Lucy Neely: The Mendocino Grain Project


From LUCY NEELY
The Gardens Project
A Program of NCO Community Action
www.gardensproject.org

The best and most radical idea in the county right now is The Mendocino Grain Project, which consists of three Anderson Valley farmers – Doug Mosel, John Gramke, and Sophia Bates – who are reintroducing grain production to Mendocino County through a grain-share CSA. Their reintroduction of grain represents an essential step towards a local food economy in Mendocino County, but one that has historically been overlooked.

Last Friday, I visited with Mosel, Gramke, Bates, and the grains to learn about their project. It was a beautiful spring morning following those tiresome rains, and the clarity of the blue, cloud-dappled sky could just barely rival that of The Grain Project. The three farmers share a creative, forward thinking, and good-humored ethos. Mosel is a hay-man whose passion is grain. Gramke got into grains by way of biodiesel and canola. Both are Nebraska-born farm-boys living the second halves of their lives in Mendocino County. Bates is a Philo native with thirty in sight, a braid to her waist, horses instead of a tractor, and a feather in her hat.

As Mosel remembers it, the idea of reintroducing grain production to the county came to the fore during the Steps Towards a Local Food Economy gatherings that took place from 2005 to 2007, primarily in Anderson Valley. During these gatherings, grain production was identified as “a gap in local food production.” So, Doug figured, “Let’s try it.” After all, until post World War II, Mendocino County was self-sufficient in food production, grains included. So what happened? “The commodity market happened,” answers Gramke. “Grapes happened,” Bates adds.

While Mendocino County maintains a modicum of vegetable and meat production in the harrowing face of modern agriculture, it lost grain production entirely. This is dangerous (and dull). If resource distribution – say, weather or fossil fuels – changed drastically, we could have no grain to consume. Wheat, barley, rice, beans, lentils, oats: you name it, and we wouldn’t eat it because it isn’t produced here. And, currently, if someone wants to buy local grains for the joy of consuming locally, they can’t.

Until now, that is! In its second season of producing grains for human and animal consumption, The Grain Project has twelve acres under cultivation, including wheats, barleys, rye, lentils, oats, and beans, grown primarily at the Nelson Family Vineyards in Ukiah. The grains are dry farmed, meaning the only water they get is rain. Most of them are shin high about now because the late rains forced a late planting, but the grains that were planted last autumn and overwintered between vineyard rows are as tall as the grape vines and look glorious.

Mosel and Gramke spent the last year (and Mosel’s savings) scouring the continent for the inputs necessary to recreate a lost grain economy in Mendocino County: a disc from Sebastopol, a mini-combine small enough to fit between vineyard rows from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, seeds from California, Montana, Minnesota, and Canada. The Grain Project also has to recreate the lost knowledge of how to farm grains in Mendocino, and that’s why they have 21 grain varieties planted in 12 acres. The whole operation strikes one as a phenomenal experiment. “We learned a lot about where we can plant and when to plant,” Mosel says.

Discussing Bates’ role in the project, Gramke and Mosel said that “she’s the future,” describing how Bates farms with horses rather than tractors. She also seems to know more about sustainable small-scale agriculture than our two Nebraska farm boys.

Except for the mini-combine, The Grain Project runs its vehicles and equipment on biodiesel. “This is all transitional,” Mosel declares, and Gramke elaborates: “We need to put people to work instead of machines. We need to bring people back to the farm.” What are the future plans for The Mendocino Grain Project? Well, Mosel says, “We’ve got a combine. Now we’ve got to get serious about grain.”

The grain-share is probably fully subscribed for 2010, depending on production levels. For more information contact Lucy Neely at lneely@ncoinc.org or Doug Mosel at dmosel@wildblue.net.
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Photo essay of the visit here.
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2 Comments

Grains and beans are really important, and really neglected in sustainability discussions. You just can’t eat enough broccoli and tomatoes to get your daily calories! I’ve been experimenting with growing large amounts of dried beans (mostly Pinto) using human power. I’m planting in long rows and using this wheel hoe to keep them weeded. So different from bed gardening, but I do like how efficient it feels!

I am very impressed by this project and the labor being put into it. Bravo! We are in dire need of more people like you, Lucy Neely, in this world. People so easily dismiss and forget the power of the land and I thank you for your time and efforts.
christine esther

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