Production, Milling and Marketing of Arid-Adapted Heritage Grains in the Desert Borderlands to Increase Food Security

Final Report for OW12-010

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2012: $49,950.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Principal Investigator:
Chris Schmidt
Native Seeds/SEARCH
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Project Information

Abstract:

Through the support of this grant, our grain cooperative achieved marked success in restoring White Sonora wheat to local production and use, far beyond what we expected to realize. For the first time in decades, this local wheat landrace is being grown on significant acreage and is available for purchase in multiple forms (flour, wheat berries) at a large number of outlets, as well as at restaurants, bakeries and breweries in Phoenix, Tucson and surrounding communities. We have increased, stabilized and improved the quality of the seed supply and made progress toward resolving many of the roadblocks to production and processing. Our efforts have received extensive coverage in local and national media, including being featured prominently in an upcoming documentary movie, The Grain Divide. Of the two grains, growers had better success with White Sonora wheat and more was produced for market than Chapalote flint corn.

Introduction

Cereal grains are the nutritional foundation for many diets in the United States. The localization of agricultural production of well-adapted, low-input grains has the potential to substantially reorient food systems toward greater sustainability. Currently there is very little organic grain production in Arizona (<400 acres), and 95% of conventional grain produced is shipped out of state. The objective of this project was to reintroduce into sustained production two heritage grains with historical presence and good potential for adaptation in the arid southwest: White Sonora wheat and Chapalote flint corn. As grain production involves a complex supply and processing chain, we applied a broad, interdisciplinary strategy that engaged researchers, community non-profits, producers and end-users, “from farm-to-table.” The project involved five growers in Pima and Maricopa counties, a seed conservation and research organization (Native Seeds/SEARCH), a food bank and associated production farm (Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona), an artisan-scale miller (Hayden Flour Mills), two regional heritage food marketing and promotion non-profits (Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance and Cultivate Santa Cruz), an historic preservation site (Tubac Historical Society), and a sustainable agriculture demonstration site and training center at a non-profit eco-village (Avalon Organic Gardens). While the implementation had its challenges, overall the project was tremendously successful in laying a solid foundation for low-input heritage grain production — not only in terms of the acreage of the respective varieties, but in terms of developing the necessary infrastructure, community-building and diversity of other crops needed to sustain the market for years to come.

Project Objectives:

We aimed to support heritage grain development from a number of angles. To increase production of both grains in the region, our strategy was to:

  • Distribute a shared seed stock of these varieties to all farmers to compare planting densities, production costs, yields and grain quality, while increasing seed quantities to share with additional growers.

  • Document strategies for reducing water use and enhancing soil fertility and moisture-holding capacity applicable to the production of these specific grains.

  • Test seed from our harvests for protein content, dough elasticity and texture to assess whether differences in production methods affect food quality and utility.

To encourage information exchange and learning among all parties, our strategy was to:

  • Provide scholarships to farmers, millers and bakers for the Native Seeds/SEARCH six-day Grain School, so that their knowledge can be shared and augmented.

  • Share (anonymously) spreadsheets of production costs, grain yields and milled flour yields so that producers and millers can equitably set initial price points.

  • Collaboratively research and share best practices around grain production, harvest, transport, processing and storage.

  • Collaboratively develop and share printed and online texts about the history, sustainability, nutritional value and uses of these heritage grains, to support the development of a consumer market for the grains.

To ensure that low-income communities have access to these grains, our strategy was to:

  • Pay grain producers an initial stipend to provide a portion of their harvests at a discount to low-income families interested in selling artisanally-made tortillas, tamales, atole, pinole or breads made from these grains.

  • Ensure that some of the harvests go directly to low-income food bank users.

  • Obtain feedback from tortilla-makers and bakers on the acceptability, usability and affordability of these grains to advance their own livelihoods.

Lastly, to ensure that multiple community-based organizations were integrated into the project plan, our objective was to conduct numerous outreach events involving various non-profits affiliated with the grant project.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Maribel Alvarez
  • Vanessa Bechtol
  • Chris Bianco
  • Duncan Blair
  • Dwight Bond
  • Todd Bostock
  • Don Guerra
  • Joy Hought
  • Shaw Kinsley
  • Kamon Lilly
  • Natalie Morris
  • Dr. Gary Nabhan
  • Massaseen Niles
  • Dr. Chris Schmidt
  • Evan Sofro
  • Michael White
  • Kyle Young
  • Jeff Zimmerman
  • Jaime de Zubeldia

Research

Materials and methods:

Specific efforts to address each of the stated objectives are described below.

