Grow Your Own Heirloom Grains!

I have been enchanted by the beauty and diversity of heirloom seeds for many seasons.  The rich history that each variety embodies leads us back to our cultural roots and to the tales of our Middle Eastern, European, African, Asian, Indian and American agricultural forebears.

Many of our heirloom varieties are at risk of being lost entirely as they are less desirable for commercial production due to variation in color, size and shape.   Ironically, many of these varieties thrive in small, diversified gardens and are especially pleasing to the palate!  A crucial aspect of the “mainstreamification” of sustainable agriculture (if you will) lies in educating the masses about the pleasures involved in growing, cooking, eating and saving seeds from special varieties of food crops, including our staple crops such as grains and beans.

In California we grow just about any kind of food crop save the tropical fruits, coffee and cacao.  Within the last 10 years, farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms have quadrupled their markets.  Left largely out of the picture in the local food conversation, however, have been the staple crops, which, according to Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, comprise about 70% of the calories we consume.

Sadly, our precious, locally grown Little Gem lettuces, Chioggia beets and Kishu tangerines are not enough to fill our bellies year-round.  We need seeds, every day, and a lot of them (unless you are on one of the hip, Paleolithic-type, low carb diets!).  Consider for a moment where the flour comes from which supplies your local artisanal baker.  In most cases, even if they sell at the farmer’s market, the grain is from the Midwestern US and we are back to the average food mile total of 1,500 miles per bite!

Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, O’odham Pink beans, Runner Cannellini beans, Hopi Blue Corn, Inca Rainbow Quinoa, and Hopi Red Amaranth are among my favorite heirloom crops.  For many years now, heirloom tomatoes have received more attention than any other crop. I know of farms that are keeping hundreds of varieties of these spectacularly diverse and delicious fruit.  In my opinion, however, it is the staple crops (beans and grains) that deserve more attention.  For this reason and many others, I encourage every client I work with to cultivate a “Three Sisters” patch of corn, beans and squash.  It is highly productive (calorically speaking), all three crops can store through the Winter, and it is an excellent lesson in Native American history and companion planting!

Last Fall, in steady pursuit of small scale, full caloric independence,  I purchased 100 pounds of organic White Sonora wheat from a local farm here on the CA Central Coast and tried it out on my family farm (see: According to Slow Food USA, White Sonora is one of the oldest wheat varieties in the United States.


It is less productive per acre, but yields very fine wheat which is excellent for baking.

So I cultivated after our first big rain and broadcast the seed by hand out into the field.  I always sow extra seed for the birds, as they will take it even if they are not invited!  The seed germinated with the next rain and came up well throughout the Winter and Spring.  In July, I cut it down and bundled it for in preparation for processing.

Having had little experience threshing and winnowing grains, I thought I could manage doing it by hand.  Threshing involves separating the seed from the straw, and winnowing separating the seed from the chaff (seed husk).  I tried a number of different hand-threshing and winnowing methods before I realized that I would be busy for weeks if I were to do it all by hand.  So I gave my friends up at Pie Ranch in Pescadero a call.  I originally purchased the grain from them and I knew they would have some alternative threshing and winnowing technologies.

As it turns out, they have a 1950’s vintage All Crop combine which attaches to a tractor and can process virtually any kind of seed crop.  So I took my wheat up to Pie Ranch and passed it through the combine.  Within 20 minutes the entire load was processed! Ah, the miracles of modern machinery! I had intended to not use any fossil fuels in the process, and was once again reminded of the convenience such energy-rich fuels offer us in agriculture.

I ended up with about 50 pounds of grain.  My friend Jered from Pie Ranch then showed me how to winnow the seed until it was perfectly clean using a household fan:

Once the seed was completely clean, Jered showed me how to use the Austrian stone grinder that they have in their barn.  As flour quickly goes rancid, it is best to mill, or grind, it in small batches.  I ground up a couple of pounds to take home to my mom and my girlfriend for baking:

To be honest, it was a whole lot of work and I ended up with about as much grain as I started with. I lost a lot of seed as I harvested it. Hopefully, much of the seed that was dropped will sprout up again when the rains return this Fall and I won’t have to replant it. It is, however, very affirming to eat breads, cakes, muffins and cookies grown from your own land. I grew about a quarter of an acre and it will be enough flour for my family for the whole year. Even if you only have a small 5×8 foot bed, you will be surprised with how much actual grain you generate. It will certainly be enough to make a few delicious batches of home-grown cookies!

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