Imagine a world in which farmers, instead of growing crops, simply grew grass. Now imagine those grasses, unobstructed, are allowed to grow fallow, and in the process, dramatically improve the health of their soil (and subsequently surrounding crops), consumers and the environment. The best part? These grasses grow naturally — as grass does — without the need of irrigation or the optimism of adequate annual rainfall. For thousands of years, this radical utopia was the interplay between humankind and the native grasses. Over time that relationship evolved from gatherers of grasses as dietary supplements to the intentional cultivation of what we now know as grains. This incredibly complex manipulation of the natural environment propelled and sustained the advancement of human civilization.
Today, 11,000 years into this ever-evolving agricultural endeavor, the world’s most widely consumed grain, wheat, is also its most problematic. Since 1960, the world’s production of wheat (and other grain crops) has tripled. That growth is expected to continue. But it’s also come at a dramatic price in the way of public and environmental health. Generations of breeding wheat for vigor and efficiency, plus the production of ubiquitous white flour, have stripped the kernel of nutritional value while leaving soils equally barren.
Undeniably, advocacy of the local and organic food movement has taken the country, creating greater access to local fruits and vegetables. Lagging behind are the things that make up much of our daily consumption — cereals, sandwiches, beer, pizza, pasta, and so on. What are the implications for the local food movement when the “base of the pyramid”, accounting for the majority of the food we consume, is not nearly as accessible as fruits and vegetables from the same area. How did we get here?
Sherry Mandell, is a Chef Whisperer and Communications Manager for the Tehachapi Grain Project, about 100 miles north of L.A. She says that, not so long ago, California was an oasis for thriving native grasses and grain production and that the project’s founders, Glenn Roberts (of Anson Mills fame), Alex Weiser and Jon Hammond are merely continuing the work of those who came before them, like Monica Spiller. According to Sherry, depending on how you look at it, “This is either the beginning of a new movement, or the tail end of the first one.”
To understand the tenets of this whole grain movement, it’s helpful to understand its commercial antithesis. In 1880, the waning stages of the industrial revolution brought with it the introduction of roller mills. These mills are heavy, rolling plates that grind substances of all kinds. For wheat, it was mostly used in the production of flour. The production requires the use of the milder white tip of the kernel, the endosperm. The more nutritious parts of the grain, the bran and germ, are used at far less proportion, if at all. The roller milling system took whole wheat from the standard, to a standard, and in the process, dramatically changed the game for consumers, farmers and their land.
That massive agricultural shift doesn’t explain the challenges in local access. That would be better understood by exploring the problem of infrastructure. The notion of an oversized combine harvester chugging along the farm is archetypal farming imagery. They appear to be big and cumbersome and they absolutely are. Their expense and stature are suited for large commercial operations, and have little relevance for the type of whole grain harvesting small-scale, grain-growing farmers.
Mai Nguyen is working to assuage some of those infrastructural challenges. Nguyen, a grain farmer in Mendocino, California has also organized a cooperative in Petaluma, California that provides farmers who share her passion for native whole grains with resources and a community dedicated to their restoration. The Petaluma collective subsidizes equipment costs, and its agrarian hive-mind shares helpful best practices on everything from harvesting tips to fixes for out-of-date, finical equipment.
Mandell reiterates the importance of knowledge sharing, saying, “In order for this movement to grow, it’s imperative to share the good, bad and ugly. Not just the good.” What are some of the ugly? You name it. A lean supply of adequately trained harvesting help, cleaning, storing and — a daunting task in its own right — the cultivation of a marketplace wholly unprepared for the expense and narrative about the merits of whole grains.
Everyone agrees on that last part. There is consensus that, in order for this thing to work, there must be a marketplace to meet the growth of production. This is where Mai comes in. Along with baker Dave Miller, she is the architect of the California Grain Campaign, a smart and straightforward initiative calling on sustainable food retailers and bakers to, by the year 2020, stock their shelves with at least 20% with locally-grown, whole grain products. The buy-in thus far, says Nguyen, has been encouraging. Influential California markets, like Santa Monica Farmers Market in Los Angeles and The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Bi-Rite markets in San Francisco, have all agreed to participate.
It’s a pragmatic idea in that it addresses consumer education, thereby increasing demand for these products. As the demand increases, so too will collaborations and crucial infrastructure investments along the production pipeline. Or, as Mai says casually, she’s working to change the food system.
“Right now there are no seeds, equipment, or distributors readily available. So we have to build that infrastructure together. And small-scale growers must pool our skills and capital to compete against large producers.”
The Tehachapi Grain Project has taken a similarly ambitious and inventive way of this achieving this outcome. Next month they’ll launch an entire line of drinking straws made from their 100-year-old, heirloom rye.
Consumers looking to support this movement are encouraged to talk to their local baker about whole grain products, made with native grains like Sonora and Red Fife wheat. The unspoken subtext of this talk of “healthy” grains and is that there is simultaneously a counter (dietary) movement encouraging the reduction in wheat consumption. Lost in those conversations about the negative effects of bread, flour, pastries and the like is that the depletion of nutrients, chemical sprays, altered seeds, myopic breeding or the addition of bleach are perhaps to blame for the uptick in wheat allergies or discomforts. The promise of a world with local, whole grains may also unearth new possibilities for millions of eaters. And those possibilities will dramatically improve our earth, unlocking the potential for a wheat-based diet to repair the food system and our health.