From Hudson Valley Beekeeper and Baker to Miller of Grains for Eataly’s Breads  

Don Lewis, Miller of Grains for Eataly New York

Don Lewis, the founder of the Wild Hive Farm Community Grain Project (WHFCGP), grew up on a chicken farm under the watchful eye of his grandmother who loved to bake. Although he loved to bake, he began his adult farm life as a commercial beekeeper in 1982. At the same time, he ran a bakery operation out of the kitchen in his house and sold his baked goods at farmers’ markets where there was a lack of bakery supplies.  He was one of the first farmers to participate in the now famous and popular Union Square Greenmarket (It was here that Lewis first met renowned chef Mario Batali).  By 1995, Lewis had increased the growing of local grains and started educating consumers about grain-based local agriculture thus creating more demand for his products. In 2008, to showcase his bakery and other local foods, he opened the Wild Hive Farm Store and Café. By 2009 sales of stone-ground flour and milled products had significantly increased and the WHFCGP was born, specializing in whole grains and organic flours.

While Lewis was busy promoting sustainable, grain-based agriculture and growing waves of grain across his mid-Hudson Valley land with the assistance of other local organic farms, plans across the Atlantic for an Eataly in New York City were brewing. Eataly was founded in Turin, the capital of Piedmont, Italy in 2007 by Oscar Farinetti, a staunch advocate of the Slow Food Movement (also founded in Italy).

Eataly’s plans progressed in the U.S. with partners Eataly Italia, Batali-Bastianich Hospitality Group and Alex and Adam Saper. Eataly USA was to be curated with the same template as in Turin. The rustic bread in the mother store had to be replicated exactly the same with stone-ground flour milled local with locally-sourced, organic-raised grains of wheat, rye, and corn. After a difficult search, Dino Borri, who curated and launched Eataly in Turin, remembered Don Lewis from meeting him at the 2008 Terra Madre Conference (a network of small-scale food producers) in Turin where Lewis was the Slow Food representative from the Hudson Valley. Borri contacted Lewis whom he knew made similar quality flour. After several attempts to connect, Lewis finally agreed to meet the founders of Eataly and show his milling operation. Samples of the flour were sent to Italy for a taste testing and approval. The blend of his soft white winter wheat and hard red spring wheat was the perfect match for Eataly’s production of baguettes and focaccia.

Lewis recognized that he and Eataly’s creators had the same interests – providing consumers with access to locally-grown grains based on the same fundamentals of sustainable agriculture. He agreed to work with Eataly and grew his first crop for the market six years ago. Eataly opened in Manhattan in 2010. What started as 70-80 acres of grain grown by Lewis has now grown to 500-600 acres. Wild Hive Farm stone grinds flour for Eataly at a local private mill with grains exclusively from local and organic farms in the Hudson Valley and Central New York State. Eataly’s bakers handcraft each loaf in the antique Italian tradition with natural yeast and bake it in Eataly’s own giant wood-burning oven.

Lewis is also working with Eataly’s bakery in Chicago, which opened in 2013. He is coordinating the growing of organic wheat on several acres about 100 miles south of Chicago. In addition to Eataly, he provides flour to many well-known restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern in New York. Mario Batali uses Lewis’ polenta as does Laura DiGiorno, pastry chef at The Valley Restaurant at The Garrison in the lower Hudson Valley, who says that it has great texture and great flavor. While Wild Hive’s best-selling product is its all-purpose soft white winter wheat flour, the coarse-ground polenta is stirring up the market for its superior quality as it is made with an old-fashioned open-pollinated corn. As New York Times food writer, Florence Fabricant notes, it is giving South Carolina’s Anson Mills some competition for the favor of chefs.

Don Lewis is not just about growing grain and milling organic flour. He is a consultant to several bakeries in New York and also breeds chickens – a blend of Light Brahmas and Black Australop, both breeds known as hardy and good egg-layers.

And, he has another project in the wind with the Japanese organization, Shumei, working on soybean grains grown for tofu. Shumei is dedicated to natural agriculture forming a relationship between farmer and consumer. Energy is believed to flow from the farmer to the soil and plants and is transferred to the consumer through the consumption of the farmer’s crops. Is it no wonder that Shumei has sought out Don Lewis to be its coordinator of its growers in the United States?

Wild Hive Farm grains and flours can be purchased online by visiting orders@wildhivefarm.com.

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Margaret was public relations director for two luxury New York City hotels, where she did extensive research into America’s culinary heritage. She is a founding member of The James Beard Foundation; formerly, owner of a Jersey Shore inn and restaurant, The Pelican Bistro, recognized as one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in NJ by New Jersey Monthly, and a PR consultant to restaurateurs. For the past several years she has been a contributing writer about food, drink and restaurant news for many publications. She is a passionate cook and wine lover who moved to the Hudson Valley and is in awe of the immense wealth of agricultural, artisanal and culinary talent in the area. Connect with her at www.TastefulLiving.net, Hudson Valley Wine & Restaurant Examiner and Shore Region Food & Restaurant Examiner. She can be reached at mmorgan531@gmail.com.

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