Going Against the Grain with Heirloom Wheat

Wandering around the orchards, you’ll see the many green beneficiaries of this winter’s rain. Wild grasses and low-to-the-ground flowering plants fill the rows and give the feeling of lushness, even with the trees mostly bare. These plants won’t be harvested, but serve an important purpose all the same. With this abundant greenness, you might mistake the sprouts in one particular plot for just another type of wild grass… But this particular growth will be harvested. It will be made into a flour prized by artisan bakers throughout the Bay Area and could make an excellent addition to your kitchen. It’s our Sonora wheat!

Farmer Al holding wheat berries

Farmer Al holding wheat berries

Sure, fruit is our primary focus, but we’ve also devoted 5 acres to our favorite heirloom wheat variety. Planted in early December, these seeds have had a chance to soak up the rain and are beginning to develop a strong root structure for when summer comes. We started planting Sonora wheat in 2016 in some freshly acquired land that was previously farmed conventionally. We did so in an effort to rebuild the soil, keep it from eroding during winter rains, and bring in some revenue while we transitioned the land to organic (which takes a few years). But the resulting flour was just too good so we’ve kept up planting it! Last year’s crop is still available for purchase.

A typical modern farm focuses on growing just one thing, often leaving soil bare for the many months in between harvests. But for us, planting wheat is all part of diversifying what we grow so that there’s bounty for as much of the year as possible. We also want to preserve a thousands-year-old history of growing sturdy, healthy varieties of wheat. With industrial farming, wheat is not what it once was. The varieties grown, the increasing intensity of the application of glyphosate, Monsanto’s herbicide used heavily in wheat production, and the way wheat is processed, have left the majority of our flour devoid of the nutrients that made wheat “the staff of life”.

Sonora wheat is a soft white winter wheat and one of the oldest surviving wheat varieties anywhere in North America. For Farmer Al, this variety has a meaningful history and tradition, for it was once planted here in East Contra Costa County for as far as the eye could see in every direction. California was, at one time, the leading wheat growing region in North America and even traded on the London International Wheat Exchange. The only downside to Sonora is that, like many heirlooms, it has lower yields than modern varieties. But what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. And it’s a beautiful match for our climate and soil.

When planting the wheat berries in early December, we used the same “seed drill” that we used to spread cover crop seed in the orchard rows just a few weeks before. In years past we’ve hired someone with a seeder, which covers more ground in one go than our seed drill. But Alfonso made the 6-foot-wide seed drill work this year. And we’re so excited to see the wheat already germinating. We probably need one more good rain for it to grow really well. There’s good moisture in the ground already, which is key since we don’t irrigate our wheat and instead rely on the rain to keep it happy. We’re in good shape for a nice crop this summer. And hopefully many delicious baked treats will be made from it.

Wheat growing in the field

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