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Reviving the Golden State with Heritage Grains

 

Wheat fields at Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi. 

As California faces another year of the worst drought on record, a group of local farmers is turning to gold. We’re talking metaphorically about wheat, of course. After all, California is called the Golden State not for its gold, but for its once abundant wheat fields [1].

Alex Weiser, along with Jon Hammond and Nathan Siemens, are among a handful of farmers in the region who are experimenting with growing heritage grains such as Sonora White, Emmer, Red Fife, and Roman rye. The idea as well as the seeds came from none other than renowned seed saver and heirloom advocate, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mill.  Roberts donated 4 tons of historic landrace varietals to farmers to grow and to put to the test a long known wisdom: crops that are cultivated for nutrients and flavor are also more pest-resistant and drought-tolerant. What better way to test this theory than to grow heritage grains in drought-stricken California? After two successful plantings on 15 acres [2], the answers were clear.

 

Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, and Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch. 

Jon Hammond explains, “Growing grain has particular relevance in drought times, as it is among the least thirsty of crops, and is one of the few that can be effectively dryland farmed (grown without irrigation) in Southern California. Even when it does need to be irrigated, grain requires less water than almost any other crop.” [3]

Growing grains in Southern California makes a lot of sense. Beyond productivity during fallow months, grains can also be used as a cover crop to naturally improve soil quality as well as provide feed for livestock. But unfortunately, most farmers, as well as most consumers, see grains as a cheap commodity crop. We're used to the tasteless, bleached white flour on our grocery shelves. The grain that Weiser and Hammond are growing is, quite literally, a different breed. “It’s like night and day,” says Roxana Jullapat, pastry chef at Cooks County in Los Angeles. “There’s a real flavor difference. The flavor and the structure, I mean it’s just impressively good.” Some have even likened grains to grapes in its distinctive "terroir." [4]

Benefits of Heritage Grains

1. Heritage grains are hardier, traditional crops that date back thousands of years to the origins of agriculture [5]

2. White Sonora is naturally resistant to disease and drought [6]

3. Some research shows people with gluten intolerances can eat heritage grains without ill effects [7]

4. White Sonora takes 90 days to reach maturity when planted in the spring [8]

5. Sonora can be grazed by cattle twice in one season while still producing a great crop [8] and leftover scraps can be fed to pigs [4]

6. Heritage grains can be dry farmed using only rainwater and rainwater harvesting techniques [4, 8]

7. Wheat yield can increase when planted in a 100:1 ratio with chamomile as a companion plant [9]

Negatives of Heritage Grains

1. White Sonora is rigid and crumbles and needs to be mixed with other flour for bread making [6]

2. Yield is low. Reports of 2,700 pounds/acre in ideal weather as opposed to 7,000 pounds/acre on average from conventional varieties [6]

3. Costs around $40/pound of flour due to low yield [4]

Following the journey of grains from farm to plate, the farmers quickly saw that this is not just about flavor.  Growing non-GMO, heirloom grains also reduces the reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other environmentally harmful practices.  And because most of grains on our grocery shelves are imported from the Midwest, California can also reduce the carbon footprint generated from transportation. The entire community will also benefit - artisanal bakers, craft breweries, and restaurants will all have access to better tasting, healthy, organic, local grains.

 

Alex Weiser giving a tour of his farm in Tehachapi. 

Bringing grains back to California is not as simple as it seems. Aside from obtaining seeds, farmers also need expensive equipment to harvest and process the grains.  In addition, at the current small-scale production, the grains cost roughly $40 per pound, much too expensive for most to afford.  But if it becomes more popular, the scale could be tipped in their favor. Weiser, who has been selling produce at Los Angeles farmer’s markets for years, is confident the tides are changing: “I remember when the choices were Red Delicious or Golden Delicious, iceberg or romaine, russet, or Idaho. Now farmers markets have this whole new group of consumers who want more than that. It’s exciting.” [4]

Proving that today’s farmers have to do much more than farm, these farmers also created the Tehachapi Heritage Grains Project to raise funds for seeds and equipment. So far, they’ve raised roughly $10,000 dollars, and they need $90,000 more to meet their goal. To do this, Alex Weiser is also leaning on the farm-to-table movement. In June, he hosted an Outstanding in the Field dinner at his farm in Tehachapi and in October, he is teaming up with The Ecology Center in their Community Table series and upcoming book about sustainable agriculture.    

References:

1. The Evolution of California Agriculture, 1850 - 2000

2. Local Grains Project | Southern California: Tehachapi

3. Outstanding in the Field: Weiser Farms

4. Flour Power: California Revives Its Wheat Growing Past

5. Help from Ancient Grains in Warmer Climate

6. Ingraining: Bringing White Sonora Wheat Back to the Sonoran Desert

7. Do Heritage Grains Hold Promise for the Gluten Sensitive

8. Ark of Taste: White Sonora Wheat

9. Companion Planting Grains

10. Where Does California's Agricultural Water Go?

Photo credit Key and Heart Photography

Ann Nguyen joined the educational nonprofit The Ecology Center in Spring 2014, where she manages the marketing and PR teams, facilitates online content, creates and implements marketing campaigns, manages social media channels, markets events and workshops, and produces the center’s quarterly sustainability journal, Evolve. She holds a certificate in permaculture design. Click here to read all of Ann’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.


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