Waves of Santa Cruz County Grains

Our region is known for its agricultural abundance. Santa Cruz County grew 6,831 acres of berries and 7,161 of vegetables (including lettuces, brussels sprouts, artichokes, beets, beans, etc) in 2013. Grains do not even make the crop list—the production of grains in Santa Cruz County is simply too small to report.

In contrast, worldwide, wheat is grown on more than 240 million hectares, more than any other crop, and world trade is greater than for all other crops combined. With such a huge worldwide presence, using the lens of our local wheat history breaks the story into a more digestible bite (forgive the gratuitous food metaphor). But what can we bite into, locally? While we are cultivating a number of million dollar crops on many thousands of acres, we are also cultivating dialogue around small, local grains as a community interest, and a number of artisanal grain projects are sprouting up.

As evidence of a local grain dialogue, a few articles have come out recently which highlight grains in Santa Cruz County: the Santa Cruz Sentinel published Waves of Grain in 2014 about wheat’s role in our regional locavore scene, and also published The Final Frontier of Eating Local in 2013, which similarly explores how grains are being considered on a regional scale, through the lens of local grain champion Ryan Roseman. The Spring 2015 issue of Edible Monterey Bay published Our Daily Bread, which also dug into local grains, and additionally posed the question of gluten (in)tolerance as a factor in local grain appreciation.

Personally, I have been meeting with baker and small grain enthusiast Polly Goldman and her husband Jim Leap, former UCSC CASFS Farm Manager and current USDA Beginning Farmer Mentor. A couple weeks ago we attended a small grain grower’s symposium in Sonoma County through the UC Cooperative Extension, and learned that grains in Santa Cruz County are not too far behind the grain hub movement in the North Bay.

Polly has been experimenting with a number of locally grown grains in her breads, with the aim of understanding the variances from using white flour, whole wheat, and heirloom grains to bake breads (see below).

polly's breads
A series of loaves. Blanca Grande is the top left, Indian Jammu is top right, both the lower breads are Red Fife, cooked in different ovens. Breads by Polly Goldman, photo by Liz Birnbaum.

The interest in local grains is a part of a wave of resurgence for this fringe crop in Santa Cruz County. Though fruits and vegetables have dominated the region for over a century, grain farming was once a dominant aspect of Santa Cruz County agriculture.

The significance of wheat is most readily demonstrated by the 1903 Watsonville City seal (above), which showcases a bundled harvest of wheat and a sugar beet, side by side. Watsonville falls within the 50,000-acre Pajaro Valley, which has been a great place to show the rising importance of crops in California, according to an exhibit by the National Museum of American History.

City of Watsonville

For now, there is still much to unearth, regarding the history of grains in Santa Cruz County. Fascinatingly, in the mid-19th Century, wheat was the principal crop of the Pajaro Valley, and at that time there were three local flour mills: one in Corralitos, one in Soquel, and another in Watsonville. These mills operated ten months out of twelve making flour for home consumption, according to one local historian.

—Liz Birnbaum

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