By Sarah A. Spitz

October 26, 2017

In The Grain: Growing A Movement

At the end of the second annual Gourmandise Grain Conference (Sep. 24 and 25, 2017) at Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories in Santa Monica Place, Farmer Mai Nguyen, a pioneer in the local heritage grain movement, handed out one Sonora wheat seed to every person in attendance.

This seed is symbolic of a new movement: Southern California farmers, bakers, millers and consumers are coming together to bring back native and heritage grains, in hopes of creating a sustainable local economy around them.

In her conference wrap-up remarks, Farmer Mai asked everyone to plant that seed as an emblem of their own involvement in this young, developing market. Grow it out and pass the seed on, she suggested, to represent our personal involvement in building the movement.

Planted in a pot on my patio, mine is now 6 inches tall, boasting 4 grass blades so far.

The birth of any movement, be it agricultural or civil rights, is both exhilarating and challenging and this movement is a fragile entity that could easily be derailed if the economics do not work out.

That was one of the many issues discussed at the Grain Conference. Others concerned the complexities of baking with these whole grain flours, pricing them so that consumers can afford them and farmers can still make a living, and accepting that not all bakers will want to use 100 percent whole grain flour, but might want add a smaller percentage, so can it still be called “whole grain?”

Since approximately 2013, a number of local farmers have been experimenting with the kinds of grains that were once native to California during the family farm days. But as monoculture and mega-farms began taking over the global commodity wheat market, Sonora, Red Fife, Yecora Rojo, Glenn, rye, barley and other varieties fell into a black hole.

The commodity market’s goal is to create high-yield, low-cost harvests, selling most of the grain for use as animal food in the rest of the world while the rest is stripped of its most nutritious plant parts and used in processed foods, which in turn need to be enriched with additives. Add in farm subsidies to corporate farms, high intensity fertilizer and pesticide use, and there’s no way for a small, sustainable family farmer to compete.

So over the years, wheat in California became just a cover crop, something to keep weeds from taking over fallow fields, and being plowed under to restore nutrients to the soil.

But in Southern California a group of farmers and bakers have stepped up to the plate to try and restore these grains to their former glory: Alex Weiser (Weiser Family Farms), Jon Hammond (Linda Vista Ranch), Andrea Crawford (Roan Mills/Kenter Canyon Farms) and Sonoko Sakai (renowned for her buckwheat soba), Larry Kandarian (Kandarian Farms), Mai Nguyen (Farmer Mai), Nate Siemens (Fat Uncle Farms) and even local home growers and bakers, such as Dana Morgan of Westchester Community Garden, Roe Sie of The Kings Roost in Silver Lake and others.

They’re dry-farming wheat, growing it sustainably with no irrigation other than rain, sending it off to millers who grind it and sell the flour to bakers who are experimenting with the unique properties of these whole-grain, stone ground flours. In turn, they are creating delicious, nutritious artisanal whole grain sourdough and other breads, pastries, porridges, grain bowls and more for consumers to enjoy.

Retaining its bran, germ and endosperm, wheat is a high-protein, high-fiber powerhouse that in itself could be considered a complete food. Man actually could live on bread alone, provided the flour hasn’t been stripped of its nutrients and is prepared properly.

Each flour reacts uniquely to weather conditions, the amount of hydration, length of baking time, and artisanal bakers across Southern California are learning how to manage these variables, in the process creating baked goods that not only taste delicious but are healthier to consume.

Hats off to Rose Lawrence at Manuela in Downtown LA, to Roxana Jullapat of Friends and Family in Silver Lake, Lodge Bread in Culver City and other brave local bakers who are paving a path for the use of these flours.

Infrastructure is a major issue: harvesters cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, wheat must be cleaned before it can be milled, stone ground millers are not easily found and the cost of the final product can seem prohibitive to consumers.

While Northern California has already created a local infrastructure, our Southern California market is still in the process of setting up. Nan Kohler of Grist and Toll in Pasadena has become the go-to miller for most of our local farmers.

Andrea Crawford of Kenter Canyon Farms and Roan Mills, says she’s willing to sacrifice profit for a breakeven scenario to get the movement up and running, but that can’t last forever. She grows and mills her own grains, bakes and makes her own bread and pastas for sale at her bakery in Fillmore and at Santa Monica and Hollywood Farmers Markets; she sells flour as well.

But if the goods are not priced right, consumers will not be willing to pay the costs, which really don’t cover all the steps involved in bringing such products to market.

This burgeoning movement needs a few faithful friends, farmers, bakers, buyers and believers to keep it going and to create the conditions for it to remain sustainable for everyone involved.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.
SUGGESTED SEO: Heritage grains are making a comeback in Southern California, but economics and infrastructure are crucial if it’s to survive sustainably.

SUGGESTED TAGS: Wheat, heritage grain, Sonora, Yecora Rojo, Alex Weiser, Weiser Family Farms, Jon Hammond, Linda Vista Ranch, Sonoko Sakai, Andrea Crawford, Kenter Canyon Farms, Roan Mills, Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories, Gourmandise Grain Conference, Larry Kandarian, Kandarian Farms, Mai Nguyen, Nate Siemens, Roe Sie, The King’s Roost, Dana Morgan, Westchester Community Garden, Rose Lawrence, Manuela, Roxana Jullapat, Friends and Family, Lodge Bread