(1) Reintroduce Chapalote corn and White Sonora wheat into sustainable production in the arid Southwest, by:

a. Distributing a shared seed stock of these varieties to all farmers to compare planting densities, production costs, yields and grain quality, while saving seed to share with additional growers.

Seed was distributed, saved and returned to NS/S or other farmers via a farmer exchange program with White Sonora (the arrangement was initial provision of free seed with a return of double that amount upon a successful harvest). We attempted to conduct farmer exhanges with Chapalote, but these harvests failed except in the case of producer Kyle Young. NS/S successfully increased Chapalote seed stocks through its own efforts. The result of these activities was substantially increased White Sonora and Chapalote seed stocks for regional use. We obtained some data on planting densities and yields, but these data are of limited value because each producer farmed in different ways (even from season to season) so there were too many variables at play, and data were of varying quality and inconsistently taken. Furthermore, it was a small group of producers and not everyone wanted to grow both wheat and corn, so sample sizes were very small. The difficulty in scientifically conducting such a study was an important lesson for us; this was a design flaw with the proposal from the beginning. Some effort was made to collect cost data but this was difficult because farmers struggled to pull out direct costs of project activities separate from other production. Relatively little analysis was done of grain quality, but we do have some hard data (attached) as well as observational data.

b. Documenting strategies for reducing water use and enhancing soil fertility and moisture-holding capacity applicable to the production of these heritage grains (entire period).

Again, this proved difficult to address in a systematic or scientifically rigorous fashion for the same reasons that are given above.

c. Testing seed from our harvests for protein content, dough elasticity and texture to assess whether differences in production methods affect food quality and utility.

Jeff Zimmerman had several lots of White Sonora tested for baking quality. The results indicated that this wheat variety is unsuitable for bread baking on its own, but testing by collaborating bakers indicated that it can contribute attractive properties to breads and pizzas when used in a mix.

(2) Establish fruitful exchanges regarding innovations in production, input reduction, harvesting, processing and marketing among producers and millers so that all can benefit from newly-emerging insights, by:

a. Providing scholarships to farmers, millers and bakers for the Native Seeds/SEARCH six-day Grain School, so that their knowledge can be shared and augmented.

One Grain School was held in January 2013 and a second training workshop was held in November 2014 which specifically targeted farmers.

b. Sharing (anonymously) spreadsheets of production costs, grain yields and milled flour yields so that producers and millers can equitably set initial price points.

Data were not complete enough to provide robust reporting of costs or yields but a number of informal discussions among farmers and millers resulted in improved efficiencies in production and the identification of roadblocks, including bottlenecks in the production/use chain.

c. Sharing printed and online texts about the history, sustainability, nutritional value and uses of these heritage grains, so that any farms or organizations can upload and adapt collaboratively-written educational and promotional materials on their own websites.

Basic printed brochures were produced and shared with the public. The major publication intended for the second year of the grant was not completed by the end of the grant period but the content has been produced and will be published subsequently.

(3) Ensuring that these heritage grains reach food-insecure families in the region, and that they are enlisted in producing value-added products from this grain as new sources of income, by:

a. Paying grain producers an initial stipend to provide a portion of their harvests at a discount to low-income families interested in selling artisanally-made tortillas, tamales, atole, pinole or breads made from these grains.

Producers were provided a stipend to cover their production costs and for their time spent in documenting yields, inputs, etc. Harvests were not provided at a discount to low-income families.

b. Ensuring that some of the harvests go directly to low-income food bank users.

We were instructed by SARE that this was not an allowed use of grant funds.

c. Obtaining feedback from tortilla-makers and bakers on the acceptability, usability and affordability of these grains to advance their own livelihoods.

We received valuable feedback from bakers, millers, brewers and chefs. We did not have success working with tortilla-makers despite initial efforts.

(4) Ensuring that educational, heritage preservation and food security non-profits are integrated into the project as a means to guide its destiny and support farmers in their efforts to make these grains locally available for the first time in decades. This will be achieved by integrating the promotion of these heritage grains into the events that will be described in the Outreach section below.

We did numerous outreach events involving various non-profits affiliated with the grant project. These are described in greater detail in a later section of this report.

