A key component of staples like bread, wheat is a great grain to grow in the Golden State. Photo courtesy of Frog Hollow Farm.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, baking has become a popular and passionate pastime for countless people sheltering in place. They might not be aware, however, that every time they measure out another cup of flour, they have a chance to support California agriculture.

Although better known for its fruits, nuts, and vegetables, the Golden State is well suited to growing grains, due to its dry summers and low humidity. Farmers here grow a variety of small grains including rice, barley, rye, oats, corn, and wheat — especially hard wheat, the type primarily used for making bread. Now, with demand for grains soaring as home oven use goes into overdrive, it’s worth looking at how local grain cultivators are getting their products — and their land stewardship practices — into the mix.

Fritz Durst of Tule Farms is a fifth-generation farmer with a large grain-growing operation about 90 miles northeast of San Francisco. Durst grew up farming alongside his father and grandfather, and remembers his grandpa bringing grain to his grandmother, who ground it into flour in a little hand-grinder to make bread. “That’s the way America ate,” he said.

That has changed, along with Durst’s farming practices. “When I grew up, we were heavy into tillage. And that brought with it, many, many problems,” said Durst. “Soil erosion was the worst. We had really goofed up the soil in two ways. Number one, we disrupted the soil biology, and number two was that we eliminated a lot of organic matter in the soil. We learned that the reason our soil was hard was because of some of the practices we were doing.”

In the mid-1980s, Durst convinced his father to stop tilling, and today 85 percent of his dryland acres are no-till. At seeding time, Durst plants seeds on top of the two-foot-tall stubble leftover from the previous year. “By using a no-till process, we minimize erosion,” said Durst. “We used to lose tons of soil per year. Today, with no-till, I might lose two tenths of a ton instead of five or six tons per year. And I can absorb, I would bet, three times as much water on a given rainstorm as I could the old farming way.”

No-till is part of conservation tillage, said Durst, which he practices on 90 percent of all his soil. Conservation tillage means that, along with growing crops, a farmer aims to improve air, water, and soil quality, and reduce carbon emissions. Carbon in the soil is good; it is used by the plants. But tilled soil releases the carbon into the air where it combines with oxygen and makes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Durst used to love the smell of freshly plowed soil until he came to realize that the smell meant carbon dioxide.

Another advantage to conservation tillage is supporting wildlife, which is attracted to the abundant life that comes with healthy soil. “I see animals that I never saw out here when I was younger. Just the other day I saw a couple of road runners, and I see coyotes every day,” he said. “It’s very encouraging when I see all those animals out there in the morning or late evening. It’s kind of the reason that I want to get up tomorrow and go to work again.”

Durst farms about 2,400 acres on mostly leased land, which is a lot of acreage for grain by California standards, but not a lot compared to acreages in other states where production costs are lower, land and water are cheaper, and workers are paid less. California imports more wheat than it grows, and mills more wheat than any other state in America, with a daily capacity of over 12 million tons according to the California Wheat Commission. Three of the largest mills in California are in or near the Bay Area: Miller Milling in Oakland, Giusto’s in South San Francisco, and Ardent Mills in Stockton.

“Most of the wheat that comes through the mills in California is coming from the Midwest and the upper Midwest,” said Mark Lundy, a UC Davis agronomist and small grain specialist.

“Efficiencies of scale really play out in the grain markets,” he said. To illustrate, he compared wheat to a tomato. When a tomato is on your plate, it looks pretty much like it did in the farmer’s field. But a field of wheat goes through many steps to become bread. The grain is harvested, winnowed, milled, and mixed, and each of these steps have become specialized and segmented to help lower costs. “Over time, we’ve evolved systems that tend to favor large-scale processing, whether that’s a big combine moving through a field, a big silo storing it, or a mill grinding it into flour,” said Lundy.

