Our Story

In 2018 a small group of us from Santa Fe went to the Grain School in Colorado Springs.  We didn’t’ necessarily know each other, but we wanted to share a ride and go.  We got to know each other well enough to start what has become the Rio Grande Grain Team. There were just three of us going up to Colorado and four coming back and a few Santa Feans we met there stayed on. We each had a reason for going. One person had been to seed school, and as the same group was co-hosting Grain School (with UCCS) it made sense for her to attend.  Another person was a baker and of course she wanted to go and learn from others. I wasn’t a baker but the minute I heard about Grain School I knew I had to go and learn from the growers what was involved in growing these grains. And finally, one person said that when she read the Grain School agenda, she just knew that she wanted to learn everything they were covering and especially to learn about sourdough bread-baking with heirloom grains, even though she had never baked bread before.  She just somehow knew she needed to go.

While there we were greatly inspired by the locally grown grains we ate, the speakers like RMSA’s Bill McDorman, WSU’s Steve Jones, and of course organizer Nanna Meyer and the importance of using sourdough as a fermenting agent for foods of all kinds,  especially whole grains. Two of us bought Mock Mill 200s and we bought spelt from a Colorado farmer. One person already had a Mock Mill attachment for her mixer but she has recently upgraded.  And a fourth person has bought a Mock Mill 100 since then. Even if you don’t make sourdough bread It is a joy to grind your own grain especially if it’s a grain like spelt, einkorn, Abruzzi rye, or Tibetan barley. Everything tastes better!  And once you become interested in grains you can actually find them. Or maybe they find you.

Grain School, 2018
Grain School 2018. From left: Breads from the Artisan Bread Workshop, Steve Jones and not sure, Miguel Santestivan (top), and Diane Pratt

One result of our excitement was that we started planting trials of 100 seeds each of various grains. Christine Salem was the person who put this together with help from The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance and we will admit that we have weathered various challenges. Our first three plantings, spring 2018, fall 2018, and spring 2019 were at Los Luceros, a beautiful property north of Alcalde, NM, owned by the state. Cows would get into our plots; teenagers partied a bit too close; there was the watering to figure out. But we did manage to measure and harvest our crops, then thresh, clean, and weigh the results. All of it by hand because of the very small scale. None of it was easy.

In 2019, we again decided to plant in the fall which made great sense from a yield, weed, and water standpoint. And we also had the opportunity to plant, finally, for seed increase through the support and generosity of RGG team member Ron Boyd who invited us to plant about a quarter acre at his La Villita Farm.  We continue to learn from our mistakes, of course. Rye for example loves to cross with other ryes. But with Ron’s new combine (scaled to work small fields) and a larger and enthusiastic group we are finding a few grains that do predictably well in our climate and that a farmer might grow and make some money from his or her efforts.

–Deborah Madison

These past couple of years, we came to realize that our dream of having local grains for baking and eating could not be realized unless we helped to get the word out to growers, bakers, and consumers. So we have presented to a number of community groups and published articles in local media.

In January, 2020, the group again attended Grain School at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and from our networking and learning from biochemists how beneficial whole grains are to our gut microbiome, we came back energized to organize more formally as Rio Grande Grain and to expand our outreach efforts.

Our fall 2020 plan is to up our footprint at Ron’s place to one acre, with a plan to plant a combination of Sonora White, a rye mix, einkorn, and turkey red. If the pandemic permits, we will get back to making presentations to community groups about the goodness of whole, heirloom grains. And to connecting farmers with millers; consumers with bakers; bakers with millers and growers, and so forth, all with the idea of co-creating a new cooperative heritage grain supply chain.

The 2021 harvest was uneven with more weed pressure than we’d experienced before and a sandier soil which didn’t hold moisture the way a richer or clay-type soil would. However a few winners appeared that we are focussing on grow outs for the coming seasons. Sonoran always, Turkey Red, Poltavka, Baart Early and our La Villita Rye mix. As much as we love Tibetan Purple Barley for its beauty, we have had to accept that its low stature and lodging makes it impracticable and we are looking for another blue or purple barley to replace it in our hearts.
The size of the 2020 planting and the amount of hand labor involved also made it clear that it is beyond our physical capabilities as laborers. The five years of trials– planting, cultivating, elating, harvesting and cleaning all by hand has been invaluable. The data we have gathered from these trials is here for others to learn from.
Beginning in fall 2021, it became clear it was time to leave the farming to the farmers and thankfully we had a large enough yield of Turkey Red for Ron Boyd to plant an acre of it at La Villita from which he harvested over 1500 lbs in 2022. And Los Luceros Historic Farm and Ranch planted an acre of Sonoran White in fall 2021 that produced an impressive harvest as well.
The Rio Grande Grain team is concentrating on grain seed grow outs, working with various partners and supplying them with seed from our five years of trials. The Agrinature Center in Los Ranchos, Albuquerque, Fergus Whitney also in Albuquerque, are among the farmer-partners participating in scaled up grow outs of heritage grains.
In addition, the RGG team is continuing with
  • Networking and info sharing with farmers, bakers, brewers
  • Offering educational presentations, demonstrations, and community baking and fresh-milled flour events in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Please check our events calendar for our 2023 schedule.
  • Partnering with the Heritage Grain Alliance to support their heritage trials program by supplying them with a variety of grains from our trials.

Please get in touch if you are interested in growing grains or volunteering with our project or to present or table or demonstrate on the topic of heritage grains.

Christine Salem