When I started out blogging, I had no idea my life would look like what it does today. And I certainly had no idea my blog would bless me with such amazing opportunities. One of those opportunities was being invited to judge at the National Festival of Breads in Manhattan, Kansas. I know right now you’re probably saying, WHAT!? There’s a National Festival of Breads!? Yes, you read that right.
The Festival of Breads was established to celebrate the art of baking, encourage the use of Kansas products (like wheat), and recognize the Kansas wheat and milling industries. The Festival was originally a biennial contest open to Kansans. It encouraged the people of Kansas to “get back to their roots in their kitchens” to make special or family recipes.
In 2009, the contest was opened up to people across the country and the first National Festival of Breads baking contest was held. Now, people from across the country can submit recipes to the contest and enter a chance to win a trip to the National Festival of Breads where finalists will “live bake” their recipes during the Festival.
Super cool, right!?
When I learned about the Festival, I couldn’t wait to attend! I had never been to Kansas wheat country and couldn’t wait to check it all out. You all know how much I love wheat… AND bread! It was like a match made in heaven!
Our first day there, we got the opportunity to go on a wheat tour! Literally from farm to fork, we visited a wheat farm, a grain elevator, AND a wheat mill! We started the process at Farmer Direct Mill located in New Cambria, Kansas.
Farmer Direct Mill specializes in whole wheat flour, all stone ground with their granite stone mills. They “take nothing out” meaning the germ and the bran end up in the flour they mill at Farmer Direct. They actually even grind flour for King Arthur Flour (who is also one of the sponsors of the national Festival since the beginning).
Farmer Direct Mill can produce about 150,000 lbs. of flour a day at a speed of nearly 55 bags/minute. All of the flour that goes through Farmer Direct Mill was grown right in the state of Kansas, with the exception of one grower in neighboring Colorado.
I had never been through a flour mill and I loved the experience and learning about what happens to wheat when it leaves farms like ours. At Farmer Direct, they grind hard red & white wheat. And flours ground right there in New Cambria, Kansas can end up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Indiana!
Next we headed to Kejr Farms located in Salina, Kansas. Joe and Geena Kejr were such awesome hosts and even fed us a lovely lunch in their shop! They farm no-till wheat, corn, and sorghum on their multi-generation family farm.
Many of the finalists with us had never stepped foot on a farm, so it was a wonderful experience for many to get to see a wheat farm firsthand. They got to step up into a tractor or a combine and see how it works. They also got to see Joe’s nephew fly a UAV. Rain was delaying wheat harvest in Kansas, but since the trip, I’ve seen many of my new friends have started!
After lunch and our farm visit, we visited Cargill grain elevator in Salina, Kansas. The elevator was originally built in 1952 as part of Cold War long term food security efforts. Today, the Salina elevator is the largest in the state of Kansas with the capacity to hold nearly 32 million bushels of grain. In one day running at full capacity, this elevator can unload 1,000 trucks and nearly 1 million bushels with five unloading pits. That is seriously impressive!
Grain from this facility can be exported through ports in Texas, Lousiana, or in the Pacific Northwest. The elevator “turns house” or completely sells all their grain they store once a year. They also can purchase grain from other elevators to store and sell at a later date. While we were visiting, the manager also told us they had purchased some grain from North Dakota! Of course, I had to give a big shout out to my (new) home state!
Our last stop was at the Kansas Wheat Innnovation Center in Manhattan. The Kansas Wheat Innovation Center is the single-largest farmer investment in wheat research. It houses office space for Kansas Wheat Commission, an awesome test kitchen and classroom, as well as a 15,000 square foot research center where they conduct research dedicated to new genetic traits and technologies for wheat.
Saturday was the big event, the Festival, where the finalists baked their breads, live and in front of the public. Finalists had from 8 AM to 3 PM to bake three different batches of their bread. While the finalists were baking, there were all sorts of other activities going on. Guest speakers spoke on a variety of topics from the history of Kansas flour sacks to actual baking demonstrations. King Arthur brought their bake truck along and was giving away free samples. Vendors were outside the convention center selling all sorts of wheat related and baking related goodies. Outside as well, famous Pit Master Rod Grey of Pellet Envy was giving bbq demonstrations.
And you BETCHA I rocked my “I Heart Gluten” shirts the WHOLE weekend!
It was such a fun packed day and I learned so much about yeast from Red Star Yeast and baking from King Arthur Flour! I enjoyed the event thoroughly and HIGHLY recommend it for anyone to attend! I also discovered a new amazing product called Platinum Yeast from Red Star. I made some bread with it this weekend, it was lovely!
At 3 PM, the judging began. All the finalists brought their breads into our judging room. But not before taking a photo with their prized creations. I honestly had such an amazing time learning about the stories behind each of these women and how their bread recipes came to fruition. And wish each one of them could have won the grand prize! But they all are winners to make it all the way through 700 entries as finalists to the Festival. You can read more about each of their stories AND find recipes for their breads on the National Festival of Breads website!
The judging was extremely hard. There were four of us judges and we started by evaluating each bread on its own merits. We had to agree to a numerical score for all the different categories for each entry. Afterward, we went back and talked about each bread in comparison to each other. Each of the breads were incredibly different and all held their old merit in the various categories. Our winning pick brought forth the best balance in flavor, but also had great depth of flavor.
The winning bread was a Smokehouse Cranberry Cheese Bread baked by Lisa Keys of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Lisa describes the inspiration for her bread as, “Memories of visits with my in-laws in Quechee, Vermont, inspired this bread. My mother in-law always had smoked cheeses from the local farmer and fresh-made maple syrup tapped from trees in town. She was also into healthy foods and introduced me to tofu in delicious breakfast smoothies. This bread honors all of her goodness.” p.s. I am TOTALLY making this recipe SOON!
Lisa Keys is also a blogger! I was so inspired by her blog, Good Grief Cook, which is dedicated to celebrating her son William, who passed away four years ago. For Keys, her time spent cooking is therapeutic. She started her blog in hopes that the recipes and memories shared provide strength and support to others who have lost a loved one.
“What I’ve learned is that the grief is never going away,” Lisa says. “I wanted to celebrate the amazing son that he was and show people a positive way to deal with grief.”
I also had the pleasure of judging with a “super star” in the bread world and a person I was totally star struck when I first met! Zoe Francois (right) is the co-author of a bread cookbook series entitled Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I am personally OBSESSED with her book every since I first picked it up at a friend’s house in Montana. I literally read it cover to cover during that trip! Meeting Zoey was even better than her book, she is truly an amazing person with such warmth and kindness that flows from her. I had a great time getting to know her more and just chatting with her during the Festival.
I honestly cannot say enough about the staff and spokespeople for Kansas Wheat. They put on a heck of a Festival and trip for all the finalists and judged. We were truly treated like family and for this small town North Dakota girl, that touched me more than they will ever know. I got to meet social media friends I’ve chatted with for years online (like Julia pictured above) as well as Jordan who also works at Kansas Wheat.
The whole trip left me totally inspired to get my hands in some dough and flour as well as filling my heart with love for this industry of agriculture we all love so much. The passion, the love, and the kindness displayed by every single person from the staff, to the sponsors, and even the finalists during my time at the National Festival of Breads in Kansas was overwhelming and I feel so blessed to have experienced all of it!
And finally, if you follow me on social media, you may remember a time when a woman on Twitter deemed me the “Queen of Toxic Wheat” simply because I am honest and share about our farm practices online. The folks at Kansas Wheat honored me with my own wheat crown. What a hilarious and wonderful surprise! You all are honestly the best! Thank you for making my trip incredible and for all the wonderful things you do for wheat!