Throughout modern history, warning signs of food instability have centered around the price of flour. Most recently, we’ve seen the price skyrocket due in part to shortages caused by the war in Ukraine, a global wheat supplier, and extreme-weather-related crop woes in America’s largest wheat-producing states.
For folks like Jennifer Lapidus, though, these kinds of crises provide opportunities for local entrepreneurs to step in and create more sustainable, less volatile foodways.
That’s what inspired Lapidus to develop Carolina Ground, a regional mill that produces flour made with certified organic grain largely grown right here in the Carolinas.
“Carolina Ground was a response to a number of factors,” she says. “It started in 2008, with the economic crisis. There was a rush on commodities and the price of wheat increased by as much as 130 percent. It came down hard on the bakers’ community.
“It was a worldwide crisis that had less to do with what was going on in the field or environment and more to do with hedging commodities markets; it was artificial pricing,” she clarifies.
“I was a baker then,” she says, “and it became really clear how disconnected we were from our most essential ingredient. … At the same time, there was a wheat breeder in Raleigh who had come from Texas, and he was releasing his first varieties of bread wheats.”
Lapidus explains: “Hard wheats are usually grown west of Kansas, in what’s known as the Bread Basket [region]. … Those varieties don’t usually do well in our humid environment, but he’d started breeding for regional adaptation in the early 2000s, so by 2008, the first of those varieties were being released.”
Lapidus was invited to a gathering to test the elite stock from those breeds, and she found that they held up. “It was just this amazing moment and timing where bakers were willing to reconsider this flour that they were importing from 1,000 miles away and had no relationship with, and no idea who actually grew it, to buy something regional instead.”
And thus came a resurgence in regional milling and in regional grains. In her narrative cookbook Southern Ground: Reclaiming Flavor Through Stone-Milled Flour, released last year, Lapidus says she “gives some direction as to how to work with stone-ground flour, which is a lot different than regular flour. … It’s a snapshot of what’s going on in the South.”
Carolina Ground spent their first 10 years producing in a small, windowless building in West Asheville. But when the lease came up for renewal in 2020, Lapidus reconsidered.
“The store shelves were emptying and we got overwhelmed with orders on our online retail store. We quickly pivoted to be able to manage online sales — we were used to getting a few orders a week, and suddenly we were getting 100 a day. We were simply running out of space.”
While the pandemic wrought havoc on most businesses, certain elements helped springboard Carolina Ground. Generous loans and the surge in demand gave them the opportunity to drastically upgrade their flour mill and find a new location. “I found this building in Hendersonville that was a really perfect fit,” says Lapidus.
So the crew moved to the 8,000-square-foot structure, which previously housed a girl’s-school gymnasium. The new space afforded them room for more equipment and a kitchen for recipe testing. Slowly turning it into a destination, they built a walking path and planted a garden with fruit trees.
Lapidus hopes to eventually host formal workshops, but in the meantime, popups have proved lucrative: “We invite bakers who use our product to sell baked goods, and we sell flour.” Carolina Ground flour is also sold in person at the Hendersonville Community Co-op and at the French Broad Food Co-Op in Asheville.
“We spent ten years learning how to do what we do. So it’s nice to have a space now that isn’t just driven for production purposes, but is something that can actually interact with the public and draw in the community,”
Carolina Ground, 1237 Shipp St., Hendersonville. The company’s next popup market, offering flour, baked goods and other goodies, happens on Sunday, November 6, 11am-2pm. For more information, or to order online, visit carolinaground.com.