New Mexican Grain—On The Verge of a Renaissance?

posted in: Economics, Regenerative Ag, Seed saving | 0

By flour enthusiast and pizzaiolo Chris Van Dyne

A field of rye, doubling as cover crop in Southern New Mexico. Image by I. Jenniches CC BY 2.0

In recent decades, much light has been cast on large scale food production practices that have not sat well with consumers. Factory farms, round-up, Monsanto –all things you don’t want to be associated with in the eyes of foodies. As a result there’s been an increased demand for responsibly grown and crafted food. The market has grown for small scale production, despite the higher price tag that comes with it.

We see it clearly anywhere from craft beer to farm to table restaurants, and fair trade coffee.   Budweiser is out, craft growlers are in. Chilean tomatoes shipped half across the world –out, farmers market heirloom tomatoes –in. The trend is spreading from beer to coffee, even donuts.   So….could flour be the next on that list?   

That’s what Tim Vos, founding member of the Southwest Grain Collaborative (SGC) thinks. “With the right marketing, we’re on the verge of a grain renaissance in New Mexico.”  Vos says.

Why Grain?

Grains are peculiar when you consider them. Heavily subsidized, traded in commodities markets, and often highly processed to yield a bag of masa or flour that most consumers don’t think much about before tossing it in their shopping cart.   

Wheat, ground into powder, stuffed in a bag –it’s easy to forget that it comes from the seeds of a plant. Often there are just two types of wheat flour to choose from: white and whole wheat. Yet the varieties of wheat are vast, all possessing unique qualities that lend them different flavors and textures: Blue-Tinge Emmer, Sonoran White, Turkey Red, and Black Einkorn to name a few.

So why aren’t these varieties showcased at the supermarket the way various tomatoes are?  

It all starts with awareness –consumers knowing the varieties are out there, followed by desire to try them. Once there’s business reason to fill that desire, some of the market infrastructure – machinery, storage, distribution, etc.– can start to take shape.

As those pieces fall into place, the market becomes ripe for a craft beer-esque renaissance.    And New Mexico could be the perfect place for such a renaissance to start.

Images by I. Jenniches CC BY 2.0

New Mexico’s Grain Heritage

So what does that mean, a grain renaissance? Most people don’t know it, but there’s a rich history of grain production in New Mexico. In fact, the first New Mexican wheat can be traced back to 1599 when Don Juan de Onate first arrived and settled the village of San Gabriel, which is now Ohkay Owingeh.  

For centuries Northern New Mexico was a bread basket for the state, growing hundreds of varieties of wheat. At its peak, the state had over 300 mills in operation. Sadly, there’s now only 4.

Things are moving in the right direction though. Three of those mills recently opened with the assistance of SGC, including those at Owl Peak Farm in La Madera and Los Poblanos in Albuquerque.  

The decline in New Mexican grain production started in the early part of the 20th century when farms began losing out to large growers in the midwest. Their expansive, flat wheat fields enabled them to employ massive combines –machines that harvest wheat– which reduced the cost of production significantly. Combine that with more robust nationwide distribution networks, and the large scale farms were able to price out small New Mexican wheat farms and mills.

But often the pressure to reduce prices backfires. As revenues increase, so does competition, encouraging companies to often deploy production tactics that are believed to be harmful to consumers. Many such farms spray their wheat stalks with glyphosate (the active ingredients in Round-Up) in order to dry the crops uniformly, helping to maximize harvest.

Flour mills will often add pure gluten into flour after it’s milled. This could mean that discomfort that people experience as a result of consuming this flour, may not be a gluten sensitivity, but simply a sensitivity to over-production. We aren’t consuming the plant in its natural state. 

Christine Salem, one of the founding members of Rio Grande Grain, a group helping to restore heritage grains in New Mexico, thinks the state is a perfect place for a grain renaissance to take place, due to the strong whole-food craving, locavore culture that exists here.

Food conscious consumers, which New Mexico has plenty of, are willing to pay a little more for products that are responsibly grown and healthier.

According to both Salem and Vos, there are still some hurdles that need overcoming in order to see this grain renaissance come to fruition.

Wheat harvest in central Illinois. Photo by James Baltz on Unsplash

Infrastructure Challenges

In order to see the supply chain turn wheat berries into flour, some infrastructure gaps still need to be filled. For instance, New Mexico’s unique terrain requires small to medium sized combines needed to harvest the wheat. The only combines being manufactured in the United States, however, are the massive ones demanded by the large scale Mid-western wheat farms.  

