Looking for Land

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Fellow grain equipment co-op member Tristan and I drove around Sonoma county for the past couple months looking at vacant land. Tristan grew up in this county and knows many farmers, the microclimates, the knooks and crannies. We saw thousands of loamy, flat, equipment-accessible acres of land in Sonoma. Vegetable farmers don’t care for these parcels because they lack of irrigation and infrastructure. I don’t need much, not a shed, a spigot, or a place to live, but it’s been a challenge to get a lease.

We found empty parcels, looked up the owner, and discovered that most lived elsewhere. They let their neighbors graze animals on the land and don’t want to complicate matters by introducing a tenant. Some are old, in their 80s, and are figuring out what to do, and don’t want to mess with the land in the meantime.

My buddy and her llamas

A friend of mine is a shepherd for a ranch on the coast. She and I thought we’d make a great duo for a pasture cropping rotation — she with the sheep and me with the grains. We’ve both learned loads about regenerative agriculture, pasture cropping, and rotational grazing — methods to feed animals and humans while benefitting the environment, and we were excited to make it happen on the Sonoma coast where there’s a need to control erosion. This ranch in particular raises horses on its 370+ acre property, and the horses have created a compaction layer that could slough off the topsoil into the sea. Rye and quinoa would do well in that cold, misty zone.

The new owner of the ranch is interested in using regenerative agriculture to revitalize the biome, and the farm manager wants to grow grains for estate-sourced ingredients. They both don’t have farming experience, however. The farm manager, who comes from a culinary background, claimed that the cultivation costs are BS, that he wants to “graze” horses on the grains, and that it should be done in an area I didn’t request to farm on: on the steep, rocky section. They wouldn’t budge on this, even though my friend and I explained that horses would kill the grains and create poor conditions for rejuvenating perennials, and that cultivating in rocks would be disastrous for equipment. They didn’t want to listen to either of us, which is a sure sign of a bad relationship. As much as I need land and even though I should be planting, I ended negotiations. Here I am landless again.

If you know of 5-20 acres parcels of arable land in Sonoma County, please let me know.

The Gourmandise Grain Conference

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Crowd shot from the Stage (Photo Credit: Zach Pollack)

Clemence Gossett, Sabrina Ironside, and Jaclyn de Borja of the Gourmandise School put on an impressively informative, detailed, and delicious event within a mere six weeks. Bakers, chefs, market managers, food journalists, brewers and grain enthusiasts across Southern California convened for a day of workshops on how to work with whole grains.

Nan of Grist & Toll led a workshop on the Art of Milling, which, in reality, is a story of all aspects of the grain system. Milling connects the farmer to the baker to the eater and enables us to recognize the fullness of the fact that wheat has flavor. Wheat has the most flavor when it’s whole, stone-ground, and fresh. And you can’t find that in stores. Store shelves are stocked with modern wheat bred for a large endosperm, the starch, and stripped of the rest — the bran, the germ, the flavor. The germ and bran contain oils and nutrients that go rancid on store shelves, yet are the most nutritious elements. That means we’re not only losing flavor, we’re losing the healthy parts.

This is why I’m leading this Grain Campaign. I want to get local, whole grains into everyday bread. The objective is to get all California farmers’ market vendors to use 20% local, whole grains in their products by 2020. Local so that it’s fresh, whole because it’s healthy. We’ve been living without the choice of healthy whole grains because the entire food system is structured around transportability and shelf life stability. It’s a system to efficiently turn a profit.

So, I was confused by fellow panelists, the chefs and bakers, when they said they want to give customers comfort food: white bread. Zoe Nathan of Rustic Canyon said she wants customers to find something familiar; other panelists agreed and some audience members applauded this. Why, then, come to a conference on whole grains? White bread made from refined flour covers store shelves and fills dumpster upon dumpster. (I lived off of literal tons of dumpstered Semifreddi’s and ACME white bread loaves for years. Why buy white bread when it’s fresh and free?) It’s cheap and appeases the masses — the bread for the circus. It’s not as though this white bread ‘comfort food’ is somehow natural or good. That bread was created through a resource-intensive system built by government and industry over nearly a century. That system hides the true health, environmental, and fiscal costs of grain farming and acclimated people to cheap, illness inducing commodity grain. I went to the conference to further an alternative, and it didn’t seem like the other panelists were.

They didn’t even seem to be interested in increasing use of local grain. None of the panelists picked up a catalog or asked for more info. Some are hooked up with Tehachapi Grain Project and T&A Farms, and I celebrate that, but considering the volumes they reported going through in a week no single farm in California could provide enough. If we cultivated all of California in grain it still wouldn’t be enough to feed all Californians. But if we’re going to make a dent, if we’re going to make things better, we need local, freshly milled, whole grains.

Those grains don’t exist in the conventional system. Modern grains aren’t meant to be eaten whole. Their bran is brittle because it’s meant to flake off, and many are sprayed with chemicals throughout their lifetime. They’re grown far away such that the beneficial oils will have turned rancid. They’re also processed using a roller mill, which heats up and thereby destroys nutrients.

Where do you find healthy whole grains? The small scale farm growing organic heritage grain. Or the miller and baker who find those farmers. I’m one of those farmers, Nan of Grist and Toll is one of those millers, Dave Miller is a whole grain baker, and there are more of us. I made the California Grains catalog so people can find their nearest grain farmer and finally get some wheat that does the body good.

Beyond the farmer and miller, we need active, community supported regional grain hubs. It’s incredibly exciting to see them across the state, and I’m very honored to be helping them grow. In my capacity as a co-op developer, I’m working with small-scale grain farmers find cooperative solutions to shared problems — equipment, storage, and distribution. We need to work together to learn how to do this well and to lower costs.

