Reclaiming wheat on the Central Coast
Photography by Angela Aurelio, Margaux Gibbons and Liz Birnbaum
“A wheat breeder friend once said to me,
‘If we don’t get wheat right, the culture crashes.’ We are a wheat
culture—Western civilization was built on it—and despite the
growing number of people avoiding wheat, we still eat more wheat
than we eat meat, more than we eat chicken and fish, and on and on
… So my hunch is that we could fix a lot of our daunting, dietrelated
health problems if we got wheat right.”
—Chef Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate:
Field Notes on the Future of Food (The Penguin Press, 2014)
There are two agricultural stories about wheat on the Central Coast.
One is about growing grains to support other food production, such as feed for cows, goats, sheep, pigs and, especially, backyard chickens—enough chickens that local feed stores do a brisk business. Wheat is also used for cover crops that are grown in the off-season and plowed under to improve the soil’s tilth for higher value produce.
The second story is about sitting down with friends at the table and breaking bread. Part of a national local grain movement, it’s about connections among farmers, bakers and customers, a community of locavores who value authentic flavors, wholesome nutrition and growing their own food.
To be sure, wheat is a tiny crop here, and it’s shrinking. Monterey County’s crop reports show that wheat plantings dropped from a puny 550 acres in 2012 to 290 acres in 2013—roughly by half. Meanwhile, the harvest’s value dropped 83%, from $246,000 to $41,200. Ouch.
In 2013, the county produced 244 tons of wheat—compared to 419,000 tons of strawberries. The crop is so small that numbers aren’t even available for Santa Cruz or San Benito counties.
“Much of the grain production ground has gone to vineyards or back to grazing,” says Francis Giudici, president and grain merchandising manager for L.A. Hearne Co. out of King City. “Cattle ranchers are saying, ‘What the heck.’ They can’t make it economically feasible.”
Giudici would know. Since 1938, his family business has dominated the buying, storing, milling and selling of field crops, which include wheat, on the Central Coast. Monterey County’s Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Bob Roach sums it up: “We can’t compete with the Midwest for grain production, so why grow wheat here? It’s because you have a special interest in it or there’s some kind of niche.” Exactly.
Polly Goldman is among a small but devoted group of local wheat growers. She and her husband, Jim Leap, a USDA mentor for beginning farmers and a former longtime farm manager at UC Santa Cruz, cultivate the grain at their School Road homestead in Aromas.
“There is something deeply reassuring and satisfying about knowing that the food you eat comes from nearby—that the land and people around you support you, and you them,” she says.
“I grow grains because I like to bake, so I’m on a continuing quest, looking to grow wheat with the right baking qualities that suits our land,” says farmer Dale Coke, who grows wheat on about 10 of the hundreds of acres he farms around Aromas, San Juan Bautista and Monterey. (Most of his crops are fruits and vegetables.)
Although the economics are challenging, Coke says growing wheat is worthwhile “in the way it’s good for people to know how to butcher their own meat, raise their own chickens and grow their own vegetables.”
Local wheat has also been embraced by Santa Cruz’s Companion Bakeshop. Each month, Companion bakes 260 pounds of Coke Farm’s Blanca Grande whole wheat flour into its sourdough Local Loaves. The grain is grown by Coke Farm for Bukatiende, a small business owned by Ryan Roseman, a former classmate of Companion co-owner Erin Lampel from their days at the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS).
On Wednesday and Friday mornings, Companion’s Local Loaves attract a crowd of customers who come to chitchat, drink good coffee and eat big slabs of buttery toast with jam from local fruit—before the bread inevitably sells out.
THE DIGESTION DILEMMA
This happy scene centered on wheat toast might come as a surprise, given the bad rap wheat has gotten lately.
To some extent, the criticism is warranted, as wheat has changed.
The heirloom grains Americans used to eat are nutritionally denser than more modern laboratory-generated hybrids, and during the milling of commonly used white flour, the valuable bran and germ are removed.
What’s more, new varieties contain more gluten—a protein that makes baking lofty bread easier, but cannot be tolerated by the 1% of the population that suffers from celiac disease. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Americans say they’ve developed a sensitivity to the gluten in wheat.