However, there are also small mills to accommodate the local heirloom grain market, such as Capay Mills in the Capay Valley northwest of Sacramento. “The difference is the scale,” said Lundy. “That kind of specialty market is somewhat removed from the larger-scale market that is providing bread for the majority of the population.”

Many in the Bay Area have an appetite for, and the willingness to pay for, locally grown heritage grains, such as Cindy Pappas in Benicia, who in her retirement bakes artisan bread every day. She says heritage grains are “good gut stuff, and flat-out better for your body.” Interest in heritage grains has created a niche market that supplies product for chefs and home cooks who want to know where their grains are coming from. Durst has tapped into that market, and in addition to growing grain for the large-scale wheat market at a price that is globally determined, he grows organic Patwin and Summit wheat for Oakland’s Community Grains, whose mission is to “restore a vibrant local grain economy in California.”

Other local sources for specialty grains include Brentwood’s Frog Hollow Farm, which is currently selling a limited amount of white Sonora wheat flour, a heritage grain that was the primary type of wheat grown in Northern Mexico and the American West for 200 years. Frog Hollow planted white Sonora wheat last winter on land slated to become a new nectarine orchard this year. Wheat is a good winter crop to cover the soil, foster microbial growth, combat erosion, serve as a disease break, and absorb water. “Keeping the above ground covered and the below ground filled with roots is super important to us,” said farm assistant Rachel Sullivan. The rain-fed crop yielded 22 tons of wheat berries, of which they sold 13 tons to Berkeley’s Acme Bread, five tons to Capay Mills, and kept the rest to sell to small bakers and through their online webstore and CSA program.

Honoré Farm & Mill also grows organic wheat, but they have a higher calling: to re-connect people to land and community. Agricultural chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, the founder and president of the nonprofit, said they are in their sixth year of planting wheat. Each year, they plant and harvest a crop of wheat with volunteers on donated land. This year’s crop is being grown on one-eighth of an acre at HomeFarm in Healdsburg.

DeRuff is excited for the August harvest of Hourani wheat, grown from seeds donated by the University of Washington’s Bread Lab. Hourani wheat seeds had been stored by King Herod 2,000 years ago in the Masada Fortress in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent until they were discovered and excavated. The Hourani in the Honoré plot had a bluish tint before it turned golden brown. “I can’t tell you how beautiful this wheat is,” said DeRuff.

“[Wheat] is a really robust, adaptable crop,” said Lundy. “That’s why we’ve seen it grown all over the world and support so many civilizations.”

Honoré will harvest the wheat in August, and although this year’s harvest day will look different due to the pandemic, in the past about 65 people gathered to harvest and share a meal with bread baked from the previous year’s harvest. “We all have farming in our ancestry, and there’s something ancient about harvesting by hand. Without fail, someone will burst into tears,” said DeRuff.

Honoré also provides flour to Episcopal churches so that they can bake healthful communion bread for their services. DeRuff once tracked a communion wafer, and found that the grain had travelled 4,500 miles. For her, that didn’t square with what was supposed to be the “bread of life.”

“I’m most interested in a community gathering for harvest, which is how it used to be done,” said DeRuff. “People would help each other harvest their grain, or whatever their crops were. Before refrigeration, before Costco and supermarkets and all of that, what you grew was your life. When famine hit, people died — it is not like there’s a few baking ingredients missing on our shelves. So, the connection between the people of a community and the land upon which people were farming was very, very close. People looked at that crop, and realized, my life is dependent upon that crop.”

It hasn’t always been easy to source local grains — until now. At the end of August, the California Wheat Commission is launching goldenstategrains.com, a new website that will help bakers, millers, and brewers find grain. Director Claudia Carter stated in a letter to participants that she hopes the site will expand markets for growers and “build California grain as a brand.”

Leyna Lightman, a core organizer in the California grain movement, commented about the launch that “this site has the potential to change the landscape for California grain and to better equip everyone involved in our grain community to thrive.” Now that’s something to sink your teeth into.

Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.