Oh, Yeah! farmer Chris Petry fights the gluten-intolerance trend by educating bread lovers about the health benefits of whole grain.
STORY BY LAUREN ADAM
PHOTOS BY BROOKE FITTS
At the base of the Cascade Mountain Range, organic farmer Chris Petry is racing the sun on his East-facing Oh Yeah! Farms. By 11 a.m., he heads to Dan’s Homefires Bakery in Leavenworth to start baking whole-grain sourdough bread — a process that spans from planting to harvesting and, later, milling small-batch wheat to produce fresh whole-grain flour. While the endeavor started with the desire to provide locally sourced nutrients to the community through all seasons, it’s now a crusade to teach people about whole grain and encourage a re-examination of the gluten intolerance trend.
“I’m pro-gluten,” Chris says. He coined the phrase “gluten tolerant” after educating farmers market patrons about the health benefits of whole grain. Now, he wears it proudly as a T-shirt slogan.
With the first bread dating back to 8000 B.C., Chris elaborates on its importance to human evolution and survival. “We originally started consuming this food thousands of years ago. Most all civilizations which rose from a small group to large civilization revolved around communally harvesting wheat, milling it, and turning it into bread. Armies marched with bread. Where was the gluten intolerance then?”
Between his passion for farming and teaching, it’s hard to tell that Oh Yeah! Farms and small-batch grain production wasn’t always part of the plan for Chris. Early on, Chris had ambitions to lead treks as a mountain guide. When that seasonal work fell through, he landed a farming apprenticeship with Grant Gibbs. Grant, the owner of Gibbs Organic Farm, Tilth Organization’s first Farmer of the Year, and the 68th certified organic farmer in Washington State, mentored Chris for three years before a friend connected Chris with the owners of a Leavenworth bed-and-breakfast called Haus Rohrbach Pension. Chris hit it off with them immediately and leased his own plot of farmland on the property with a handshake deal.
It’s because of a continued partnership with Grant that Chris has diversified his vegetable crops to include grain — a rarity among small-batch producers. “He’s the only reason I started growing grain,” says Chris. “I would have never been able to grow grain at all. I didn’t even have a tractor when I first started.” The success of the crop allows Chris to sell whole-grain products at three Seattle farmers markets, along with his wide selection of produce including eggplant, kale, garlic, and ginger.
As a certified organic farmer, member of the Tilth Alliance, and board of directors member for the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, Chris has had plenty of practice speaking about whole grain and its health benefits. In his tutorial, he explains the parts of the grain. The bran is the shell covering the wheat kernel, and it has healthy fibers. The biggest part is the starchy endosperm, which is the visible white part. Inside that is the germ that will sprout new wheat plants. The germ is nutrient-rich with amino acids, fatty acids, lipids, and trace minerals. “Wheat grain by itself is a super food,” says Chris. “That’s why people can live off bread.”
The problem is that the oils and the fibers in grain can go rancid when the fat molecules breakdown—a process that is expedited by air, light, and heat. As a result, the current commercial industry to sifts out nutrients to make the flour shelf stable. Chris has to clarify this phenomenon to market-goers all the time. “I say, ‘Take this carrot here. I’m going to sell you this carrot, but first I’m going to take all the fiber out of it, all the nutrients out of it, enrich it with who knows what, and then sell you the carrot. Would you want to buy that carrot? No.’ But that’s what wheat is, and people don’t know that. It’s this blind eye because it’s such a conventional, huge, commercial operation.”
There’s also the debate on the health effects of glyphosate (such as Roundup), which might be used on wheat in the United States prior to harvest. The glyphosate desiccates the wheat, killing the plants to accelerate the production. As the wheat is dying, it is trying to reproduce which increases yield. The practice makes the harvest both easier and more profitable. According to Chris, this is all part of what’s creating claims of gluten intolerance. “So now, the grain is soaked in chemicals, the flour is highly processed, and who knows how old it is? Are you telling me that’s not messing with people’s guts?”
Between Chris and Grant, the partners plant the wheat, harvest it, and put it through a seed cleaner. Chris mills the whole grain the day before baking his Oh Yeah! Farms sourdough bread, a recipe that includes four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and sourdough culture. Chris feeds the sourdough culture with flour and water before using it so that the bacteria is as active as possible. During the fermentation process, the cultures and bacteria digest the glucose. The longer the sourdough ferments, the more broken down the dough becomes –– and the better for your gut.
“Until recently, our civilization ate bread using the sourdough method. There was no commercial yeast; it didn’t exist, and they didn’t have the machinery,” Chris says, sharing how long the sourdough method has sustained our culture. “We shouldn’t be using fast-acting yeast; we shouldn’t be adding gluten. We should take it whole grain, we should mill it whole grain, and we should eat it whole grain. It’s a super food, and people should be eating it. It’s one of the most important foods on the planet.”
Chris has a 12-hour ferment on the Oh Yeah! Farms sourdough, but he wants to experiment with a longer time span. Once the sourdough is ready, he bakes the bread in town, lets it cool, and then slices around 70 loaves for the markets on the weekend. He sells his sourdough starter, fresh-milled whole-grain flour, and whole-grain sourdough bread. Because Chris mills the grain whole and nothing gets removed, the flour needs to be refrigerated to stay fresh and will last about three months. If it won’t be used within three months, he recommends freezing it.
Chris’s goals include sourdough everything. “In the beginning, I had very little experience, very little help, and very little equipment — it was a big deal for me to learn to ‘back it up, let’s focus on some big tasks each year.’” This year, he wants to build a wood-fire bakery and become even more well-known for being a farmer who makes whole-grain sourdough from start to finish.
Lauren is a freelance writer with roots in Seattle. She loves the misadventures of travel, trying new food, hip-hop yoga, and her cat.