Research results and discussion:

This grant supported several tangible outcomes relevant to the SARE program’s goals of sustaining the economic viability of farm operations and making the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources. Results include:

  1. A tremendous increase in the seed supply of White Sonora wheat, from 2,500 lbs in 2012 to over 50,000 lbs in 2014.
  2. Market recovery of White Sonora wheat: we expanded the network of growers from 6 in 2012 to 10 in 2014 (including one that has achieved organic certification), with five more in the pipeline once additional processing infrastructure is in place; acreage increased from 22 in 2012 to 85 in early 2014. Expansion occurred in both rural areas and in urban areas in Phoenix via innovative initiatives.
  3. Consumer acceptance of White Sonora wheat: bakers, restaurants and breweries are now offering White Sonora products to the public. White Sonora wheat products (several grades of flour, baking mixes, whole berries) are currently available through seven regional farmers markets, 12 retail outlets, three online sellers, and one CSA; two brewers, two bakers, and 45 chefs use the product. Artisan whole grain breads and pastries have great cultural value, and White Sonora wheat also has the advantage of having been grown for several years in other western states, which contributed to its renown. As a soft white wheat, White Sonora flour has high water absorption and a dense crumb, which on its own makes it undesirable for bread-making compared to hard red wheat flour (confirmed by analyses conducted by the Mt. Vernon Bread Lab); however, because there were two knowledgeable bakers on our multidisciplinary team (Don Guerra and Marco Bianco), who championed the grain for its flavor and nutrition and experimented with it in mixtures, we were able to achieve a desirable loaf. Sonora can also be sold as a berry that can be cooked like a pilaf and is accepted by consumers.
  4. A demonstrated reduction in water and fertilizer use among participating farmers, compared to conventionally grown varieties. Consistent outreach and communication between educators, researchers and grain producers resulted in nearly half the input use (seed rate, water use, nitrogen application), while reducing lodging and improving yields.
  5. Success in greatly increasing the seed supply of Chapalote flint corn, due to successful growouts at the Native Seeds/SEARCH farm and by one of the producers on the team. At the same time, two producers on the team who experimented with Chapalote in the low desert suffered crop failures. In year one, the small number of growers lacked experience with correct management of an open-pollinated corn variety and yields were low; in year two, the crop suffered from unusually high temperatures in the Phoenix area of over 115 degrees in May, during pollination.

We did not have success with tortilla-makers despite initial outreach efforts; the audience we identified was not very interested in using whole-grain flour in their products. We have not yet been able to evaluate the reaction to products made from Chapalote because we have not yet achieved production quantities of this grain.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Outreach, education and publications around this project were very fruitful.

Targeted consumer communication and events included:

  • Seminars – NS/S’ Joy Hought presented to an audience of 45 people at the ASU School of Sustainability on nutritional and agronomic features of heritage grains.
  • Grain system round-table events, where cooperative members convened to discuss challenges and share information (one of these was held at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and the other was at the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Center).
  • Public tour of grain-producing farms (including those involved in the grant) in southern Arizona.
  • A public celebration of heritage grains featuring our project and held at the Sea of Glass performing arts center in Tucson.
  • Public lecture at the NS/S retail store on sourdough baking presented by project collaborator Don Guerra of Barrio Bread, attended by over sixty people. Don Guerra also conducted numerous classes around baking and has utilized and promoted both White Sonora wheat and Chapalote corn extensively.
  • Accessible publications on White Sonora wheat and Chapalote corn, and the work of our collaborative team, as well as online video content produced by collaborators.
  • A plethora of articles about the project or our collaborators came out in magazines, newspapers and online outlets. Some of these are attached to this report; they are included to demonstrate the publicity and impact that we achieved, but please note that we do not own these publications. This is but a small sample; these and more can be found at the following links:

American Airlines piece: http://hub.aa.com/en/aw/arizona-bread-heritage-comeback-bakery?zonemode=page_3
http://penandfork.com/tag/arizona-white-sonora-wheat-berries/

http://www.haydenflourmills.com/in-the-news/

Outreach improved consumer literacy and engagement in our region around several themes:

  • The art and science of bread and baking
  • Sustainability and food localization challenges in grain that have tended to be more obscure than in other segments of agriculture, such as fresh organic produce. E.g., how much Arizona grain is exported and where does it goes, and the relevance of low-input varieties to addressing climate change in our region.
  • The nutritional value of whole grains, and specifically, recent controversies around gluten.

