Resist Drought with Biodiversity

As I mentioned in the post “2021 Outlook,” this year’s drought has dramatically reduced California’s wheat production, and that I’m one of very few farmers with a crop this year. I’ve been asked how that’s the case.

First the seed.
I started farming with climate change in mind, which, for California, means projections of less rain and more humidity and cloud cover. I sought out old plant varieties that have lived through hundreds to thousands of years, through many geographic and climatic changes. Ones that can be saved, regrown, and shared without penalties from chemical corporations, thus giving them the chance to adapt to a region. Ones that can thrive without irrigation or synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. It takes a seed 20 generations to adapt to a place, which is 20 years in wheat time. So, when I began farming I saw myself in a lineage of seed savers to help prepare for the distant future of climate disaster. Turns out the future is now.
A seed’s adaptability still needs help from its environment–nature needs nurture. A diverse ecosystem that balances animals, fungi, plants, and natural elements is ideal, but much is out of my control. I intercrop an understory of clover and chamomile to provide nitrogen and to outcompete noxious weeds, rotate animals for weed control, fertilizer, and pest management, and incorporate long stalks of heirloom wheat into the soil to increase its water retention capacity. So, even if we only get 12″ of rain when we’d usually get 80″, the seeds are supported by its environment to have enough water and nutrients for a consistent crop.
The rest of the wheat growing world is very different. What dominates the wheat seed market are proprietary ones bred to be short, thirsty, fast-growing, pesticide and herbicide reliant, synthetic fertilizer-dependent, and millable into a sifted, refined flour. They’re expected to grow under the same conditions again and again, which is unrealistic geographically or in our climate change conditions.
We’re seeing clearly the benefits of planning for drought and for regional food sovereignty (i.e. I have a crop!), but it has gone against conventional business values. Chiddam, Wit, and many heirloom varieties are low-yielding compared to modern wheat (1 ton for me compared to 3 tons to the acre for modern wheat in irrigated, chemical conditions), I pay for intercropping seeds that don’t yield marketable products, and I have to invest in totally new equipment and infrastructure for this operation. I’m paying rent to trial seeds that no one will eat for maybe another ten years (because I’m starting with a tablespoon of seed!). I’ve invested in on-farm biodiversity because it creates an ecosystem that can mitigate and be resilient in the face of climate change–something scientists are only now coming around to recognize.
This is a time in our global society to reevaluate business as usual, and to build on and create businesses that integrate environmental stewardship, climate resilience, social equity and healing. This Flour Share has received attention as a model of a better business, a better grain economy, and it’s been made possible by the people who became members. It’s collective action that manifests meaningful change, so let’s get our institutions and policies to change and make health our usual business.