Compounding matters, this high-gluten wheat is used in all sorts of processed foods and industrial bakers up the ante, adding additional gluten to bread, as a powdered concentrate. Industrial bakers also typically use commercial yeasts rather than traditional sourdough leavening, which recent studies have found to reduce gluten in wheat and make it more digestible.
A new theory, based on research in Australia, is that digestive discomforts experienced after eating wheat (except in the case of celiac sufferers) are not attributable to gluten at all, but to fermentation in the gut of carbohydrates known as “fermentable oligo-, di- and monosaccharides and polyols,” or FODMAPs.
FODMAPs are found not just in wheat, but also other fructans such as garlic and onions, the lactose in dairy, the galactans in legumes, and the fructose and polyols in fruits.
But why would gluten or FODMAPs become more troublesome in the modern era?
Humans have been eating wheat in particular for more than 10,000 years. Civilization was built on it. Why now?
Yet another theory is that our highly regulated food system homogenizes food so completely—in an attempt to keep us safe—that it has backfired; beneficial bacteria are missing from our guts, impairing immunity as well as digestion. Witness the rise of the probiotics industry, which has surpassed the $2 billion mark.
Or, maybe it’s simply that when Americans eat bread, we eat too much.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS?
The truth is that for most people, whole grain wheat, especially when it’s fresh from local sources, is digestible and highly nutritious.
“Wheat, that is WHOLE wheat, is indeed a nutritional powerhouse,” says Monica Spiller, founder of the Whole Grain Connection in Mountain View, a grain advocacy group. “Wheat is fueled by the central endosperm of stored starch as the main energy source, and the accompanying protein is a muscle builder. The spark for the starch fuel is provided in the form of B vitamins in the bran and in the germ.
“The surrounding bran also contains bone-building minerals, fiber that can carry our food all the way through the digestive system, and soluble fiber to feed the micro-organisms present in the intestines and keep them healthy,” Spiller adds. “Wheat germ also contains valuable oils to maintain cell membranes. For antioxidant protection, there are the colored compounds in the bran and vitamin E in the germ.”
Spiller is credited with reviving heirloom wheat on organic farms in Northern California after she obtained the seeds from some nearly-extinct varieties in the 1990s from the USDA.
After trialing them at Coke Farm, Pie Ranch and other collegial farms, Sonora wheat emerged as the favorite. The variety is now included in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, which protects the diversity of rare and heritage foods around the world.
Sonora was the staple wheat of the western United States for almost 200 years. It came to the New World with Spanish or Portuguese conquistadors, making its way north through Mexico to California by the 1700s. At California’s missions, it was baked into wafers for Catholic mass. Native Americans cultivated it for tortillas, and it was the wheat the average Californian ate through the Gold Rush and the Civil War. In the 1880s California was the world’s largest wheat grower, but by the 1950s wheat production had moved to the plains states, and Sonora was disappearing.
Now, Sonora is making a comeback. It’s used, for example, in the 250 sweet and savory pies that Companion Bakeshop produces for Pie Ranch every week, using the farm’s Sonora flour and produce.
Pie Ranch, a nonprofit organization cofounded by Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail that teaches kids about sustainable food systems, sells the pies at its barn stand, a straight 25- minute shot up Highway 1 from Companion’s shop on Santa Cruz’s Westside, just past Año Nuevo State Park.
The 7-year relationship has been good business—not to mention fun: Companion also vends its pies in person at Pie Ranch’s raucous monthly barn dances, which are open to the public.
Despite the challenges of growing grain on a small organic farm, Pie Ranch—a tidy 27 acres in the shape of a pie—makes it work. In addition to selling its grain to Companion and shoppers at its barn stand (the berries are $2 per pound and the flour is $3 per pound), Pie Ranch markets its grains to the Bon Appetit chefs at Google’s campus in Mountain View, who are tasked with sourcing locally. Stanford University is a potential customer, and a deal is in the works with LinkedIn.
Most importantly, wheat serves as an educational tool for the kids served by Pie Ranch. Participants learn how to grow all of the ingredients that go into a pie, from the crust to the filling. They also practice farm math with wheat berries, study the history of grains and even get to bake and eat pie.