Education and outreach targeted to grain producers included:

  • Grain School, one six-day event, held in January of 2013 at the NS/S conservation center in Tucson; 23 attendees, who were a mixture of growers, bakers, brewers, nutritionists and journalists from our region, as well as Colorado and California. Content covered all aspects of the grain system, from growing to harvesting to market development.
  • Gary Nabhan, co-developer of the current project and a small grain grower himself, produced a paper educating beginning growers on crucial aspects of post-harvest processing titled “Understanding the Small Grain Supply Chain: from Threshing through Cleaning, Storage & Milling,” made available on the NS/S web site and distributed to growers at roundtable meetings.
  • The publication by Ottman and Hought, “Recommendations for Growing Standard-Height Wheat Varieties in Arizona,” published by University of Arizona Extension. This document described essential differences in fertility, timing, and planting density for optimum resource use with these grains.

In lieu of a second Grain School, NS/S identified the need for more targeted education for growers in order to improve yields and optimize input use. In November 2013, a one-day workshop was held at ASU in Tempe; content focused on grain growth & physiology, agronomy (seed rates, timing, fertility), optimizing yield in landraces/heritage grains, milling quality parameters and seed production for organic systems (a second field-based day was planned to address harvesting equipment and storage, but the event was rained out). This meeting was also set up to facilitate dialog around production and harvest challenges, cooperative opportunities and market development. Attended by 19 growers from all over the state of Arizona, this one-day event connected more seasoned and beginning growers and resulted in important resolutions around community-owned equipment.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

  1. We have stimulated and encouraged the maturation of a robust grain network. The past two years of grant support helped participants develop enough knowledge to begin to differentiate their efforts into specific market niches. For example, BKW Farms has obtained organic certification for White Sonora wheat; Brent Sandstrom is investing in the production of gluten-free grains; miller Jeff Zimmerman and farmer Steve Sossaman are co-developing an ambitious agri-tourism space around peri-urban grain growing and culture; and Janna Anderson of Pinnacle Farms will be focusing on organic landrace flint corn. The grant also had a tangential effect on adoption of other heritage grains as evidenced by Hayden Flour Mills’ developing markets and contracting for additional crops. In 2014 Jeff Zimmerman has contracted with growers for 285 acres of heritage varieties of oats, durum wheat, emmer wheat, sorghum and barley.
  2. We now have a better understanding of the nuances around consumer preferences for heritage grain and potential markets, which is crucial for sustaining growers’ output. Likewise, farmers have been validated for their efforts by a growing consumer awareness and desire for their product.
  3. Our network has a greatly enhanced understanding of techniques and mechanics of producing high-quality grain for the human food chain. See for example Nabhan’s article (attached). We also sought out advisors from other regions to supplement our knowledge (see Farmer Adoption section).
  4. Grain is an agricultural product that requires community, and the grain network here matured and was strengthened through the social challenges that arise from working together as a community. Outcomes here are less tangible compared to seed volume and acreage, but are no less important. The grant helped sustain what in 2012 was a fledgling collective of interested but relatively inexperienced growers. Throughout the project planning and implementation there was consistently an environment of cooperative problem solving; constructive conversations about market development, brainstorming, all the exploratory and creative thinking that’s needed to recreate a functional grain chain. It was also crucial that we made full use of a multidisciplinary team of agronomists, breeders, historians, bakers, millers and growers who augmented each other’s efforts.
  5. Greater consumer engagement with issues around local grain production (see Outreach section). In a way, publicity expertise and PR was out ahead of grower knowledge. This was true in Tucson and adjacent areas but particularly in the Phoenix urban area, where grain growing took off in several places within the city where it was more visible to consumers could engage urbanites around urban grain.

Economic Analysis

While the economics of lower-yielding grain production within a commodity context are a central bottleneck to increasing production, this question proved to be too challenging to address given our project design. Some effort was made to collect cost data, but this was difficult because farmers struggled to pull out direct costs of project activities separate from other production.

Farmer Adoption

Farmers in the project had a range of experience both with farming and with organic or low-input grain production; they also varied in their capacity to invest in larger scale equipment required for grain processing. Steve Sossaman, on one hand, is a fifth-generation conventional grain grower from the Phoenix area; likewise BKW farms entered the collaborative as a large-scale conventional grain and bean grower; Jenna Anderson of Pinnacle Farms had grown organic vegetables but had no experience with grains; Avalon gardens had a successful animal rotation into which they sought to integrate a low-input cereal. What they all have in common was an entrepreneurial attitude and willingness to experiment, learn, take risks and collaboratively learn from one another.

