Local Food: Humboldt’s Fields of Gold

The Redwood Times
Thanks to Doug Mosel

For the past five years, a small group of Humboldt County farmers has been working to revive local grain production, researching and experimenting with different varieties to find out what was grown historically and what works best in local conditions.

Kevin Cunningham of Shakefork Farms in Carlotta, Dan Primerano of Redway and John LaBoyteaux of Camp Grant Ranch near Weott, while not yet rivaling the grain production of the Midwest, Northwest and California’s Central Valley, have produced enough grain to sell at farmers markets and to local bakers and natural food stores.

LaBoyteaux, now retired from raising fruits and vegetables for farmers markets, spent his “free time” this season growing four varieties of wheat. Although he planted only a little more than four acres, all the varieties did well, with better-than-expected yields.

This year LaBoyteaux focused on “hard red” wheats, the type best suited for making bread. In past years he tried smaller amounts of several varieties of “soft white” wheat, which is preferred for pastry.

To a novice looking at the wheat, it seems almost impossible to tell “hard red” from “soft white,” but the hard grain is harder to grind than the soft grain, and red grains do have a reddish tint compared to the lighter, brown-toned color of white wheat.

LaBoyteaux’s star performer this year is ‘Kelse,’ a spring wheat from the Skagit Valley of northwest Washington. Because it was developed for a wet climate, it did particularly well in this year’s long, wet spring.

Two acres of Kelse at Camp Grant yielded 5,000 pounds of grain. LaBoyteaux believes this may be the best yield anyone has had locally, with the previous high yield estimated at 1,700 pounds per acre.

Besides Kelse, LaBoyteaux planted an acre each of two winter wheats, ‘Expresso’ from the Sacramento Valley and ‘Red Fife,’ an heirloom wheat generally grown in the Dakotas and Canada.

Although winter wheats are typically planted in the late fall or early winter, so that they can take advantage of winter precipitation in dry climates, these varieties can be planted later in Humboldt County, where rainfall is expected throughout the spring months.

Finally, LaBoyteaux planted a small amount of ‘India Jammu,’ an East Indian “land race heritage” wheat. He obtained eight pounds of seed from Monica Spiller, founder of the Whole Grain Connection and a collector of heritage wheat seed.

From these eight pounds of seed he harvested 75 pounds of grain. He will give approximately half the harvest to Spiller to build up her seed bank, and will save the rest for his own seed bank.

Although LaBoyteaux will save some of the other types of grain for future cultivation, most of his crop will be sold to local bakers and natural food stores.

”I owe a lot to local bakers. They have been advocates for local grains, and they’ve experimented with different varieties and given us feedback,” he said. “Like Charlie Tuna, they want grains that taste good.”

Grain stays fresher much longer if it is stored whole. The bakers he’s worked with grind just enough for a week’s worth of baking, and individual buyers usually have home grinders that enable them to prepare a pound or two of flour at a time, just enough for immediate use.

Although most people don’t think of grain as a product of Humboldt County, historical records show that at least 15,000 acres of grain were produced here, including in the Mattole and Eel River Valleys, and even in the flat areas of what are now the towns of Redway and Garberville.

Grains were grown primarily for local consumption, but were also exported. Records from around the turn of the 20th century show that shiploads of grain left Port Kenyon near Ferndale, headed for San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But LaBoyteaux points out that before there was rail and highway transportation, local food production was essential to the survival of the local population. Grain, which provides high-quality carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients, was an important part of people’s diets, as it remains today.

As transportation improved and irrigation was made available to formerly arid places like the Central Valley, commercial production moved inland, and Humboldt’s history of grain production was mostly forgotten.

Where do grains fit into the agriculture scene in Humboldt, now and in the future?

”Grains work really well as a rotational crop,” LaBoyteaux said, following either vegetables or an alfalfa field that has been growing for a few years and is in decline.

First the field is replowed, and then LaBoyteaux plants the grain intermixed with clover. The grain-clover mix chokes out the weeds and often breaks cycles of pests and disease. Clover, a nitrogen-fixer, replenishes this essential soil nutrient. Wheat interplanted with clover has a higher protein content.

Among many varieties of clover, LaBoyteaux recommends low-growing, spreading clovers, such as ‘Standard Red,’ ‘Dalkeith,’ ‘Strawberry Palestine’ and ‘Balansa,’ all of which he planted with this year’s wheat crop.

One year, he and Dan Primerano tried ‘Crimson’ clover, which grew so tall that it had to be harvested with the wheat. Luckily, Primerano’s combine was capable of sifting the much-smaller clover seed out of the grain.

In Humboldt County wheat does not require irrigation. It is planted during the wet season and grows while moisture is available. As the days get dry and hot in the summer, the plant head forms and dries out. Even when the field looks golden and perfect, the farmer must patiently wait for the seeds to harden before harvesting.

If home gardeners want to experiment with grain, LaBoyteaux suggests starting with a “parking space”-size plot that can be harvested by hand. Larger amounts require machinery and lots of handling.

A field of wheat must be harvested with dedicated machinery, typically a combine, and then the grain must be cleaned again to remove unwanted seeds from other plants and the remaining chaff and stems.

The grain then has to be transferred to watertight storage barrels or bins and protected from moisture and pests.

LaBoyteaux credits Kevin Cunningham with being the first to revive grain growing in Humboldt County. Besides wheat, Cunningham is also experimenting with rye, barley, flaxseed and other grains, now available at the Garberville farmers market on Fridays.

Dan Primerano introduced local farmers to Monica Spiller and to the ‘Sonora’ variety, a soft white heritage wheat which has done well in Humboldt and provided local bakers with the starting material for many irresistible goodies.

In addition to growing his own crops at Camp Grant and Southern Humboldt Community Park, Primerano has built up a seed stock of ‘Sonora’ and ‘Foisy,’ another soft white variety, and has done much helpful research on what varieties were raised historically in Humboldt County.

This year, Lawrence Hindley of Ferndale planted wheat in the Mattole Valley, where he discovered soil fertility problems in one field that have led to promising research toward good future harvests.

As for the future, LaBoyteaux sees more local farmers growing for specific bakeries and natural food stores selling whole grain. While it may be unrealistic to think we can grow all the grain we need in Humboldt County, grain will be an important part of expanding local food production, he said.

Right now he’s looking for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to find a “plant science person” to record everything local farmers have learned, both historically and from their own experience, so that future farmers have a body of information to help in further experimentation and more steps toward local food independence.
Original story here