GROWING FOR FLAVOR AND TEXTURE
Up north in Yolo County, farmer Sally Fox, who has shared Sonora wheat seed with Pie Ranch, says she’s “madly in love” with Sonora wheat. She has also turned a profit by growing it on her Capay Valley farm and selling it to Anson Mills, a farm-to-chef purveyor of fine heirloom grains, revered by chef Dan Barber in his bestselling 2014 opus on our food system, The Third Plate.
“It has this beautiful, rich, deep, buttery, corny flavor. It’s whole wheat, but you don’t know it’s whole wheat,” Fox opines. She uses it in cakes, cupcakes, shortbreads and piecrusts. It’s also perfect for flatbreads like lavash.
Fox says Sonora’s concentrated flavor comes partly from the fact it can be grown as a tough dryland plant—rain fed and without fertilizer.
Modern, high-yield hybrid wheat is incapable of foraging very far for nutrients, but Sonora behaves like a perennial plant, growing roots up to 4 feet deep, which tap into nutrients and moisture while aerating the soil, adding organic matter, sequestering carbon and deepening the flavor of the grain it produces. When grown like this, Sonora is also lower in gluten and said to be easier to digest for people with wheat sensitivities.
But low-gluten flour is not popular with bread bakers, so at UCSC’s Center for Agroecology, where “local flour for local bread” is the mantra, new wheat trials are focusing on strains better known for producing loaves with good structure.
“It’s kind of like saying you’re raising an animal for a vegetarian,” says Darryl Wong, farm site and research lands manager, referring to the notion of choosing to grow a wheat variety for its low gluten content. “Wheat is gluten.”
Last year Wong trialed four heirloom wheats: Marquis, a high-gluten variety developed in Canada in 1907; Red Fife, which makes flavorful bread; Ethiopian Blue Tinge, a dinner grain; and Indian Jammu, a low-gluten variety. He also tested Blanca Grande, a proprietary hybrid of General Mills with good disease resistance. High in protein with large loaf volume, it’s popular with local bakers.
In 2015, experiments will focus on a couple of heirlooms that make lofty loaves, such as Red Fife and Marquis.
Goldman, who is active with the Aromas Grange’s circle of bakers and has been testing the grains grown by CASFS, says she wants high-gluten flour to make bread with the perfect “crumb.” Although it’s easiest with Blanca Grande, she’s also been using CASFS’ heirlooms.
“I want a flour that is old enough that when it was bred, people were using it as a nutritional component of their diet,” Goldman says, noting that she wants to get her micronutrients from the food itself, rather than artificial enrichments. She had her doubts, but with practice and a few tricks, she’s getting those airy loaves with the heirloom flours.
THE CASE FOR LOCAL WHEAT
Among those skeptical of the local grain movement is organics pioneer Amigo Cantisano, who helped found the Ecological Farming Association and CCOF.
In his view, grain growing should be done on low-value land on large acreage in places like California’s San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. He believes that with modern transportation, there’s no need to grow grains on the Central Coast, which is ideal for high-value fresh produce. “Grains are basic, and should be available to people at reasonable prices,” Cantisano says.
But even in the breadbasket of the Midwest, support for growing local grains can be found in Stan Cox, a scientist with The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and a former USDA geneticist who writes on all things wheat for Mother Earth News.
“I agree with Cantisano that fresh produce should be grown as much as possible close to population centers, and that because of the much larger acreage required to grow staple grains, most of that production, by necessity, will happen out here in ‘flyover country.’
But that doesn’t mean people can’t or shouldn’t do small-scale grain production in their local areas,” he says.
Farmer Jered Lawson of Pie Ranch sums up the value of local wheat.
“People think wheat is wheat is wheat and barley is barley is barley. But it’s just like apples or tomatoes,” Lawson says. “It’s the industrialization in the global marketplace that has limited our understanding of that beauty and diversity, and we have this opportunity to retain that beauty and diversity.”
Jillian Laurel Steinberger is a freelance writer and designer of sustainable gardens and softscapes (garden-artisan.com). She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and other Bay Area publications.
WHIMSY IN THE SUBURBS:
A CHICKEN-DRIVEN LANDSCAPE
Photo by Angela Aurelio
Maureen Wilmot, the retired director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, is an innovative gardener. Her DIY design for losing her La Selva Beach lawn seems wacky— until she explains it.
