Will our local heritage grain movement save us from ourselves?

When Peter and Mimi Buckley started Front Porch Farm, east of Healdsburg in a valley near the Russian River, they did the unthinkable in grape-growing country—they planted grain. On a recent blisteringly hot day in late July, sun-baked winnows of straw cover two long fields at Front Porch. These are the last remnants of an earlier-than-usual harvest that yielded literal tons of rye, oats, barley, polenta, and other grains. Might these humble, grass-laden fields be a harbinger of the future of farming in Sonoma County?

“Growing grain is the right thing to do for an outfit concerned more with the resiliency of local food systems than becoming wine magnates,” says Front Porch Farm manager Johnny Wilson. “What do people eat on a day-to-day basis? Bread, hopefully produce, meat, wine.” The farm’s ultimate goal is to sustainably produce food for the entire table, Wilson adds. They’ll sow 15 acres of organic grain this fall.

Farming-wise, grains and grasses work as part of crop rotation, Wilson says. Vegetables strip the soil of nutrients, making it unwise to plant them in the same location year after year. As a low-labor crop that overwinters, needs little to no water, and lends itself to multi-functional uses after harvest, grains make sense.

“In a mature grain economy, you keep the Grade A stuff for market,” Wilson says. “Anything cracked or filtered out becomes fodder for the animals or carbon sequestration for our compost. Grain is part of the larger story of creating a thriving local food system.”

Lou Preston has run his Dry Creek Valley farm and winery for 40 years. Lately, he’s moved away from monoculture in favor of crop diversification. A hobby baker, Preston began to toy with the idea of growing the grain for his sourdough bread a few years back. At the time, he used Midwest-sourced organic grains produced by Central Milling in Penngrove. Soon, the failure of two vineyard lots led Preston into new territories. Inspired by the artisan bakers he’d met at the EcoFarm Conference in Pacific Grove, he decided to switch things up. Instead of replanting the lots with grapes, he sowed wheat berry and rye instead.Preston Farms Edited 2014 m. woolsey-9

“I didn’t know where to get grain,” Preston recalls. “I went to Keith Giusto at Central Milling and said, ‘Can I plant this stuff?’ And it was successful. It was beautiful. You can’t imagine how exciting is it is to have a crop that’s not grapes, and all of a sudden you have these amber waves of grain.”

Preston and a small cadre of Sonoma County grain growers, millers, and bakers are working to develop a local grain economy where water-wise heirloom grains, ones that work symbiotically with local growing conditions, are grown, harvested, milled and then baked into wholesome food products.

Lindsay Challoner took over commercial bread-baking duties for Preston four years ago. Four times a week, she mills 10-12 pounds of such Preston-grown grains like Bluebeard Durum and Marquis Red, a process that takes about 20 minutes. She transforms the fresh-milled flour into sourdough breads sold in the farm store.  Baking with whole grains isn’t necessarily more difficult than baking with white flour, Challoner says, but it does result in a “denser flavor.”

Figuring out which grains grow best in Dry Creek Valley and then using those to produce a completely original loaf of bread is the next step. “The nice thing about having grains grown on the property is that it tastes like the property,” Challoner says. “The way they do with estate wine, we’re trying to do that with food and bread.”

Sure, it tastes like the property, but does this denser, whole grain bread actually taste good? Some of us still have memories of the brick-like brown bread made by a Hippie Mom in a backwoods kitchen. Fortunately, Challoner, along with superstar Bay Area bakers Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery, Craig Ponsford of Ponsford’s Place in San Rafael, and Nathan and Devon Yanko at M.H. Bread & Butter in San Anselmo are steadily proving that bread, pastries, and pizza dough made from whole grains can be surprisingly airy and flavorful while maintaining nutritional vitality.

But before the bread rises, the grains must be grown and harvested. That’s where Doug Mosel comes in. As part of the Mendocino Grain Project, Mosel and his partners raise and mill sustainably-cultivated heirloom grains and legumes on a farm just south of Ukiah. They also help out other grain growers with harvesting and cleaning their yields.

This year, the Mendocino Grain Project planted 50 acres of heirloom wheat, rye, oats, barley, and lentils—a drop in the bucket compared with the 45.7 million acres of wheat, according to the USDA, that is harvested in the United States each year. But considering that locally grown grains have become the stuff of agricultural history in Northern California, 50 is still significant. Mosel says that what’s going on in Mendocino and Sonoma counties is part of a larger local and national resurgence in small-scale grain production.

