Rio Grande Grain Is Reviving New Mexico’s Local Grain Economy

posted in: Regenerative Ag | 0

By Christine Salem –a lifelong gardener, and since 2018, a sour-dough baker and heritage grain grower.


The Tibetan Purple Barley is more than ready for the combine.

Northern New Mexico was once the breadbasket of New Mexico. At one time the state boasted over 300 small mills in operation. In 1892 New Mexico brought 230 varieties of wheat to the Chicago World’s Fair. How did we go from this diversity to just one generic hard red winter wheat mix, sifted in the commercial modern milling process to eliminate the germ and bran? The resulting  vapid white all purpose flour has to be amended with vitamins D and E and the whole bran part so the “health nuts” among us can buy a product that is marketed as whole wheat flour yet is anything but whole.

Today most of our flour and grain products are derived from highly hybridized dwarf modern wheat, which is bred primarily for high yield and ease of harvest (uniform maturity and height) 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. 

Grains are food – not a commodity—and they make up about 70% of our dietary calories.

A small group of Northern New Mexico 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 of heritage and ancient wheat, rye, and barley, in small plots near Alcalde. We have collected qualitative and quantitative data on each variety over six 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—Khorasan (Kamut), Sonoran White, Einkorn, Emmer, Turkey Red, Red Fife, Spelt, and Poltavka wheat; Swiss Mountain rye; and Tibetan Purple barley. In another year we’ll have hundreds of pounds of seed that we can provide to small-scale 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 minuscule, compared to the vast corporate aggregated fields in the upper Midwest. As farm families here lost a generation or two to jobs in the city, many fields have been abandoned to disuse and colonization by stubborn Siberian elms. 


The small-scale combine in action—one of only two in New Mexico.

Fortunately, the environmental movement and the locavore movement is beginning to reverse the decline of market farming and pave the way for locally-grown, heritage grains to return to our fields and our tables. 

There are a number of steps involved to achieve the return of the grain, 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, and distribute these grains. We call it the grain chain because there are a lot of moving parts that are beginning gradually to connect.

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 better tasting and good for our guts. 


Join us for Harvest Days!

The Grain Team delights in sharing our love of heritage grains with others at our field location, La Villita Farms, just north of Alcalde, New Mexico. In addition to our Grain Field Days, we invite bakers, growers, and eaters to join in our planting, cultivating, and harvest work sessions. There is no better way to get to know the grains and how to grow them.

We invite you to join us on July 17, 2021 for our first of several harvest work sessions of our fall 2020 planted grains. You can see the small-scale combine in action—one of only two in New Mexico—and help us hand-harvest trial plots using sickles to collect the grains into sheaves and shocks. Harvest work days will likely continue July 24 or 25 and August 1, 2021.

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, visit https://riograndegrain.org, follow us on instagram.com/riograndegrain, or contact riograndegrainnm@gmail.com to receive our updates or to sign up for Harvest Days.


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