About three years ago, local farmer Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi got a phone call. Food writer Russ Parsons was on the line, wondering if he might visit the farm with a friend who wanted to pick Weiser’s brain. Ever gracious, the farmer agreed. Parsons’ guest turned out to be master soba-noodle maker, educator and food activist Sonoko Sakai.
“She asked if I had ever considered growing grain,” Weiser says. “We did have some in production at the time, but it was just cover cropping — we planted it and turned it under, didn’t harvest it or bring it to market. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘There’s no money in this.’ But I was listening, processing.”
After some hemming and hawing, Weiser decided he would test the waters. Though a veritable luminary in the L.A. food scene — Weiser has been selling his family’s crops at local markets for more than 30 years, and influencing L.A. restaurants for about as long — he enlisted fellow Tehachapi farmer Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch. The duo knew that the proposition wasn’t preposterous; Tehachapi’s mild winters and hot summers make it ideal for certain grains. In fact, the region (and others near it with a similar Mediterranean climate) was once home to a sturdy grain economy.
For Hammond, reviving grain farming in Southern California strikes a personal chord. His family’s Tehachapi roots date back to 1898, when his grandfather, Phil Hand, arrived to the high-elevation valley on foot. He was a shepherd with about 5,000 Angora goats, and there was a giant shearing station nearby, where he could shear his herd’s hair and then load it onto train cars bound for wool mills back east.
Hand also was among farmers who grew drought-tolerant crops like barley, oats and rye in the early 20th century. But when grain production in the Midwest rose in the 1940s and '50s, prices plummeted, and California farmers began to rethink what they planted. High-value crops such as grapes, almonds and walnuts soon took the front seat. As a result of industrialization, grain changed, too.
“In the course of looking for and breeding grains that were more productive, flavor profile, cold hardiness and drought tolerance were overlooked,” Hammond explains. “Our interest is in reviving local grain production and with more flavorful, heirloom varieties.”
Weiser and Hammond dubbed their new venture Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project (THGP) back in 2014. That first winter, they planted a row of buckwheat (specifically for Sakai) and an acre each of Red Fife wheat and Abruzzi rye. All were heritage grains — “older, discovered varieties that hadn’t been toyed with,” Weiser says. Sakai gave them the buckwheat seed. The other grains were provided by Glen Roberts of Anson Mills out of South Carolina, where Roberts continues to farm and advocate for heirloom crops.
As Weiser predicted, they made zero profit that first year. The buckwheat was lost, and much of the wheat that was successfully harvested was given away to foodie and chef friends, who were encouraged to play around with the goods in their kitchens. Positive feedback from them inspired Weiser and Hammond to push on. Paige Russell (Hatchet Hall), Jason Neroni (Rose Cafe & Restaurant), Zack Hall (Clark Street Bread), Roxana Jullapat (Friends & Family), Shannon Swindle (Craft), Travis Lett (Gjelina), Sasha Piligian (Sqirl) and Bruce Kalman (Union and Knead & Co) are among those currently experimenting with THGP grains.
“All of a sudden, this passive thing started clicking,” Weiser says. “We knew there’d be roadblocks, but we saw the possible benefits, too.”
Expanding acreage to meet demand would require infrastructure, though — to start, a seed drill to plant and a combine to harvest. Neither machine is an easily justifiable purchase when you’re overseeing just a handful of acres. Weiser and Hammond borrowed a beat-up combine from Nate Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms to harvest THGP’s first crop. The next year, the same machine broke down midway, leaving the remainder of the grain to go to seed. Last season, there was no combine to be found or borrowed, so the farmers hired a harvester and driver at great expense.
Unlike crops such as tomatoes or melons, grain requires additional steps after harvesting: cleaning, milling, bagging, transportation. Currently Weiser and the team are sending their harvested goods three hours one-way to Lompoc for those final steps — a process Hammond calls counterproductive and pricy. Yet THGP still aims to grow, having farmed 100 acres of grain last summer and reaching for the 500-acre mark soon. To help with this, a Go Fund Me campaign has been launched to collect funds for requisite machinery. (A recent fundraising event with local female chefs allowed the farmers to buy a used combine harvester.)
In addition to being high in quality and packed with flavor, the small grains THGP offers — Sonora, Red Fife and Abruzzi rye primarily — are ecologically invaluable. They require no irrigation — a tremendous boon in a region with limited and prohibitively expensive water — and growing them enhances soil structure and net-carbon sequestration. Additionally, the grains grow in the winter and are harvested just before it’s time to plant spring and summer produce like tomatoes and carrots. These advantages have even impelled nearby land owners to reach out to THGP. A few have offered up their own fallow land in exchange for part of the crop or profit.
And profits are no longer at zero. Mill around Weiser’s stand on any Wednesday market day and you’ll spy L.A. chefs and intrepid home cooks picking up THGP grain. As of now, one-pound bags of Red Fife or Abruzzi rye (milled or not) are sold for $7, while a Red Fife/Sonora blend is $5 per pound.
Clemence Gossett, owner of the Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories and a shopper at the Santa Monica farmers market for nearly 20 years, is a regular fixture at the stand. An avid supporter of THGP since the beginning, Gossett helps out by storing a Komo grain mill — it’s affectionately named “Milli” — at her school down the street. With advance notice, any buyer of THGP grains can pop into her school to mill their purchase. A smaller version of the mill — “Vanilli” — sometimes makes an appearance at the market so interested parties can watch (and smell) the grain as it’s stone ground right on the sidewalk.
Gossett recommends newbies pick up Sonora wheat, a “gateway grain” and a good place to start if you’re used to working with all-purpose flour. Once milled, Sonora is soft, mellow and sweet in flavor, making it ideal for pancakes and waffles. For breadmaking, Gossett prefers Red Fife, a stronger varietal with more flavor and sturdiness. With THGP Abruzzi rye, she’s making focaccia, chocolate rye cookies and breads. Spelt is next on her wish list, and Weiser says they’ll test it out this season, along with heirloom corn and anything else that’s requested and feasible.
No matter which grain a chef or home cook works with, Gossett imagines she’ll find it hard to go back to commodity grain.
“Stone grinding preserves and celebrates the nutrients and flavors of the crop,” she says. “A whole-wheat flour from the grocery store is essentially flour that’s milled, then the grain is separated out and only a little bran is put back in, since it [negatively] affects shelf life. So you’re losing what’s really special about whole-wheat flour — the texture and flavor.”
Weiser and Hammond understand that getting diners and cooks excited about their grain is an integral part to creating a local food movement and grain hub that’s both ecologically sustainable and accessible economically. While they know they won’t be able to complete with commodity grain prices, Hammond does believe they can still attract discerning shoppers. Not everyone will buy a $7 loaf of artisanal loaf of bread every time they need bread, he says, but if they taste the quality, they’ll buy it when they can.
“It’s moving in that direction — offering choices and diversity to those who care and who want to develop their palate and eat something that was grown locally and sustainably,” Hammond says. “We’re not trying to feed the world. We want to feed ourselves and our community. That will make us more resilient.”