for Ted Wilson, a St. Louis baker trying to get his own bakery, Loafers, off the ground. “I’ve never really been able to explain it, but it grabs me every day,” Wilson said. “I know I love the alchemy. You take this white stuff and add a little water and salt and let it go. It has its own life force.” And if Wilson had a steady supply of Knapp’s HRW wheat flour? “It would be the primary ingredient of all my breads,” Wilson said. “To have something like that driven by such a passionate person would be exciting as hell. It would be incredible.”

Josh Allen, owner of Companion, agreed. He has spoken to Knapp about supplying winter wheat, but due to the sheer volume needed to supply St. Louis’ largest independent craft bread bakery, most of Companion’s hard wheat comes by the truckload from a co-op mill in western Kansas. But Allen likes to use local as much as possible. Even if Knapp could supply a small amount of Missouri flour, Allen envisions lots of possibilities. “We’d like to do a fun bread, like a limited-edition bread for our outlet or for a farmers market,” he said. He thinks chefs and restaurants could brand their own breads as a “simple and good way” to support and promote local.

Among the original group of like-minded farmers who Knapp contacted about growing HRW wheat, only one farmer’s harvest showed a high enough protein content. Knapp has about 208 bushels of it in cold storage. Knapp’s 1-acre experiment also showed good protein and yielded 15 bushels, but this is just a fraction of the 55 bushels of non-organically grown SRW wheat Missouri farmers usually average per acre. Knapp still wants to buy wheat from organic farmers in the area to mill and distribute, but he’s unsure if the project can work with such low volume. As it stands now, those 223 bushels in cold storage would make only about 12,500 pounds of flour. Companion goes through nearly 8,000 pounds of wheat flour in one week.

We are a wheat culture, and wheat is big business in this country. Like all big systems, we are disassociated with most of the products we eat or use every day. Wilson said, “Without getting too much into the locavore thing, there is so much process involved with wheat, from the planting, thrashing, milling, that to be able to cut one step of that [distribution], it makes me feel better about locally sourced food.” McMillen related how in order to have a sustainable society, we must close that gap. “If we are to have food security in Missouri, we either have to grow our own wheat or make some monstrous changes,” she said. In different – and competitive – ways, she and Knapp are trying to figure out how to make it work. “It’s been a high learning curve,” she said. “I think Richard would agree.”

On Knapp’s farm, with Crow and Ollie working his garden in the distance, Knapp reaffirmed his conviction that growing organic HRW wheat in central Missouri can work. “It will come to fruition, one way or another,” he said. And if it fails? “No problem,” he said with the acceptance of a Buddhist. “I spent my time well.”

And with that, Richard Knapp waved at a lone deer galloping across the field.