Last winter Wilmot picked up a bag of wheat seed, variety unknown, at General Feed & Seed in Santa Cruz. She spread it over her dug-out lawn in the backyard. It became a lush meadow after the winter and spring rains. But come summer, it dried up to a barren looking patch. Doing her part to save water, she didn’t irrigate.
But then the dried-up meadow acquired new visual interest—entertaining if not green. The wheat became pasture for her chickens, who “get really into their chicken-ness,” while foraging for wheat seed and fertilizing the ground for next year’s crop, she says. The chickens get the whole grain goodness, and it reduces Wilmot’s cost for feed. She enjoys the spectacle, and her eggs have improved, with bright yellow yolks that she proudly feeds to her family. —JLS
GLUTEN FREE OR ORGANIC?
Some local restaurants and bakeries let you have your cake and eat it, too
Photo by Angela Aurelio
By Renata Langis
For those of us who must refrain from gluten due to celiac disease, a serious allergy or a simple sensitivity, organic options are surprisingly scarce.
The major brands of gluten-free products like Udi’s bread, Luna bars, Glutino and Bob’s Red Mill mixes are not organic. What’s more, many gluten-free products are made with corn, soy, beet sugar, or canola oil—the majority of which are genetically engineered in the United States.
Why is organic, gluten-free food so uncommon?
One reason may have to do with perceived priorities of the consumer. Generally, conventionally grown grains involve less pesticide application than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Gluten-free companies specialize in alternative grainbased processed food, so the use of pesticides in their production may seem to be less of an issue than with fruits and vegetables, especially those on the “Dirty Dozen” list. But this view fails to encompass the deeper ecological purpose of organic certification, and does not address concerns with genetically engineered crops. So naturally, environmentally minded consumers will still want to have organic options for these foods.
Price is the biggest barrier for artisanal gluten-free bakers, says Melinda Harrower, founder of Melinda’s Gluten Free Specialty Bakery in Capitola.
The price of gluten-free flours can be double or triple that of wheat flour because they are specialty products and low in demand. Some gluten-free flours are not even available in organic form on a commercial scale, but when they are, their cost is so high that baked goods and other end-products made with them are simply unaffordable for many consumers.
So what should an environmentally conscious, gluten-free person do?
Baking yourself is always an option, but here in the Monterey Bay area, we’re fortunate to have some local restaurants and bakeries that prepare their gluten-free foods with organic ingredients when possible.
- Le St. Tropez, a French restaurant run by Jean Hubert and Mary Medora serving local and organic seasonal cuisine, offers nearly all menu items as gluten free. The Carmel restaurant serves local artisanal gluten-free breads and rolls, as well as a new organic gluten-free pizza crust from Bay Area-based Passione Pizza.
- Companion Bakeshop’s baker-proprietor Erin Lampel is best known for her artisanal sourdough wheat breads, but she also bakes with organic, gluten-free flours and offers organic, gluten-free buckwheat scones, rice flour brownies, chocolate cookies, almond biscotti and almond cupcakes.
- Sweet Cheeks, owned by baker Rose Calucchia, sells frozen gluten-free chocolate chip cookie dough through local stores including Shopper’s Corner, New Leaf Markets and Staff of Life; she also prepares cookies, bars, breads and cakes to order. Like Companion, Sweet Cheeks sources highquality, organic ingredients from local farms whenever possible.
- Melinda’s Gluten Free operates a storefront featuring a range of fresh, delicious savory and sweet breads, cakes, doughnuts and desserts. All ingredients are GMO-free. Some of the flours used are organic; other ingredients are local and organic when possible.
Renata Langis is an avid gardener with a passion for food. She once baked healthful gluten-free breads for a business she ran called The Radical Home Baker.
Le St. Tropez
Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh
2341 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Melinda’s Gluten Free
1420 41st Ave., Capitola
Jillian Laurel Steinberger designs softscape landscapes with natural and upcycled materials. She loves combining edible plants with California natives to boost pollination and create sublime and wondrous beauty. She works for Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, in business in Santa Cruz for 25 years, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area News Group papers, BUST, Bitch, Edible East Bay, and other publications. Feel free to contact her at jillian at terranovalandscaping.com.