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

Project Overview

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

Commodities

  • Agronomic: corn, wheat

Practices

  • Crop Production: cover crops, irrigation
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study, value added
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    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.

    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.