By Mai Nguyen
My grain is a mouthful. It is identity-preserved, non-Plant Variety Protection (PVP), incrementally upscaled heritage seed grown using rain-fed, on-site fertility, carbon sequestering, integrated pest management, nonsynthetic sprays, low fossil fuel, no-till practices and brought to market as stone milled whole grain flour. That’s a mouthful that the commodity market can’t swallow. But that’s okay because what I do isn’t only palatable to the public, it’s craved.
In my first year, I took my grain to my local farmers’ markets. My booth stood out from the pepper baskets, vegetable pyramids, and flower bouquets. People aren’t used to seeing grain at the farmers’ market. I wondered how many people would stop at my booth, and before I finished that thought I saw a tuft of curls shoulder past the casual market strollers. “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life!” she exclaimed as she reached for jars of whole grain. “The market manager posted on Facebook that you’re selling whole grains—whole grains with names and flavor. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life!” This woman, Carol, seemed increasingly excited as she perused my display of farm photos, the hand-drawn histories of each grain, and the color-coded reusable jars.
Later, another woman came by and expressed gratitude for my endeavors. Her husband had diabetes and needed to eat whole grains, which she had difficulty finding for bread making. Driven by a search for flavor or healthy food, a group of regulars came each week to exchange jars and stories. I learned about how the Red Fife rose, they learned about the next steps in field prep, and we gained a relationship of accountability and care.
Mai at her farmers’ market booth.
Putting myself in public inspired people to reexamine the food system. People would say, “I try to eat local as much as possible, but I never thought about all the non-local bread and grain I buy!” We would start a conversation about why that’s so, and what else they might be missing out on. My booth provided subtle hints. The glass jars enabled people to see the different colored wheat and rye that would make them pause to wonder why they had never seen different wheat before. The cooler indicated that I kept flour cold, and people would ask, “Why is the grocery store flour unrefrigerated?” I’d explain that I stone-milled the flour the night before and I wanted to retain the nutrients, oils, and amino acids present in whole grains until handed them to the customer. One question led to the next as people ventured into the wide world of organic whole grain, and I was glad to be their guide.
To move product in greater volumes, I also developed a Mai-style wholesale market. I connected with bakers who also operated their businesses with integrity, environmental and social considerations, and shared values. One of them is Mark Stambler who’s in my Heart and Grain video. Mark of Pagnol Boulanger worked on policy that made it possible for California home bakers to sell their bread, which has paved the way for decriminalizing cooking. Mark co-invested in part of my first crop, which alleviated some financial risk in my first year—the year that turned out to be California’s worst drought. He bought what I grew, and has continued to procure from my farm as he’s expanded his operations to Baywood Park, CA. Our farmer-baker relationship has helped us both grow our businesses and, in turn, feed more people.
I perpetually seek new ways of engaging people in this deeper understanding of and appreciation for grain. My favorite occasions involve collaborations with creative chefs and brewers. My friend Leyna Lightman orchestrated a six course dinner at Maximilliano wherein each dish featured my grain and was paired with commissioned beer by Highland Park Brewery or Craftsman Brewery. You should have seen the Sonora bird’s nest dessert. What a delight to taste one’s efforts in many manifestations! My newest gig is setting up grain pick-ups in community gardens. People can pre-order my grain, which provides predictability, but also bring friends and family to hang out and eat food provided my chef friends. It’s a chance to meet with those I know and passersby curious about the commotion, resulting in a greater community around healthful food.
Mai with her Grain Catalog.
I wondered how the growing population of people interested in whole grain were connecting with my farmer colleagues. Amidst my harvest and cleaning in 2016, I put in 200 hours of information gathering, editing, and design work that resulted in an image-rich catalog of California grain farmers and their products. It isn’t merely a listing of products, but a chronicling of this collective effort to revive heritage grain. Farmers’ faces and stories are present so people can develop relationships with them.
The project was driven by my fear that the heritage grain that my colleagues and I have meticulously grown out will be taken up by large producers who could price out the small growers. We’re the ones taking the time and risk to propagate rare seeds, and many of us use unconventional practices that have long-term global benefits but little immediate returns. The public will benefit from the abundance of heritage grain, but let us not leave behind the small-scale farmer, the beginning farmer, the young farmer whom we relied on for the seed and knowledge. I think that as much as we can build relationships, loyalty, and trust between producers and customers around shared values of accountable and transparent food production, small-scale farmers have a chance.
To secure a market for small-scale growers, I created the California Grain Campaign. Our immediate objective is to encourage all California farmers’ markets to require that vendors use 20 percent California-grown whole grain by 2020. Co-founder Dave Miller of Miller’s Bake House and I were inspired by GrowNYC, which adopted a 15 percent local grain rule. Their policy resulted in the strengthening of New York grain farms and the development of a robust regional grain economy. Dave and I thought California was capable of similar goals, but with the addition of the whole grain mandate because of its importance to human health. We quickly found allies among Los Angeles area farmers’ market managers and were featured in the LA Times.
Promoting the 20 x 2020 campaign.
We don’t want to simply impose this 20 percent by 2020 (or 20 x 2020) rule without ensuring that vendors and farmers have the tools to do so. Dave, being a veteran whole grain baker, developed baking guides with input from Nan of Grist and Toll, Celine of Brickmaiden Bread, Christina of Demeter Bread, and Josey of The Mill/Josey Baker Bread. We’ve developed a suite of resources about whole grain for customers, as well as for farmers seeking to improve their practices by hosting field days. We’re addressing the whole system that has excluded healthful whole grain from our diet.
Introducing a product that is totally different and essentially antithetical to what the conventional system was built for requires much effort. It needs everyone’s participation, from the farmer to the miller to the chef to the eater. I know—it’s a handful of work for a headful of ideas. But, it’s worth it so we can all enjoy a mouthful of healthy, whole grains.