Farmer adoption generally hinged on three issues:

  1. Growth of a viable consumer market for niche grains, which often yield less than conventional cultivars.
  2. Understanding of agronomic traits of landrace grains compared to modern input-responsive cultivars. There were notable crop failures and unnecessary yield losses due to over-application of water and fertilizer. For the 2013 growing season, NS/S identified U of A extension agent Mike Ottman as an advisor on the agronomy of dryland grains and invited him along for several field visits to corn and wheat growers. Observations and discussions during these visits around more appropriate input use led to the publication by Ottman and Hought, “Recommendations for Growing Standard-Height Wheat Varieties in Arizona,” published by University of Arizona Extension. This document described basic differences in fertility, timing and planting density for optimum resource use with these grains. Additional consultations were sought from experts in different regions who had experience with landrace wheats, including university extension agents Frank Kutka and Steve Zwinger in North Dakota, grain miller Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina, heritage grain seed producer John Fendley of Sustainable Seed Co. in California, and historian and grower Tevis Robertson-Goldberg of Crabapple Farm in Massachusetts.
  3. Throughout the grant period, the lack of basic equipment to clean small amounts of seed has been a fundamental obstacle to producer adoption. In our region, growers in our network have only two options to get their seeds cleaned. (1) Commercial cleaners, who are scaled for much larger volume: this is cumbersome, impractical and inordinately expensive for growers producing 2-10 ton amounts. Several growers have had to sacrifice their identity-preserved status in order to get their seed cleaned; this negates one of the only economic incentives available to producers harvesting grains with lower-yield but higher nutrition, lower inputs and other values. (2) Alternative facilities that can clean smaller amounts are not food-grade, and several farmers have had cross-contamination issues with the seed cleaning and treatment operations. In the final days of the grant period, a member of our network identified, and NS/S purchased, a small scale Clipper 324. It will be located at the NS/S farm, where it can be shared by growers within a few hundred miles and can be easily outfitted to clean a wide range of seeds. We expect this to have a substantial and long-term positive impact on the growth in niche grains in our region. Currently, there are five new small farmers in our county who are interested in producing low-input grain for local markets but were waiting for the infrastructure to be in place to participate in the collaborative.

Adoption of Chapalote flint corn was less successful, primarily because the starting seed supply was smaller and, during the first season, the emphasis had to be on increasing seed stocks. Chapalote yields were also much more sensitive to fluctuations in water use, fertility and high temperatures during pollination. Growers also tended to prefer just one of the grains to work with and may have chosen Sonora as the market for it was better known. Vintner Todd Bostock attempted both corn and wheat, but due to labor and resource constraints, had to prioritize his wine grapes. Jenna Anderson attempted to grow Chapalote but suffered crop failure due to poor pollination and fruit set in the heat. Those growers who attempted Chapalote at higher elevations (NS/S and Kyle Young) had good success with it.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

  • Further research into a diverse balance of regionally appropriate grains that tolerate high heat, reduced water and saline soils. This will require investigation into crops with high-value for the human food chain, as well as multiple end uses; one example being landrace barleys, which could produce grain for microbrewed beer (which already has a burgeoning market in Phoenix and Tucson), as well as straw used in environmental remediation. Drought tolerance is a particularly high priority for future investigations. This is compounded by climate change forecasts that predict a continuation of the rapidly increasing temperatures in the region. Specific to southern Arizona, there is intense competition for water rights from the Colorado River, and agricultural production is already slated to have reduced access by half by 2015. Urban grain growing environments that have found a niche in the Phoenix area have particular potential in that they may access municipal water sources. Quantification of the environmental advantages of lower-input grains is also necessary to support their increased use at the local policy level.
  • On conclusion of the grant, many participant producers requested more knowledge around integrating heritage grains into sustainable rotations and soil-building regimes, and understanding the contribution of desert soil health to yield. Again, as our region is underrepresented in terms of certified organic cereal production, there is much to learn here in order to optimize inputs versus yields.
  • More in-depth analysis and outreach regarding nutritional features of heritage cereals to help support their economic value vs higher-yielding modern cultivars.
  • More systematic study is needed on the effects of management on food quality parameters, and there is still much less information on these relationships in heritage grains versus high-yielding cultivars. Growers specifically need better understanding of relationships between water, harvest timing, storage, tempering practices and final moisture, as, in wheat for human consumption at least, their economic returns are contingent on it.
  • As one proposal reviewer stated, “in a niche market, production cost/return may not be critical; from a food security perspective, it could be critical.” Communities in southern Arizona are some of the poorest in the nation. To make high-nutrition grains available to low-income communities we need to explore means of reducing their retail cost and/or subsidizing their production within target communities.
  • Relatedly, we plan to pursue a more nuanced exploration of culturally appropriate, diverse, grain end-user markets that respect the food values of low-income communities, where high-cost niche or artisan foods may hold less salience.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.