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How Farmers Aim To Restore Ancient Grains To California

Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms holds his son in his field. Credit: Patrick Gookin

Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms holds his son in his field. Credit: Patrick Gookin

On a crispy May morning, we gathered in the wheat fields of Fat Uncle Farms, right off Highway 246 in Lompoc, Calif. It was a spontaneous assemblage of Los Angeles-based chefs and bakers, a cooking school teacher, a miller, a photographer and myself, a noodle maker. We were eager to learn about landrace grains — carpooling 400 miles in one day to visit five grain farms in Southern California.

On that May day, Nathan Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms greeted us, his toddler son in his arms.  Nathan is a third-generation almond farmer who began experimenting last year with landrace grains, ancient grains whose cultural and physical identities have been retained and improved by farmers for centuries and are nutrient rich, flavorful and at the core of biodiversity.

Siemens wants to revive his grandfather’s sustainable practice of growing wheat as a crop rotation between the rows of almond trees after the nuts are harvested in order to maintain soil structure.  He also wants to cultivate landrace grains to explore the growing interest in locally grown and milled flour.

A restored vintage All-Crop Harvester tractor circa 1960 stood next to his field. “In the short experience of using this machine, I can tell you that the main action of the combine happens right here,” Siemens explained, opening the metal door. “This rubberized component strikes the grains to dislodge them from the stalk and divides them up.”

Everyone looked inside with great curiosity. “Is that like winnowing?” asked Clemence Gossett, chef and owner of Gourmandise Cooking School in Santa Monica, Calif. “Yeah, that’s right,” Siemens said.

Roxana Jullapat, chef at Cooks County restaurant in Los Angeles, and Nicole Rucker, pastry chef at Gjelina in Los Angeles, both picked samples of Red Fife wheat to analyze the structure of the bristly awns. Jullapat broke off the green spike to taste the berry. “Sweet,” she exclaimed. The grains were still in their doughy stage. In a few months, they would turn hard and dry and be ready for harvest.

Seed grant to support local farmers

Among the visitors that day was Glenn Roberts of South Carolina’s Anson Mills, a renowned organic farmer and miller with a mission to support and improve lands through sustainable farming practices — growing grains, legumes and brasiccas in rotation, and animal husbandry.

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Landrace grains. Credit: Patrick Gookin

Roberts was key to the farmers we visited because he donated the landrace seed to get the project going — 4 tons of historic landrace varietals, namely Sonora, Emmer, Red Fife and Roman rye and a modern landrace called Glenn. Roberts also donated an All Crop 72 harvester.

The Anson Mills seed grant, which started more than a decade ago, has assisted regional grain hubs around the country, including Community Grains in Oakland, Calif., and Hayden Mills in Arizona. For the Los Angeles hub, the qualifying farmers had to be active farmers in Southern California and practitioners of sustainable agriculture. Each farmer grew on a small scale — between 5 acres and 20 acres of grains this year. Throughout the day, Roberts shared his tenet — about farming for flavor, not yield and farming for the soil, not the crop.

The spirit of grains

The cool wind was setting across the lush barley fields in a wave-like motion at Curt Davenport’s farm, The California Malting Co. in Santa Barbara County — the second farm we visited. Davenport was growing barley and Sonora wheat to produce malted grains for local microbreweries. He explained that the fields he is leasing have been used to grow barley and oats for years, but as an organic vegetable farmer, he wants to rotate wheat, barley, squash and other vegetables to maintain the health of the soils.

Dealing with the California drought

After picking up some tacos and burritos for lunch, we headed east for Tehachapi, Calif., to visit more farmers.  As we traveled through the golden land, we couldn’t help notice the spell of drought. All the farmers we visited decided to use irrigation or partial irrigation to grow the grains except Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch in Tehachapi, who opted for non-irrigation. When I talked to Hammond in February, he was concerned about the lack of precipitation. “We haven’t seen drought like this in 130 years,” he said. But since then, Tehachapi has had a few inches of rain and snow, which gave his wheat fields a boost.

We arrived in Tehachapi rather late, but managed to see another beautiful view of the undulating wheat fields.  Hammond explained to us that such wind is called Wolf Wind — a concept that came from France, Germany and some of the Slavic countries, where they believe the grain fields are embraced with a spirit. A lot of us felt it strongly that day.

Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, famous for his fingerling potatoes, showed us his barley, rye and wheat fields.  He collaborates with Hammond on grain-growing and animal husbandry projects — trying non-irrigation on Hammond’s wheat field and raising Gloustershire old spots pigs and chickens for pasture eggs and keeping an irrigated wheat field at Weiser’s Farms to grow seed for next season. “We are here to learn what kind of grains grow in our region,” Weiser said. “We will start small. We can learn together.”

Growing landrace grains is a novel attempt and one that may take awhile to make economic sense. But those who joined our tour that day said they felt these grains could be a worthy investment for everyone, for both environmental and culinary reasons. Before leaving, Weiser and Hammond gave Roberts an old key that Hammond found in the barn, perhaps one that belonged to his grandfather, also a farmer.  We all figured it was the key to repatriate the way our ancestors grew grains — for flavor, hardiness and to maintain the health of the land. We all promised to be back for the harvest.



Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese food educator, writer and producer, as well as a mobile Japanese cooking teacher and soba maker, who divides her time between Los Angeles; Tehachapi, Calif.; and Tokyo. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Saveur. She is passionate about making soba by hand and is the founder of Common Grains. She is currently writing "Rice Craft, Adventures in Onigiri, Japanese Artful Fingerfood" (Chronicle Books -- to be published in fall of 2016).


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