What We Talk about When We Talk about Grain

By Briana Olson

Turkey Red winter wheat. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.

Of radishes, I know the French breakfast and the black Spanish and the purple daikon. I can tell a Persian cucumber from an English one, Sichuan pepper from black, Japanese mustard from Napa cabbage from watercress. At least while it’s living, I can probably distinguish between a Berkshire hog and a Red Wattle. But present me with a field of grasses, and I may well confuse corn for sorghum, much less be able to say a word about what variety of wheat is growing—if I’m certain that it’s wheat at all. Moreover, while I’ve experimented with farro and barley and half a dozen varieties of rice, and, of course, I can tell blue corn from yellow, I’ve given remarkably little thought to the kind of grain I eat most often: ground. In other words, meal, flour, and masa.

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I suspect this is by design. Thinking about grain is sort of like thinking about Jeff Bezos’s net worth: even though it runs on ordinary citizens’ purchases of cereal and tortillas and bread, it’s produced on such a vast, byzantine scale that it becomes impossible—and a little frightening—to fully comprehend. Last year, the United States raised about 50 million metric tons of wheat and 346,000 metric tons of corn. For a commodity farmer, grain is a so-called cash crop, a multi-thousand-acre field planted with a handful of hybrid varieties, a crop gambled on in markets and subsidized by the federal government. For economists and investors, it’s numbers on a spreadsheet, spikes and dips on a graph. For corporations like Bayer/Monsanto, grain is a profit-oriented science project with the purported goal—or mantra even—of increasing yield to feed a skyrocketing global population. Yet anyone involved in collecting discarded produce and muffins and loaves from box stores and factories to distribute to food banks or repurpose as animal feed, and for that matter anyone who has a fridge, has probably observed that grain is one of our favorite things to throw away.

“Making everything go obsolete is actually quite expensive,” Kathy Cordova says near the end of a long, old-fashioned phone call where we talk about the Valencia Flour Mill that she and her husband, Jose Cordova, have run since 1989 and is now the only New Mexico owned and operated commercial scale mill. “Putting all that in the landfill, putting pollution costs on top of everything—we need to stop that. We’re running out of space, number one. We need to think harder; we need to think deeper.”

She’s not referring to the waste of grain itself, but to machinery—in particular, a line shaft that her husband installed to save energy when he renovated the mill his grandfather built more than a century ago. But her statement could just as well apply to everything she tells me about Valencia, from the 1917 flour packer to the milling machine to the wallpaper (“beautiful wallpaper that had six different views of antique mills”) that Jose rolled off the wall of her old home office so that they could bring it with them to New Mexico. At the time, they were living in Minnesota, where Kathy worked as a freelance writer and Jose worked for 3M, and the wallpaper might have seemed like a bit of memorabilia from Jose’s childhood in Jarales. Kathy laughs as she describes her husband’s ingenuity in using the core of a window shade to roll the wallpaper off the wall after being told it could not be done. The same ingenuity (supported by a degree in engineering and twenty years at 3M), and no doubt the same impulse toward preservation, influenced his renovations of the mill, including his decision to install the line shaft. According to Kathy, it uses less electricity than having a variable drive on each machine, allowing the mill to run off a twenty-five-horsepower motor.

By the late 1980s, wheat production had declined in New Mexico, and there were, Kathy says, “no flour mills running to any large degree.” One was closing in the Clovis area; there was the Rincon Flour Mill in the Mesilla Valley, which was run by someone out of state for a while before it closed down; and “the ones in the north were museums.”

