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White Sonora Wheat: Adding Heritage Grains into the Local Foods Mix

Nov. 14, 2013

By Natalie Rachel Morris with Emma Zimmerman, Marco Biano and Chris Schmidt

Excerpted from Conservation You Can Taste: Best Practices in Heritage Food Recovery and Successes in Restoring Agricultural Biodiversity over the Last Quarter Century

Wheat seems to be everywhere, but very little heritage wheat or other locally-produced grains have made it into re-localized food systems. Compared to the astounding successes in the recovery of heirloom vegetables and fruits as well as heritage livestock and poultry, the production and acceptance of heritage grains have lagged far behind.

At the same time, the number of consumers concerned and perhaps sickened by cereals high in gluten but low in nutritional value seems to be growing.

White Sonora wheat, one of the oldest soft white bread wheat varieties introduced to the Americas, stands on its own for its unique flavor, texture, unusual culinary applications and arid land adaptations. Since its introduction to what is now known as the U.S./Mexico border states in 1640, it has been dry-farmed or grown with rainwater harvesting techniques that use at least a quarter less water per season than required for most modern hybrid wheats.

White Sonora Wheat 1After centuries of being the primary bread wheat grown in northern Mexico and the American West, its production began to decline around World War II. Fortunately, White Sonora has been recently revived and is getting rave reviews from pastry chefs, artisanal millers, bakers and micro-brewers. As such, this ancient wheat has suddenly become a game-changer, teacher and agent for stimulating innovation across the entire food supply chain, particularly in northern California and southern Arizona.

Jeff and Emma Zimmerman are the father/ daughter team that own and manage the recently re-established Hayden Flour Mills in Phoenix, Arizona. They have been pivotal in creating a collaborative network of producers, researchers, millers, marketers, bakers, chefs and consumers enthusiastic about not only the White Sonora wheat, but also heritage grains in general.

As Emma reminds us, “Heritage grains from the pre-industrial era have qualities that artisanal millers seek. And because White Sonora wheat is so arid-adapted, it makes sense to grow it in Arizona. The taste is special, too. Chefs often comment on its sweetness and creamy color.”

Two of the community enthusiasts wrote a collaborative grant that helped the Zimmermans coordinate the development of the heritage grain supply chain and catalyze new innovations within Arizona’s emerging local food community. One of them was Chris Schmidt, Conservation Director at Native Seeds/SEARCH, and the other was Gary Nabhan, who hard learned much from elderly farmers while helping them sow the seeds of White Sonora behind draft animals in traditional floodwater fields in the borderlands. They were both mentored by Glenn Roberts and food anthropologist Maribel Alvarez, who had studied White Sonora in Mexico.

Inspired by other heritage grain initiatives, just three growers in Arizona initially sowed White Sonora seed on less than twenty acres but, by 2013, both the acreage and the number of farmers had increased.

Emma and her father are still the only artisanal millers in the state of Arizona but they have built a strong cadre of collaborators. “This year we had five farmers growing White Sonora wheat on a total of 66 acres and about 30 chefs and bakers using our White Sonora flour. It’s great to have so many different farmers growing because they all try different methods, unique soil profiles and plant at different times. This means that collectively we are learning a lot about growing heritage grains, which we are learning is very different from growing modern varieties.”

“The uniqueness of this product has definitely helped us form a natural community of chefs, bakers, growers, and millers. On another level, it is providing an alternative to industrial flour where there wasn’t one before, so it’s really attractive to the natural foods community,” Emma has observed.

White Sonora is now being grown again in five states in the U.S. and in the state of Sonora in Mexico. It is one of only two wheats and seven grains boarded onto the Ark of Taste by Slow Food USA. But what matters most to Emma and Jeff Zimmerman, is that both a heritage grain and a network of cooperation and innovation have grown.

As Emma reflected on this progress, she added:

“We now have a devoted food community that loves using it for home baking. A heritage food has (collectively) given us a sense of place, like we are connected to the past and now, to a shared future. This heritage food has a compelling story. And I think that once (members of a community) knows the story of a food, we can really taste it in the food.”

Read the full report, Conservation You Can Taste

Learn more about the history of White Sonora Wheat

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