Top row: Red Fife 3 ways, Bottom row: Same shortbread recipe, 3 grains. Across the board: My Teeth profile

Price came up as an issue. The bakers and cooks said local whole grain is too pricey. Yet their loaves are $8-14 dollars. How does that break down? They all said they get flour from Central Milling, which maybe at most has some $1.50/lb flour. The rest of the loaf contains water (municipal?), salt, and free bacteria. I’m happy to support a skilled baker or chef, but where’s the skill in using homogeneous, predictably performing flour? Some bakers complain about the variability of small scale local wheat, but isn’t that what we want to celebrate? The photo on the right shows Red Fife as brioche, bread, and pastry made by Roxana Jullapat. She not only worked with a freshly milled heritage grain, she turned it into three different things we know well yet rich with flavor. Isn’t the delicious and healthful benefits of heritage grains worth the price? Bread used to be a meal and now is a vessel of empty carbs. The nominally extra cost makes a big impact on the nutritional value. Would it break the bank to incorporate a bit of local, whole grain flour? Organic, heritage, heirloom, non-GMO, food justice certified, local, fresh milled whole grains are more expensive because we don’t have support from subsidies, infrastructure, or a world-wide market. But it is worth it.

Again, that’s why I’m leading the California Grain Campaign. Us farmers need a way to get our grains out and more importantly to give people a chance to eat whole, real food.

For a small scale, heritage grain grower like me, the general ambivalence of bakers and eaters to these matters, the lack of government assistance (because I’m too small for subsidies), the barrier from small farm grants (because heritage grains are lumped in with commodity crops, so we don’t get special assistance), and near absence of scale-appropriate infrastructure can feel incredibly oppressive and hopeless.

Though the initial panel felt like a reiteration of the status quo, the rest of the day heartened this tired farmer. Many people shared their enthusiasm for local, whole grains and asked how to support. Blinking Owl brewery came in search of farmers to source from. Glenn Roberts, during his keynote, reiterated the importance of these efforts. Carlos of Superba expressed interest in figuring out how to incorporate whole grains, saying that now he has kids he’s attentive to nutrition. Evan Kleiman invited me on her show to get deeper into this. I met Minh Phan, who I’ve internet followed for awhile. I got to hang out with grain farmer brethren Nate Siemens, Larry Kandarian, Jon Hammond, and Alex Weiser, and with awesome pants Mia and Leyna. By the end, I felt optimistic, supported, and grateful. I felt happy to see that 100+ people wanted to spend a full weekday learning about whole grains. The Gourmandise School did a great job of bringing people together, exciting the movement, and are keeping up the momentum. I look forward to growing this with them and to checking in next year.

Minh Phan leading a workshop on fermented grains

On a different note, this happened when TSA busted open the sack of grains in my suitcase:

Red fife in my charger box


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Have I told you how seed cleaning is the hardest part of being a grain farmer? It’s the biggest barrier between the farm and market. Imagine you dropped a sack of multi-sized marbles on a pile of round rocks, then they got mixed together. How would you separate them? You could put them through a screen, but some of the rocks are the same size as the marbles. The marbles aren’t the same size, so you might keep some and lose others. That’s like seed cleaning. Grains with weed seeds of the same size and shape.

One stage of cleaning, with the air screen cleaner, material can be separated by size and somewhat by weight. The very light material, usually chaff, get blown off. But, if the detritus and grains are the same size and approximate weight, then another mechanism is required.

Enter the gravity table. The gravity table holds up a vibrating surface that separates material by density. Brilliant! Too bad they’re very expensive new ($20,000) and hard to find used (took us 2 years). Our equipment co-op finally got one, but it’s the wrong motor phase! So, I was a human gravity table last night for 2 hours, shaking through 5 pounds of grain on a cookie sheet. Yet, I need to send off a grain sample to a customer. Here’s to hoping we get the motor and convert it soon.

Air screen cleaner

Flour Bags

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Like many people, I prefer to reuse bags and containers. Trips to the food co-op or farmers market means loading up canvas bags with tea towels for veggies and cloth bags for bulk items. But flour is tricky because powders through most cloth. Jars are too cumbersome and plastic imbues it’s smell into the flour, and more than just odors according to some studies. Be it for less weight, reusability, or taste, a flour bag fits the bill.

I finally found some time to make flour bags. I designed the print months ago, which Eric Kneeland of Half Moon Bay turned into stellar screens, and today it all came together. I’m excited for milling season and putting flour in these CA grain themed bags!20161008_201855

Grain Catalog

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I’ve been working on a grain catalog to get all the California small scale grain farmers in one place. That way grain customers can look to one place for rare heritage and modern identity preserved grains. Not only that, the print edition is a celebration of what we’ve done together as a grain community to bring back lost varieties. Yes, there’ll also be a Web version that’ll be regularly updated, but it’ll be pure logistics. The book is much more — a story, a chronicle of history.

I’m so excited to hold this first edition in my hands! Can’t wait to make it public this Wednesday.


Ume/Maesil Galore

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This past weekend was the first annual Hi Desert Jujube festival, but I somehow left with loads of ume products!

Mr. Sang Lee of Wild Blue farm and the ume co-op saw me at the event and invited me to his farm. I had no idea what a treat it would be. The farm is well maintained, the trees healthy with minimal water thanks to the thoroughly mulched ground. Inside the packing house, Mr. Lee let me try his ume and jujube gochujang — the key sauce to bibimbap! He had many test batches of ume sriracha, ume extract, and so much more. One was an ume soybean paste that reminds me of my grandmother’s batches, only that the ume brings an extra sweet and tangy quality. I can’t wait for the world to taste these dynamically flavorful foods!

Pickles, soybean paste, and gojuchang
Pickles, soybean paste, and gojuchang