Drive up the Salt Point Turnpike and you might never know that you’ve entered Clinton Corners, NY. There’s no Main Street; the only roadside joint is Wild Hive Café, housed in what used to be the town’s general store.
Wild Hive is far more than a café. It’s a restaurant, a bakery, a food store, and a retail distributor of the grains and flours processed at the mill down the road. When I arrived to meet Wild Hive’s owner Don Lewis, easels were set up at a back table, and a teacher was instructing four adult students on painting rural landscapes, giving you the sense that the café’s also the town’s unofficial community center.
Don’s a busy man, and for good reason. Twelve years ago, quixotically, he and the farmer Alton Earnhart decided to start growing grains for human consumption in the Hudson Valley. Grain production for people had long since disappeared from the region. In the 19th century, after the building of the Erie Canal, Hudson Valley farmers migrated westward and discovered superior soils and a friendlier climate for growing grains. The millers followed the farmers. By the 20th century, the Midwest had become the country’s breadbasket.
Don and Alton had the crazy notion to grow wheat in the Hudson Valley — in part to prove that you could, and because they both knew that bread baked from local grain simply tasted better. But the idea was also grander. Don wanted to bring grain production back to the Hudson Valley to recreate the kind of food economy he was raised in.
The idea of eating locally sourced food has become a staple of urban chic, but long before urbanites made it hip, all people living in the countryside were locavores. Don grew up in the country, where his father was a chicken-farmer-turned-restaurant-owner. Don remembers that everything on the menu at his dad’s place was produced locally: not as a point of pride, but simply because that’s where food came from. Customers knew who grew the food, who cooked it, who sold it to them. That was just how it was.
For the past twelve years, Don has been trying to restore that kind of a food economy to the Hudson Valley, starting with our most essential staple – bread. But he couldn’t make bread from local grains if farmers didn’t grow it, and farmers couldn’t afford to grow it unless there was sufficient demand for it. Don’s vision of a food economy based in local grains began with good old-fashioned huckstering: he’d show up at farmers’ markets and demand that person after person try his bread and taste the difference. He eventually built a mobile hearth, which he still drags to farmers’ markets and county fairs as a hook to get people interested in his bread; when he’s lured them in with tasty loaves, he pitches interested folks about his larger mission: building an entire network of industries serving the production of local food.
Why does eating bread made with local wheat matter so much? When grain production moved to the Midwest, more than its location changed. Grain production became agribusiness, which meant farmers started changing the criteria for the varieties of grains they grew. Farmers began choosing varieties of grain not for taste or nutritiousness, but for how easily the crop could be processed and shipped in mass quantities. Flour lost its nutrient density and its local flavor. We got Wonder Bread: cheap, abundant, every loaf precisely the same shape, color and flavor. In other words, a bread that put the producer’s system ahead of the consumer’s well-being.
Don’s gamble is that enough people will dig his bread (and his cinnamon rolls, samosas and biscuits) and flour that they’ll begin to care about his broader concern of building a local food economy. As more folks seek out Don’s product, farmers will have reason to grow the grains he processes and bakes with, millers will be able to open more mills, and a workforce of packagers, shippers and associated industries will grow out of tending the local soils. For many bakers, the bread is the thing; for Don, loaves of bread are building blocks of a different way of life, collapsing the distance between producer and consumer. As he so eloquently puts it, “It’s developing a taste for one’s own neighborhood.”
At the end of a long day of shooting with Don, I landed inside Wild Hive, where families were crowded around big wooden tables for a locally-sourced banquet. There was no menu that evening. When customers arrived, waiters simply counted the numbers at the table, then carried out plates of chicken and salads and, of course, mounds of sliced bread to accommodate the size of the party. It was the tail-end of the summer harvest, so the platters held a dazzling array of aromas and colors. It was the kind of meal that felt timeless, but at the same time, a rare commodity these days. It was the kind of meal Don’s dad had served, and with any luck, his children might get to enjoy too.
David Sampliner is currently making an autobiographical film called My Own Man , which chronicles the idea of 21st century manhood. He also writes and produces non-fiction television shows. He lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.