Local Wheat Is Making A Comeback

Local Wheat Is Making A Comeback

The popularity of “grain to loaf” farmer-miller-bakers and the growing number of wheat farms in Southern California is finally taking off in our foodshed.

Given the current drought and high property costs, wheat has not always been a popular crop but it is making its comeback after more than a half-century hiatus. White Sonora wheat was introduced to the mountain plains of Sonora, Mexico by Spanish missionaries in the 1600s and spread upwards into California. Though it was common on the west coast for many generations, it has not been used for commercial production since the 1950s when Norman Borlaug, an agronomist and the father of modern agriculture, used White Sonora wheat as breeding material to create Sonora 64 whose popularity outpaced the original due to its higher yield. With the resurgence of heirloom varieties and focus on local food, more and more farmers are propagating their fields with White Sonora wheat and similar strains such as Red Fife.

After thirty years of farming and baking, Andrea Crawford of Kenter Canyon Farms has combined her interests to grow, mill, and bake with her own wheat. She says there is a “huge, huge flavor difference” between standard store-bought flour and freshly milled, whole-wheat flours. According to Crawford, “People so often overlook flour but it is the most important ingredient. The nutritional and taste benefits will add a lot to any recipe.”

Each type of flour has a distinctive taste; Crawford says that White Sonora wheat is “nutty and naturally sweet with a beautiful golden color,” which shines through her baked goods. I tried her White Sonora bread, a delicious and fluffy blond loaf with the same slight sweetness from the wheat. Crawford’s motive to grow her own wheat is to “make available this product that is very scarce” and she hopes the “community at large will adopt it.” Her products – flour, pasta, and bread – are available at farmers’ markets.

Nate Siemens at Fat Uncle Farms has been an almond farmer for years but started growing wheat three years ago. Siemens comes from seven generations of wheat farmers from Germany so this is a natural return to his heritage. Siemens noted that his grandparents started “growing almonds because of wheat and we got into wheat because of almonds. Wheat and almonds are symbiotic because almonds need and cover crop and wheat can have trees growing up beside it so they work well together in traditional agricultural settings.” Growing wheat has been relatively easy addition because “though almonds are larger, they’re both basically seeds” and Fat Uncle already has a kitchen to make their distinctive blistered almonds, which they now use for baking tortillas, breads, and doughnuts for sale at farmers’ markets.

Though a smoother transition for Siemens, growing wheat is not without its challenges. Crawford cited the increased people power and machinery needed for harvesting, cleaning, and storing as a significant stumbling block. The wheat harvest and post-harvest is a community effort for many farmers. Siemens has been helping Alex Weiser at Weiser Farms harvest his crop and many co-ops have formed to share information, experience, and machinery.

Even though White Sonora is drought-resistant and uses a quarter less water than most modern hybrids, the current drought has still affected these farmers. Tom Shepherd of Shepherd Farms lost his entire wheat crop this year – 15 acres of heirloom varieties – because of the tight water restrictions on his land. Though his White Sonora did better than the other strains and did eventually sprout, it still was not enough to save his crop.

Another common problem is wildlife, particularly ground squirrels, which plague many organic farmers. Crawford lost the first two years of her test plots and had to move locations before her successful harvest in 2013 and Shepherd is planning on moving as well. Though Shepherd is “not a hunter,” he says he “would gladly shoot those rodents.”

Despite the challenges, demand is on the rise and more farmers are happily breaking into the business. Siemens says, “Wheat is really fun… I’d rather do stuff that I enjoy and I love. If people see that as a new way of doing things or an old way that we can reinvent ourselves then that’s great but I’m just happy to do my own thing.” Whether their motives are sustainability, personal enjoyment, or growing a practical cover crop, locally grown wheat adds an important feature to an already vibrant local food movement. And with Fat Uncle Farm’s White Sonora glazed doughnuts now available at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, I think everyone will be happy with this addition.


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