In 2009, the town of Willits in Mendocino County was one of the first communities to assess its self-sufficiency in terms of food security, and to act on it through the Willits Econo mic Localization program. With funding, an ambitious Americorps VISTA member, and support from the community, 10,000 lbs. of grain were sold the first year to local individuals and restaurants, and four silos built to store grain.
On the heels of those efforts came more community discussions in Ukiah, and the realization of the lack of local grains there as well. Doug Mosel, a hay grower in the region, decided to experiment. To do this, he needed acreage, and luckily was able to interest a couple of local vineyards in his plan – Frey Vineyards and Nelson Family Vineyards. Grains were planted as a cover crop. The timing worked well, since the grain is harvested before the grapes ripen. Both vineyards currently grow around 20 acres of grain planted between every second or third row of grapevines.
Mosel’s operation now has an official name, the Mendocino Grain Project, and he sells his product first to his Grain CSA members (now almost 100), and then to bakers, eateries, and local retail outlets. He plans to get local organic certification, driven by his customers, rather than top down.
One of the biggest challenges with grain growing and processing is the high cost of equipment. Ever practical, Mosel formed a grain cooperative, composed of growers, millers and bakers who meet periodically, talk via Google Group and share experiences, resources and equipment - not such a common thing for most farmers.
Waves of grain in Sonoma County
Lou Preston, owner of Preston Vineyards, is in his fourth year of growing Sonora wheat, hard red, and rye. Preston has his own mill, and shares a combine with Doug Mosel and two other farmers. He uses all his wheat for baking bread on site in his brick oven.
Peter and Mimi Buckley bought Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg a couple of years ago. They removed a significant number of grapevines and planted vegetables, fruit trees, and about 12 acres of grains. They are experimenting with several varieties to determine what does best in their microclimate close to the Russian River.
Deborah Walton and Tim Schaible of Canvas Ranch, always up for trying new things, decided to grow Emmer (aka Farro) on their farm in Petaluma, where grains had historically been dry farmed. This is their second year, and they’ve expanded the acreage and added specialty crops for bakers – flax and sunflowers, for the seeds they produce. Deborah, a Master farmer/mentor for the UCCE’s Sonoma County Beginning Farmer and Rancher Training Program, will share her grain growing expertise with up to 24 beginning farmers this fall.
In Marin County, grains are popping up as well, with one farmer, John Glavis, growing several varieties of protein rich Quinoa.
How big is this phenomenon?
John Fendley of The Sustainable Seed Company said they trialed over 200 varieties of grains in test plots in the last few years. The demand for grain seed was up over 300% in 2011. Our climate diversity allows for a variety of grains. Fendley also said there is also a huge demand for organic chicken feed.
What’s needed to build this local grain movement?
A USDA Rural Development funded project involving regional food systems in five counties (Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Lake & Mendocino) has been studying value chains for three farming categories: grass fed beef, dairies, and grains to uncover and address their needs, in order to support these key aspects of our farming communities. That report will be completed this fall.Having more young growers, funding for processing equipment such as threshers, cleaners, and bagging equipment is key. Additional storage and good distribution and management systems are needed to shore up this flourishing industry.
It was said that there is a need for consumer education through bakers and retailers of the need for and health value of local grains.
Opportunities abound for grain growing pioneers.