Food by VICE

Growing Grains Is Giving a Second Life to My Family Farm

My carrots and potatoes taste better than ever because growing grains revitalizes the soil. Also, I just made another cash crop for myself—just like that.

by Alex Weiser
Dec 9 2015, 11:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Miran Rijavec

Grains are drought-tolerant, and more farmers need to think about this fact.

As the farmer behind Weiser Family Farms, I mainly grow root and other specialty vegetables. That is, until a lot of my customers started to open up bakeries, pasta restaurants, and breweries. Now I grow specialty grains for them too, and this has been amazing for me.

For starters, my carrots and potatoes taste better than ever because growing grains revitalize the soil. I just made another cash crop for myself—just like that. And in this day and age as a family farmer in California, this is really important. The funny thing about this new economy is that I've always grown grain—wheat, barley, rye, and oats—to use as cover crops. A lot of farmers do, because it is considered a good farming principle; it builds the soil after growing vegetables, makes it disease-resistant by starving nematodes, and helps biological action take place in the ground.

Bread made with Weiser's red fife wheat. Photo courtesy of Aliza J. Sokolow

Bread made with Weiser's red fife wheat. Photo courtesy of Aliza J. Sokolow

Growing grains also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, reducing farming's carbon footprint and ultimately combating global warming. This new development in California farming is exciting on many different levels, but it was always considered a loss.

Not anymore.

Wheat and the other small cereal grains have been planted in the Golden State since missions were established in the 1760s. Our Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing the annual grasses collectively known as grains. California once led the nation in barley production and was second in wheat production, but in the early 20th century, grain farming was replaced by higher-value orchards, vineyards, and row crops.

If you are a farmer, you might be overwhelmed at first because growing grains takes up a lot of space. Growing grains is the easy part, but a lot of the issues with growing them come when it is time to harvest, because you need to invest in new machinery. Then you have to deal with price expectations since customers will most likely be used to paying cheaper prices for the Midwest GMO stuff. But artisans value locally, organically, and responsibly grown products, and this is all that matters. Nevertheless, we small family farmers still need a little help.

Weiser (wearing hat) in one of the fundraising dinners.

Weiser (wearing hat) in one of the fundraising dinners. Photo courtesy of Aliza J. Sokolow

We launched an Indiegogo campaign a while back and did a few amazing fundraising dinners with chefs like Michael Fiorelli at Love & Salt, but we still have ways to go. I have started a movement called the Tehachapi Grain Project along with Glen Roberts of Anson Mills and Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch in order to build momentum and get more family farmers in California to grow grains. It financially make sense to grow grains because they can be grown on fallow land, allowing farmers to make money out of an area that they are paying property taxes for but don't put to use.

This brings up another topic that needs to be discussed: water. Farmers are the stewards of the land, and are responsible for future generations of farming. Growing grains has allowed us to save more water than ever. Just like in any other field, there are bad farmers and there are good farmers, so we all have to manage our resources, no matter what they are. As far as water goes, we are doing as much drip irrigation as we can and never overwater.

Growing grains is exciting on many different levels. I could keep on going on about it all day. Did I mention that it also helps to evade soil runoff? We are just at the cusp of this new era, and it can only get better from here.

As told to Javier Cabral

california drought
family farms
Anson Mills
Weiser Family Farms