- Author: Jan Rhoades
Well, the cover crops are in, the garlic and onions are planted and mulched. Still eating raspberries, chard and kale, got some lettuce, and arugula, too. So, time to knuckle down and process that wheat. You might recall that I planted Hard Red Spring Wheat in my community garden plot. As an avid bread-baker, my hope was to experience the way our forefathers and foremothers would have had to produce wheat flour for bread. And, quite an experience it has been!
At first I wondered whether wheat could grow here at all. A little research around the production of wheat in the Owens Valley revealed some history worth knowing. Agriculture, as we well know, is always a tenuous undertaking in the Eastern Sierra, but determined ranchers and farmers worked hard to make the most out of the area's land, arid conditions, and seasonal water supplies. Resting on the edge of the Great Basin, the Owens Valley averages about 6-7 inches of precipitation a year, so irrigation was the key to virtually all aspects of farming and ranching in the region.
The year 1865 saw the first crop of wheat in the Owens Valley and, by 1867, 2,000 acres were devoted to growing wheat. In the next two years, that number doubled.
By 1900, 90% of the residents were involved in agriculture, and the Owens valley was considered a small but well established agricultural area in the early history of California. Much of this was stimulated by the numbers of mining camps in the region.
In 1910, the Owens Valley had 4,500 settlers. They grew apples, grapes, corn, wheat, potatoes, alfalfa, honey, sheep, horses, and cattle. One account relates that 51,000 bushels of wheat were produced that year, yielded by numerous grain fields.
Of course, that wheat had to be processed. In 1862 North Carolina native, Andrew Bell, built Bell's Mill near Independence. He supplied flour to Fort Independence. It was the first mill in the Owens Valley and served a vast area. Destroyed by a windstorm in 1923, its wooden ruins can be seen in Oak Creek Canyon, northwest of Independence, about a half a mile west of 395 near the fish hatchery. There is a plaque commemorating it there.
The water-powered Standard Flour Mill was located west of Bishop on Bishop Creek, near the present day SCE Plant 6. It was built by Joel Smith and Andy Cashbaugh, and owned by Harvey Russell. It was managed by John Blair and a Mr. Dugan. There were two other Mills in the area. One owned by the Jones Family of Round Valley, and the Sierra Flour Mill, located between Johnson Drive and the canal on East Line Street.
By 1889 California was second in the nation in wheat production. Eventually, however, land was given over to specialty crops that garnered more cash and required less work to get to market. Grain production became centered in the Midwest. In recent years, a small movement towards the revival of wheat growing in California has surfaced. In Kern and Santa Barbara counties, growers are responding to requests by artisan bakers, both amateur and professional, for heritage wheat and specialty grains. Robert Dedlow and Andrea Crawford of Kenter Canyon Farms in Ventura County are part of the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project. Begun in 2014 by Jon Hammond, of Linda Vista Ranch in Tehachapi and Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi, their aim is to revive local grain production and more flavorful grain varieties. After all, the Mediterranean type climate in California is perfect for growing wheat.
Given that local mills are now a thing of the past, it was gratifying to hear that they have to ship their wheat to Lompoc for milling. After all, I am in the same predicament, and those guys are much bigger growers than I am.
There is no mill even remotely available to a small grower such as myself, so I am stuck with the story of The Little Red Hen to inspire me. You may recall that chick that couldn't get her friends to help plant the seeds, water the seeds, harvest the wheat, thresh it, winnow it and grind it into flour. So she carried on the work alone and baked the bread, enjoying a butter and jam feast all by herself. I am not sure how she accomplished that with wings for hands … ???
My approach was a little different. I researched the type of wheat that might do well in our climate and soil, and decided on 'Glenn' hard red spring wheat. That particular cultivar has all around disease resistance and a high protein content, which makes it an excellent bread flour. According to a study done by Cornell University and reported on in Science Daily, this wheat is especially good in sourdough baking. In California wheat growing trials, especially in the Bakersfield area, this strain of wheat did very well. The UC ANR small grain production manual relates that most wheat grown in California is hard red spring wheat. I have also heard from bread making friends that spring wheat makes lovely bread. So, seeds ordered, soil amended and let the planting begin. prepared my plot at the community garden (the same one I used to grow flint corn, you might recall) and planted around the beginning of March. It was pretty easy. Just rake the bed, broadcast the seed and cover with a mulch of straw – and, of course, water!
Okay – wheat was up in a week and grew vigorously. It did develop a sooty fungus on a few stalks – and, being a nervous first timer, I called the UC Davis Agronomy experts. The folks there assured me that I could pull the affected wheat out and the rest would be perfectly good. Sigh of relief.
By June, the heads were golden and, armed with a bit more Internet research, I was ready to ascertain the ripeness. Turns out I had to wait until the seed heads were mostly bent over. Finally, in early August it was ready to harvest – luckily my wheat field was small, so I just cut the stalks and put them in boxes and took them home! And then the fun began – I researched on line for a viable way to thresh and winnow the wheat – lots of opinions and entertaining You Tube videos – including one where a guy threshed with a chainsaw inside a trash can – I kid you not!
I tried a few threshing methods and settled on using the sledgehammer in a 5-gallon bucket. Works fine – and I don't have to go to the gym! An hour of threshing is a fine aerobic/weight training activity. I have yet to get to the winnowing and milling – though I did purchase a second hand electric stone mill that works like a charm – so, off I go. At least I know I will be working off any of the calories in the bread, when I finally get to bake it. Like I said, that storybook chicken is way ahead of me.
Oh well, wish me luck!