Good Grains: The Tehachapi Grain Project

You’ve probably noticed that grains are going through a bit of a rough patch. Gluten-free started as a health trend and now has seemed to make its way into public consciousness as an all-or-nothing way of life.

In America we like things black and white. Tell us what is bad and what is good. We’re sure to go extremes with it. We automatically assume that all bread is made the same. Minimally processed, and fermented loaves get the same attention as a bag of Whitewheat. Don’t even expect us to navigate our way through alternative sources like faro, barley, rye or spelt. It’s much easier to assume that all gluten is bad, rather than to assume there are different choices. We prefer to look at a sugary muffin labeled “gluten-free,” and assume that is healthy. Anything else gets too complicated.

Ok. I’m generalizing.

There are people out there who are changing their tune and in turn trying to change ours. They are trying to hold on to the art of baking, and bring bread back to what it should be—properly risen to predigest the grains, and full of proteins and vital vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Grains used to be considered the staff of life. What happened to all of that? Trying to educate us on how we should be looking at grains differently requires greater objectivity and open mindedness.

Grains have played a crucial role in both farming and our diets throughout history. What started as a whole, nutritious plant-based source of nutrition was stripped down during the industrial revolution to turn bread and anything made from wheat into a vapid and lifeless food. Modern wheat is a far cry from what it once was. Virtually every aspect of the process has changed, from the way it is processed after harvest, to the very plant itself. First we invented the technologies to turn wheat into a fine white flour by removing fibers and proteins, and then (as we’ve always done) we modified it to make it more pest and mold resistant, drought resistant, and of course to produce greater yields. We also figured out along the way how to increase the gluten factor in the grains to produce a fluffier and more appealing end result. We took a whole food, and turned it into what essentially acts like a chemical substance in our bodies. No wonder people feel better eating gluten free. They’re removing the most commonly consumed processed food from their diets. It’s a start, but it isn’t the whole story.

The paleo community would argue that humans haven’t always eaten grains. That we were actually living on wild plants and animal foods. This is a bit extreme. Humans have consumed grains for centuries—some documentation saying up to 10,000 years ago. To assume that we haven’t evolved to eat grains in some capacity over this period of time is a stretch. We obviously have.

We made wheat turn on us. It’s our fault.

So how do we take the reigns back, or take back the grains?

By way of serendipity a few months ago when P+S was preparing for an interview with the chef of Farmshop, we met Alex Weiser and Sherry Mandell of Weiser Farms. Alex is a major player in the Southern California food scene. He grows a unique set of crops and is passionate about educating and sharing a more bio-diverse culinary landscape. His passion is to supply people with a unique product at its peak, rather than generic and commercial use ingredients. Whether we realize it or not, chefs and farmers set the tone for what the rest of us eat. What may start out as an ingredient used at the top of the food chain will then trickle down into the mainstream. The role that a farmer plays is so important—not only in producing food for us to eat, but the farmer fosters environmental and cultural change by how and what he chooses to grow. This isn’t easy, because it rarely is the most economical route. Alex has taken his role seriously. He is infectious with passion about his product. His personality and accessibility make him a great spokesperson for the movement of biodiversity.We got into a fantastically inspiring conversation with Alex that we had to follow up on.

We learned about the Weiser Farms’ newest venture called The Tehachapi Grain Project. The grain project is a movement to form a collective of farmers who are growing unique grains with integrity as part of a holistic farming system. His goal is to support farmers in growing and harvesting unique and heritage grains. Alex became inspired to start the project when he was asked to grow buckwheat for the master Soba maker Sonoko Sakai. Sonoko was passionate about finding quality buckwheat like she had as a child, and it was not being grown in the U.S. Alex also found himself inspired by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina, who can probably be considered the leader of the modern heritage grain movement. Recognizing that there was a space for this product, Alex set out to start his collective.

The history of California grain growing is vast. It has the perfect climate for growing grains, and at one point in time was considered the grain belt, until most of the nation’s farming was moved to the midwest. Most of the grains grown here are now reserved for cattle. The integrity of the industry has really been lost. Unfortunate not only for the loss of flavor, and diversity in product, but also because growing grains makes up a healthy part of the farming ecosystem. Regenerative farming is all about improving soil health. When farmers are mono -cropping, which means planting the same crops year after year, they damage the soil and the natural ecosystem of the earth. This eventually leads to barren landscapes and vast amounts of property that can’t be farmed. Planting grains as an alternative crop nurtures the soil and also plays a huge role in carbon sequestration. Yes, growing grains can actually reduce the amount of carbon output. This is huge, and when you consider that grains are also a drought friendly crop, it makes complete sense to start bringing them back to life in California.

As with all business, economics plays role. There must be a chain of supply and demand. If farmers are growing boutique grains, and have no place to sell them, money is lost. This is why Alex plays such a vital role in this movement. He understands—perhaps better than your average farmer—that chefs are excited about this stuff. In cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, chefs and bakers go crazy for heritage grains. They realize that the quality and flavor is superior, and they have the skills to use the product. Again, what starts at the top will trickle down. The more chefs start to use these grains, the more your average consumer will start requesting them and the more and more we will see.

The Tehachapi Grain Product is setting out to support and educate farmers in the movement, as well as facilitate harvesting and streamline growth. Expensive combine harvesters can be shared, and with community the system can be set up to divide and prosper. This is important for our health and the environment.

There is no end to the amount of inspiration we got from chatting with Alex and Sherry. Food plays such an important role not only in our physical health, but our environmental health as well. This can’t be ignored. We must make the effort as educated consumers to seek the best of quality and integrity and to think differently about the foods we consume.