Hayden Flour Mills Helps Restore ‘White Sonora’ Wheat to the Desert Southwest

An heirloom wheat revival is grinding its way through Arizona, and the star of the show is the drought-tolerant wheat cultivar named ‘White Sonora.’

| Fall 2016

A century ago, you could have walked into a wheat field in southern Arizona and disappeared. In those days, the popular wheat in the Gila River Valley was ‘White Sonora.’ Freakishly tall compared with modern wheats, ‘White Sonora’ often towered 6 feet or more above the sandy soil. The plants shaded out weeds, resisted common diseases, needed little or no irrigation because of their deep roots, and produced abundant straw for livestock. The cultivar seemed a perfect fit for farmers in the Desert Southwest.

But when modern wheat flooded the market, farmers succumbed to the lure of doubled yields, even though the new cultivars also required irrigation and, later, herbicides to thrive. By the mid-1970s, ‘White Sonora’ had all but vanished from the fields of the Desert Southwest, and Arizona’s once-abundant flour mills had closed. The tasty heirloom flour made with ‘White Sonora’ berries also faded from the consciousness of consumers, who accepted the new normal — commercial flour of average quality, ground at out-of-state mills from a mix of wheat cultivars.

Hayden Flour Mills’ Grand Opening

This was the situation in 2011, when Jeff Zimmerman had a personal epiphany: He loved good bread but couldn’t find local flour to make tasty loaves. Zimmerman’s solution was to open Hayden Flour Mills, borrowing the name from an historic Tempe business. (The original Hayden Flour Mill operated in the late 19th century, one of about 40 Arizona mills at the time.) Zimmerman planned a vertically integrated business — one that grew the grain, milled the flour, and shipped the product.

The heart of Zimmerman’s milling passion has always been heirloom grains. He compares commercially made flours to MP3 audio files — compressed versions that are mere imitations of the original music. By contrast, he says tasting bread made from heirloom flour is like listening to a concert in person. “These cultivars are the full expression of the grain’s genetics. They’ve got more flavor and better nutrition than any modern wheat.”

One of the earliest hurdles to getting Hayden Flour Mills up and running was finding heirloom grain. Most local farmers weren’t willing to give up land they’d dedicated to high-yielding modern wheat. So, Zimmerman got in touch with Steve Sossaman, whose family has been farming in Arizona since 1919, and Sossaman committed 30 acres to the project. As a grateful Zimmerman puts it, “Steve was willing to lose money for five years to get things started.”

Hayden Flour Mills received its first heirloom wheat seed — 1,000 pounds of ‘White Sonora’ — in 2011. The entire half-ton was donated by Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills of Columbia, South Carolina. Instead of being leery of a potential competitor (Anson Mills also grinds and sells heirloom grains), Roberts hoped to feed a revival in heirloom grains that would benefit everyone.

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