The milling machine at Valencia Flour Mill, although it’s made with wood and metal and resembles vintage cabinetry, has little in common with the hundreds of grist mills that were once scattered around the state. In fact, it’s a self-contained roller mill that uses the same basic technology as most newer mills—technology which, along with the combine, transformed wheat production from subsistence farming into an industry. Annually, in addition to 36,000 pounds of New Mexico blue corn, Valencia mills about 250,000 pounds of a medium-gluten blend of hard red winter wheat, sourced from Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI). NAPI operates a vast expanse of farmland outside Farmington that is irrigated through the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project. They grow three varieties of wheat, including TAM 114, a drought-tolerant breed that was developed by Texas A&M University and is highly rated for milling and baking. Kathy explains how the grains are soaked for a few hours in a trough in the attic, a process called tempering, so they don’t shatter when they go through the steel rollers that shear the bran off and grind the inner part of the grain into flour. Jose tells me that if instead of renovating the mill, they’d torn it down and built a bigger, more modern, industrial mill, “the process would give me a very white flour, by design. What does happen with that flour is that it is devoid completely of any of the skin of the wheat, and grains carry the flavor in the skin.” In other words, industrially milled flour is flavorless. “That’s why I changed my flour mill to allow a little bit of the skin in the flour,” he says.

It’s not until I’m interviewing Lee-Ann Hill, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA), that it dawns on me that flour is made from seeds. I’ve read and written about seed saving, and I walked through an exhibit on seeds a couple summers ago at the Albuquerque Museum, admiring artful vessels that held seeds of amaranth and corn, yet somehow I’d never had the simple realization that the basic substance of cake, pasta, tamales, tortillas, and on and on, is seed. The kernels of blue corn and grains of TAM 114 they mill at Valencia, the berries of the Turkey Red wheat that Jose remembers being grown in central New Mexico up until the 1960s—all seeds. 

“We started with twenty grains of some of these varieties,” Hill tells me, explaining the process of sourcing seed for the grain trials the RMSA has been running since 2015. Turkey Red and White Sonora are two of twenty wheat varieties that their research team first selected from the 1923 bulletin on the classification of American wheats they used to identify regional heritage varieties. They’re also two of the twenty grain varieties—culled from a total of 250 grains and pseudograins, from ancient wheats to sorghum—that have proven most adaptive to the arid West.

Turkey Red. Pima Club. Milagre. For a word lover, even the names of heritage grains—generally defined as grains grown before the “green” revolution replaced old-school, on-farm breeding with high-tech breeding programs—are enticing. Those of ancient and landrace grains are equally compelling: Tibetan Purple barley, Black einkorn, Ethiopian Blue-Tinge emmer, or simply spelt.

“Black emmer,” Hill says, thrusting a bound bunch of dried grasses toward the screen. It’s possible that my response is influenced by her reverent tone—or maybe, as she claims, the plants are just beautiful. She touches the hulls at the top and brushes her fingers over the antenna-like hairs that spike out from the hulls, explaining that these awns, or beards, were bred out of commercial grains. Common wheat was also bred to be short and uniform in height, both for ease of harvesting and to prevent tall, top-heavy plants from plummeting over into the chemical fertilizers caking the earth into which most modern wheat is planted.

The RMSA is an organization whose broad mission is to strengthen seed diversity in the intermountain West—they’re known for hosting grain schools, among other programs—and, as Hill puts it, they are “very dedicated to the grassroots process,” which is why pretty much anyone can participate in their grain trials.

“Farmers are really used to buying their seed in bulk,” Hill says, explaining why the trials started with mostly gardeners. “I think a lot of gardeners are drawn to seed saving,” she adds. Lynda Garvin, interim director of the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service, echoes this, noting that master gardeners love to try varieties of anything and have been enthusiastic about grains after learning that “you only need a small piece of ground.” For some, Hill included, there’s appeal in testing the notion that small-scale gardening can feed a family. “It’s the backyard people—they can take the risk, it’s not their livelihood,” Garvin says.

