Rio Grande Grain
By Christine Salem
Northern New Mexico was once the breadbasket of New Mexico with over 300 small mills in operation around the state. In 1892 New Mexico brought 230 varieties of wheat to the Chicago World’s Fair.
Today most of our flours and grain products are derived from highly hybridized dwarf modern wheat, which is bred primarily for high yield at the expense of nutrition, flavor and biodiversity. It is grown primarily in the midwestern US and Saskatchewan and sold on the commodity markets. Modern wheat is highly dependent on chemical inputs and increasingly degrades human and soil health as well as farmers’ incomes.
A small group of farmers, gardeners, and bread bakers have organized under the name Rio Grande Grain and hope to bring our grains back to their roots. Since spring 2018, we have trialed small quantities of over 60 varieties heritage and ancient wheat, rye, and barley, in small plots near Alcalde. We have collected qualitative and quantitative data on each variety over four growing seasons and discovered a few that are strong performers in our unique high desert region. In fall 2019 we were able to move from trial quantities to seed-increase quantities of our top performing varieties—Kamut, Sonoran White, Einkorn, Emmer, Turkey Red, Red Fife, Spelt, and Marquis wheat; Rebel and Swiss Mountain rye; and Tibetan Purple barley. In another year we’ll have hundreds of pounds of seed that we can provide to small farmers who are ready to try a crop that supports regenerative agriculture principles and fetches a far higher price than commodity grain.
Farming in our region is different. Our fields are miniscule, compared to the vast fields in the upper Midwest. As farm families lost a generation or two to jobs in the city, many fields have been abandoned to disuse and colonization by stubborn Siberian elms.
Fortunately, the environmental movement and the locavore movement is beginning to reverse the decline of market farming and paving the way for locally-grown, heritage grains to return to our fields and our foods.
There are a number of steps involved, from creating a market (consumer and commercial) for the grains to producing enough product to serve that market; identifying the millers, malters, and brewers who can store, process, distribute these grains. We call it the grain chain because there are a lot of moving parts that are beginning gradually to fall into place.
Farm equipment is another issue. As we move beyond trial quantities of grain, hand harvesting, threshing, and cleaning is no longer an option. There used to be small combines (machines that both harvest and thresh the grain) that were suited to small fields. But those are no longer being manufactured in the US. We have a few small-scale combines in the state that have been imported from China. We are looking at equipment sharing to lessen the startup hurdle to a farmer wanting to experiment with growing grains. Technical support is another area we hope to offer to new growers.
Ironically, as many of us are eliminating gluten from our diets, biochemists are discovering that it’s the short-rise white flours of modern wheat, modern processing, and commercial baking that likely are the unhealthy culprits. Long-rise sourdough breads made from whole grains can actually be tolerated by many with wheat sensitivities and are thought to support healthy gut microbes. Home bakers are enthusiastic about counter-top stone mills that preserve the whole grain – bran, germ, and all—to bake up breads using long-rise sour-dough leavens that mitigate the gluten and are actually good tasting and good for our guts.
We are returning to our roots and learning together how to grow locally-adapted, climate-resilient, soil-supporting grain crops for our future in northern New Mexico. If you’d like to know more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org Instagram.com/riograndegrain.
Bio: Christine is a lifelong gardener, and since 2018, a sour-dough baker and grain grower.