With these smaller combines being hard to come by, an equipment sharing program makes sense. But transporting these combines across the state to various farms is time consuming and costly. Where there was once a USDA sponsored program that coordinated the sharing of such equipment, a new cooperative organization for that type of program needs to be re-built.

Alcalde farmer and member of Rio Grande Grain Ron Boyd operates a small-scale combine imported from China. I. Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Cleaning & Storage

After harvesting the wheat, there’s quite a bit more work to be done. Using Christine Salem’s words, “It’s not like harvesting tomatoes.” Cleaning the grain is a difficult process that requires special machinery. “The key is to find a facility that can clean AND mill the wheat.” 

In the last two years The Southwest Grain Collaborative has harvested 60,000 lbs of Sonoran White wheat, an unusually high yield. “Storage is an issue”, says Vos, especially when there’s a bumper crop like that with no clear and reliable path for distribution.

Grain storage and equipment no longer in use in Questa, New Mexico. Photo by I. Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Education & Marketing

A key factor in a healthy “grain chain”, as the grain supply chain is commonly referred to, is bringing awareness to consumers, farmers and millers. That includes educating the public about the health benefits of responsibly grown grain as well as educating players further upstream about the availability of New Mexican grain. 

SGC sold some Sonoran White wheat to Barton Springs Mill, a major facility in Texas, who said it was the highest quality Sonoran White they had ever seen. Corroborating that, SGC had some of their barely tested in a lab, which revealed it had an unusually high nutrient density. 

It seems New Mexico is doing something right when it comes to growing grain.  

That high nutrient density reflects the regenerative soil health practices that SGC espouses and teaches to farmers who participate in their program.  

But are mills willing to pay a bit more for healthier grain? Vos certainly thinks so, “with the right marketing.” Agreed. If people are willing to pay more for locally crafted, superior tasting beer, why not bread, pizza and flour for their pantry?

Finally, farmers need to be enticed to grow grain, and taught how to do it properly. Part of Southwest Grain Collaborative’s mission is to provide grain seed at no cost to farmers. There’s a vetting process that farmers need to go through in order to obtain the seed, which includes teaching them how to make best use of the seed.

Even if farmers are not in a position to begin planting grain, they are invited to join SGC and begin learning about the regenerative-organic protocols and practices which will help get them certified in the future.

Multi-species summer cover crop with wheat. Image by I. Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Seed Market and Regenerative Agriculture

The seed initiative also ties into a larger goal of improving soil health and encouraging regenerative agriculture practices in the state. Many varieties of grain, such as rye, make excellent cover crops –crops planted between growing seasons. Winter cover crops and in-season intercropping infuse organic material back into the soil, improving its overall health, which in turn produce more nutritious and healthy food for the community.

The challenge is to produce enough seed grown locally to complete a local cover crop supply loop. Currently the seed for cover crops comes from a distance. That can change with robust local grain farming. 

And New Mexican farmers have shown eagerness in participating in grain farming. On top of it being ecologically responsible to do so, there’s a business reason to enter the grain market.   There’s two-fold market demand, both for local wheat berries on the part of consumers, and also demand from other farmers for the seed those crops produce.

So What’s The Hold Up?

Both Salem and Vos say that the most pressing needs are the infrastructure upgrades: more medium/small scale harvesting & seed cleaning equipment, storage facilities, and a mill that could both clean and mill wheat crops.

But it’s hard to pin it on one thing. It’s a complex, interconnected system after-all. Awareness and marketing are also key, not to mention funding.

In that vein, Salem thinks that a New Mexican version of the Colorado Grain Chain would be wonderful, complete with a robust membership and grant-writers. 

How to Get Involved

Farmers interested in participating in grain production can start by reaching out to the Southwest Grain Collective directly.  

Watch Rio Grande Grain’s Instagram Account for updates on the state of grain in New Mexico as well as local events. According to both Vos and Salem, there are some initiatives in the works that are close to getting New Mexican flour into local markets for in-person purchase. Be sure to follow along. 

In the meantime, If you’re interested in purchasing the New Mexican flour harvested by SWG, you can buy the aforementioned Sonoran White wheat on Owl Peak Farm’s website.

Chris Van Dyne is a flour enthusiast & pizzaiolo at Cosmic Pie Pizza  and content creator at | | twitter: @ctvandyne

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