A quiet revolution has been slowly taking place on the Vineyard, something that is perhaps of great importance and could do exciting things for the Island. It involves the introduction of locally-grown Red Fife wheat into our Island food stream. Grown by Allen Healy and Dan Sternbach in West Tisbury, it represents a turn back to New England of the 1800s and the possibility of more nutrient-rich wheat, grown in ways that are more sustaining of soil for the Island.

Along with some other Island bakers, I have begun to work with Red Fife wheat in my community-supported bread business. Like any new flour, there is a learning curve involved in order to make good bread, but many of my bread eaters have been enthusiastic about it.

I have always been told in baking classes that the hard red winter wheat grown in the Grain Belt (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas) is best for bread, and that in order to grow it successfully, you need to plant it in the fall, have it winter over with snow cover, let it grow more in the spring and then harvest it. This is the wheat used for most of the bread we eat. It is true that hard red winter wheat makes for very good bread and allows bakers to make a consistently good product.

What I was interested to learn over the last year or two is that different varieties of wheat were grown in New England and other parts of the East before hard red winter wheat was introduced. In the 1840s there was one grist mill per 700 Americans. Wheat was grown and stone ground locally. The flour had a shorter shelf life because when you stone grind, the germ is crushed and the oils in the germ will make the flour go rancid over time. But since the wheat was being grown and consumed locally, spoilage was not such a big issue. The flour made from this wheat was not as consistent as the flour we use today, but people adjusted their doughs accordingly so as to make good bread.

Things began to change when the Erie Canal opened in 1825 and the railroads were extended. This opened up the Midwest where the topsoil was much deeper and there were bigger spaces to grow grain. Prairie topsoil was 12 feet deep, as opposed to our topsoil being six inches deep!

Further inventions moved us toward where we are today. In 1830 the combine was invented to harvest, thresh and clean wheat kernels, and in 1837 John Deere invented a plow that could cut through deep prairie grass roots.

Most significant of all was the invention of the steel roller mill in the late 1800s. Unlike the stone-ground method, this mill was able to separate the endosperm (what white flour is made of) from the germ and the bran and thus was able to make white flour. Because it does not have the germ, white flour has a much longer shelf life and can be transported over long distances. Finally, because the climate of the Grain Belt is different from that of New England — harsher weather and less rain — hard red winter wheat was introduced in the 1870s, a variety better suited to that climate.

Today there are 60 million acres of farmland devoted to growing wheat in the Grain Belt. It is grown primarily as a monoculture, whether conventionally or organically, which is efficient from the point of view of big agricultural businesses but not so healthy for the soil or perhaps humans. Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute, said: “We didn’t just replace the deep root system of perennials with puny annuals. We replaced the prairie’s ecosystem, one of the most diverse in the world, with 56 million acres of monoculture.” The Dust Bowl was one of the consequences of this mistreatment of soil.

Parallel to the development of more efficient ways to grow wheat has been the streamlining of bread production. Greater amounts of yeast and decreased production time have led to our eating less nutrient-dense bread. Milling processes by some companies include separating the germ and bran from the endosperm and then only putting a portion of those back, even for flour labeled as whole wheat. These are just a couple of the issues that have changed the way we experience leavened bread, a staple of our diets for the last 6,000 years.

The artisan bread movement has begun to change the way we eat and think about bread. Breads using natural leaveners or smaller amounts of yeast — both of which require longer rising times — are now available. Dan and Allen’s flour increases our opportunity to eat good bread by giving us the chance to eat bread from flour that was grown locally by more sustainable methods.

So where do we go from here? First would be to support the local wheat movement. Buy the flour or wheat berries at Mermaid Dairy to try them yourself, or buy bread from local bakers who are using the Vineyard Red Fife flour.

A next step might be to follow in the footsteps of the Greenmarket’s Regional Grains Project, a part of the nonprofit GrowNYC. Greenmarket now requires bakers to use a minimum of 15 per cent local grain — grown and milled in the region — in baked goods sold at one of the 54 New York City farmer’s markets. This action has supported and spurred on the efforts of farmers and millers in upstate New York to grow and find markets for local wheat.

A third step might be to support Dan and Allen by establishing a local mill on the Vineyard. Through community efforts, Skowhegan, Me., has converted a three-story brick jail into the Somerset Grist Mill and related businesses, again encouraging the local wheat production slowly taking hold in that region.

Finally, supporting sustainable soil practices will make both the soil and our food more healthy, and also helps in the effort to combat climate change. I was interested to learn that when good land management is practiced, it creates carbon in the soil and also removes CO2 from the atmosphere. This process absorbs CO2 molecules that would otherwise be in the atmosphere for 100 years. In concert with renewable energy and energy efficiency practices which help reduce the amount of CO2 we add into the atmosphere, we thus work at climate change from both angles. What an exciting thing!

I do not claim to be an expert on any of the above and recommend the following books for further reading: The Third Plate by Dan Barber, The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson, Cooked by Michael Pollan, The New Bread Basket by Amy Halloran, and Bread is Broken (New York Times, Oct. 29, 2015).

Kate Warner is a West Tisbury architect and founder of the Vineyard Energy Project and the Vineyard Bread Project, vineyardbreadproject.com.