At her farm in Mancos, Colorado, Hill starts with three-by-five-foot trials of about one hundred seeds, and scales the most promising varieties up with three one-hundred-foot rows—her preferred size for hand planting, cultivating with a wheel hoe, and hand harvesting—and grows them out for seed stock and food. The trials have followed a similar path. Early on, participants received fifty to one hundred seeds with guidelines on planting, collecting field observations, and harvesting and cleaning the grains, along with a request, in the event of a successful harvest, to send back twice as many seeds. This year, they’re scaling up, inviting farmers to plant half acres and making plans to track more data points and send the harvested grains for nutritional analysis. A half acre will also be planted at the agricultural research station in Los Lunas, where Garvin says they will pay special attention to soil moisture, drought tolerance, soil quality, and flowering dates (some plants will not pollinate if it gets too hot). Farmers will receive twenty or so pounds of grain to plant, with the aim of doubling that so that full acres can be planted in 2022.

“I have a grain party and have everyone dance on the grain,” Hill says, describing an old-fashioned way to thresh, or break up, the hulls that encase the seed. The resulting chaff then has to be cleaned off; the RMSA uses a professional commercial-grade seed cleaner, a Clipper Eclipse 324, and also has a small tabletop one. Beyond a half acre or acre, machine harvesting becomes a necessity.

“Equipment has to do with everything,” says Rich Pratt, director of the Cropping Systems Research Innovation Program at New Mexico State University. “I think that’s why small grains may be easier—they may have a small grain drill from planting forage. They’ll still need a small grain combine, but that’s still one piece of equipment instead of two.”

Pratt has a background in studying blue corn and breeding corn, and more recently has looked at the tepary bean as a drought-tolerant cover crop. He worked with Tim Vos on the New Mexico Landrace Corn Project, which focused on heirloom and landrace corn, and says “growers and end users started talking about heritage wheats—naked barley, einkorn wheat.” This interest in small grains sparked the organization’s evolution into the Southwest Grain Collaborative (SGC). For three years, they’ve been working closely with half a dozen small-scale farmers to trial heritage grains like White Sonora, Pinnacle barley, and heirloom blue corn around New Mexico and Navajo.

“Now we have our first plantings of einkorn in the ground,” says Vos, the collaborative’s project manager and agroecology adviser (aka farm coach). They’ve also purchased a small combine—a machine that combines harvesting, threshing, and winnowing—that is shared by participating farmers, and are exploring options for milling and marketing small grains.

Both Pratt and Vos see grain crops as a good option for rural producers in distant areas, particularly those without cold storage. “A grain is a dry good; it doesn’t have to be refrigerated,” says Vos. “The idea was that grains could be a good marketable crop, but this could also stimulate other farming activities, and then you bring vegetables into the rotation, and then you get local vegetables into the local community.” Rural Native communities can be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting fresh produce to market, and they are also some of the places where Vos has found deep-rooted interest in reviving farming both as a tradition and for economic development. One Navajo-run farm in Tsaile/Wheatfields, Arizona, began growing hay in land that had been fallow for years, then brought in blue corn, and has now started experimenting with barley and wheat.

“We really wanted this to be a low-input approach,” Vos says of the SGC’s commitment to regenerative methods, not only because his personal background is in organic farming, but also because the organization is working with farmers with limited financial resources. “We didn’t want to do a lot of purchased inputs; we didn’t want to make that part of the system we were promoting.”

They’ve focused instead on building soil and soil matter through crop rotations and appropriate tilling practices. He talks about introducing farmers to the idea that they don’t need to disc the ground, encouraging them instead to keep the soil covered, “to try to see the soil as a living ecosystem, to try to foster the microbial diversity,” which makes for “better fertility and better resistance to disease.” Some farmers are intercropping, with three acres of corn, three of wheat, three of barley; others are rotating a six-acre plot from corn to a four-species cover crop. “Then we’ve done some warm-season cover crops that could also serve as hay crops, that could be kept on farm or sold,” Vos says, but familiarity can be a problem. “It’ll have sorghum and clover and sunflower and radish or mustard—we’re up to like nine things that are delicious for livestock and beneficial to their health. One farmer I’m thinking of, his goats really love this but he couldn’t get somebody to buy it next door.” Alfalfa, New Mexico’s biggest crop, is a type of hay farmers know.