A brief look at the media landscape indicates that’s true. Michael Pollan championed whole local grains in his latest book Cooked. This past spring, New York Times columnist and chef Dan Barber chastised the farm-to-table movement for ignoring a “whole class of humbler crops” like millet and rye, in favor of sexier farmer’s market favorites such as asparagus and heirloom tomatoes. “Diversifying our diet to include more local grains and legumes is a delicious first step to improving our food system,” Barber wrote. Oakland’s Community Grains have made it their mission to promote whole-grain, locally milled products from California growers—and they make great pastas.

“You can go to almost any part of the country and there is a local grain movement,” Mosel says. “It kind of started up simultaneously in Mendocino, Sonoma, Humboldt, and Lake counties. Farmers showed an interest in trying out grains again.”

The key word is “again.” It wasn’t so long ago, less than 40 years, that the annual crop report produced by the Agricultural Commissioner reported a variety of grains and beans grown in Northern California, says Mosel. Most every town had a flour mill.

You can't imagine how exciting it is to have a crop that's not grapes, and all of a sudden you have these amber waves of grain. Lou Preston

But, the industrialization and centralization of grain growing and processing—what Michael Pollan calls the “white flour industrial complex”—made it cheaper and significantly more convenient to buy a loaf of highly processed bread at the grocery store. The mills, equipment, and granaries all disappeared.

As a result, the biggest challenge facing local grain growers is infrastructure. At harvest, Mosel drives down from Ukiah to lend his 1960s-era John Deere combine to Canvas Ranch, Foggy River Farm, Preston, and Front Porch. The grains must then be processed and cleaned, but that equipment is difficult to procure—much less afford. When the mill broke at Front Porch, they stopped milling in small batches while Wilson struggled to find someone who could service it.

Deborah Walton oversees the cultivation of farro (botanical name: emmer) and golden flax at her Canvas Ranch in Two Rock Valley outside of Petaluma. Three years ago, upon learning that farmers had once successfully grown oat and wheat in the valley, Walton and her husband Tim Schaible decided to plant a one-acre plot of farro, an ancient wheat they’d fallen in love with in Italy. The grain didn’t need water and could grow in poor soil, making it an almost no-fail proposition.

“It’s wonderful as part of a crop rotation,” Walton says. Her grains thrived, and once they were cleaned and bagged, she says that they “sold like crazy.” This past season, Canvas Ranch grew seven acres of farro and two acres of flax, which is sold at farmers’ markets and specialty stores across the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, lack of equipment has been the biggest challenge, Walton says. Combines can cost up to $150,000. “Few farmers have that kind of money,” she adds. 

The need for collective resources and streamlined equipment sharing is key to building the local grain economy, a point reiterated by Walton, Wilson at Front Porch, and Evan Kaiser, a farmer at Foggy River Farm. A report due out this fall from the USDA Rural Development fund project on regional food systems in Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties came to the same conclusion. The report advises support for young growers with the expansion of funding for processing equipment like threshers, cleaners, and packaging of grains.

A second, and equally important challenge, is getting people to understand and appreciate the health value of whole, local grains in the U.S., where most of us (at least, those without Hippie Moms) were raised on nutritionally desolate slices of white bread.

And then there’s the cost. A one-pound bag of polenta from Front Porch Farm retails for around $8. Because that’s how much it actually costs to produce small-scale grain production not supported by the government.

That hasn’t stopped Healdsburg SHED co-owner Cindy Daniel from becoming an evangelist for the local grain movement. On a recent Friday afternoon, Daniel watches as her husband Doug Lipton mills Bolero—a soft wheat used in pastries and muffins—in a sleek, wooden Austrian-made mill. The freshly ground wheat smells the way flour should: earthy, nutty, warm, still glowing with sun energy. The flour goes directly from sack to cooler, where it’s immediately available for sale to the general public.

To explain the value of whole grains, Daniel gets out a set of small glass tubes that looks like a lab display from a high school chemistry class. The tubes hold white flour, bran, germ, and endosperm, elements that—thanks to the introduction of roller mills in the late 1800s—are separated out of grain at large-scale, commercial milling operations. White flour is basically milled endosperm, a process that acted as a boon for industrial food processing because the parts that go rancid without refrigeration are completely removed, making it easy to transport and store. But the same elements, the germ and the bran, hold the vitamins, amino acids, and protein our bodies crave.

With whole grain, the nutritional elements stay intact. Daniel educates at SHED not only about the health benefits of locally grown, whole grains but also the ways these crops can be so integral to establishing healthy soil and, in turn, a diverse, resilient local food system. It’s an important task because, in the end, if consumers don’t buy the locally grown flour, the farmers have no reason to grow the grains.

“We need to be developing a whole-grain community complex,” says Daniel. “We want to support the farmer’s diversifying in that way. It’s not at the point where it’s a common thing, but we want to be part of building it and exploring it.”

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