What about water? Water is the number-one consideration for the future of farming in New Mexico, and while dry-farming small grains for food is possible, irrigated grains tend to fare better here. So, how much water do grains need? “If you’re pushing max-yield pecans or iceberg lettuce in the arid West,” Pratt says, “you’re probably talking seven acre-feet of water or more. If you’re looking at grain crops, you can probably cut that in half. Non-thirsty, more drought-tolerant types like teparies, you can cut that down to a foot.” Alfalfa, which can produce three crops a year, probably ends up consuming less water per pound than wheat. Then again, alfalfa doesn’t feed people—it feeds cows—so there are additional water costs before milk and cheese reach consumers.

“I think it’s case specific,” Pratt says. “It depends on the context. Do you want to grow commodity corn for three dollars a bushel? Can you grow heritage corn for twelve dollars a bushel?”

“Arid weather helps the drydown of grains,” Hill says. “Especially with changing climates, grains are so adaptive. They can stand compromised soils and they can even amend soils. And then they’re yummy. Their flavor profiles are richer [than industrially raised grains].”

Timing also matters. Winter wheat is planted in the fall, then hibernates and starts growing in February, so it can take advantage of winter moisture. Dean Schwebach grew four acres of a spring hard white in Moriarty last year and says that because spring wheat needs water at the same time as his other crops (sweet corn and pintos are Schwebach Farms’ biggest), they’ve sometimes had trouble finishing the wheat. But his wife has been milling and baking bread for years, and finds that the spring wheat, which they first grew for a baker out of Silver City, makes a nicer loaf than the winter.

Once the harvest is in, it comes back to milling capacity. Schwebach uses an eight-inch stone burr mill to grind whole wheat flour and for the acre or so of corn he grows for sale at their farm shop. Hill describes CSA farmers in the Northwest making bike mills to sell freshly ground flour at farmers markets. The question is, how will this scale?

“We started out with flour,” Kathy tells me. “The customers were not at all interested in flour in the grocery stores. They wanted to know where my bakery was, or they would want my recipes.” This is what led Valencia Flour Mill to develop the signature mixes—a sopapilla mix and a blue corn muffin mix—that have been their primary products up until the pandemic, when increased demand for flour made up for lost restaurant sales. When I ask whether they’d consider integrating heritage grains, she recounts a project with locally grown organic wheat about fifteen years ago. The bakery that was behind the project fell through and didn’t buy any of it. “We all found out, yes, we can grow organic wheat, and we can mill it, but we can’t sell it.” Lately, when Kathy thinks about collaboration, she thinks about partnering with pecan growers to make pies, but her lessons in flour apply just as well to the revival of small grains. “We’ve learned that you have to have that whole chain put together,” she says.

“If we’re going to have really sustainable food systems,” Hill argues, “we need to think about how we can grow grains in our region.” Crops raised by smallholders may be unlikely to supplant commodity staples anytime soon, but “part of the allure of heritage grains,” Pratt says, “is that they’re not going into conventional channels.” For Vos, it’s about wanting to see small-scale agriculture flourish in New Mexico. He also speaks to “something more tangible and less practical, the meaningfulness of knowing where your food comes from—this corn comes from Isleta, this grain comes from Anthony, I know where that is. It’s really about the education of the population, of people in general, who are cut off from their food supply, cut off from knowing how their food gets to their table.”

The movement to rebuild and support local grain chains is, at core, about the preservation of knowledge—and with knowledge comes taste. Beyond that, it’s a movement whose advocates dream of a future where we stop buying four-packs of bread so bland we don’t think twice before tossing them into the trash. If there’s a unifying note in my conversations about local grains, it’s an interest in local collaboration.

As Kathy puts it, “We need to find each other and discover what we can do.”

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