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Bread geeks bring heritage wheat species back to Los Angeles

Andrea Crawford surveys the two-week old-wheat field on her farm in Agoura Hills.
Andrea Crawford surveys the two-week old-wheat field on her farm in Agoura Hills.
Jennifer Sharpe
Andrea Crawford surveys the two-week old-wheat field on her farm in Agoura Hills.
About Sonora wheat, from the United States Department of Agriculture's Classification of American Wheat Varieties survey
Jennifer Sharpe
Andrea Crawford surveys the two-week old-wheat field on her farm in Agoura Hills.
The Los Angeles Bread Bakers and their community earth oven.
Jennifer Sharpe

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Imagine the vast suburban sprawl that is Los Angeles covered in thickets of waist-high wheat. That's how the city actually used to look more than 100 years ago. Now, Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a meetup group of self-described "food geeks," are again planting the heritage grain that they say tastes leagues better than its imported, Midwestern sibling.

"The shame is, when you go into the supermarket, there's hundreds of varieties of soda pop, and one kind of wheat," L.A. Bread Bakers founder Erik Knutzen said. "It's kind of like one of those mind-blowing moments when you realize like, wow, wheat has all these varieties, they all taste different, they all have different qualities and yet we don't have access to them anymore."

After the L.A. Bread Bakers picked up on Sonora wheat, a local variety they tracked down in Northern California, they instantly fell in love.

"Sonora wheat was grown in the San Fernando valley. And Sonora wheat is adapted to our climate, so it's a rain-fed wheat. Providing you have a cooperative winter, you can plant it, basically forget about it, and it'll grow," Knutzen explained.

Sonora wheat used to grow all over California, planted by the missionaries and American Indians. In fact, there was so much of it being exported during the gold rush that California was seen as the "bread basket" of the country. But thanks to America's obsession with attaining the perfectly white loaf of bread and to the new food processing technologies that could deliver it, by the end of the 19th century, the darker Sonora wheat was eclipsed by a Midwestern grain. The U.S. primarily grows a hard winter wheat because it's best suited for commercial processing.

Group member Andrea Crawford, who owns Kenter Canyon Farms, volunteered a suburban-lot's worth of family-run farmland out in Agoura Hills for the wheat-growing project.

“So that little green fuzz that looks like a 14-year-old boy's mustache is our future grain. Now that I'm seeing it, I'm kind of inspired to do a second planting," she said.

If the crop turns out well, Crawford's considering planting an additional 5 to 15 acres. The weedy looking tufts of grass will grow much taller than modern wheat breeds. "Tall enough that you won't be able to see dogs and kids when they're in there,” Crawford described.

The bakers plan to do everything on their own. Come June, they'll harvest by hand threshing and winnowing.

"I'm hoping we can bring it to the farmers market and have a grain mill there that you propel by riding sort of like a bicycle. I saw one of those at the edible school yard in Berkeley," Crawford recalled.

The group's unofficial wheat guru, Monica Spiller, said the local food movement has spurred a Sonora wheat revival across California. She's a heritage grain preservationist up in the Bay Area that's supplied seed to 90 farmers, and she said she's been waiting for this moment since the mid-'70s. According to her, refined white flour not only tastes different, but also carries unintended health consequences.

"It's not just according to me. The evidence is huge. There are statistics about the reduced rate of heart disease, the reduced rate of colon cancer, the reduced rate of diabetes – it's crystal clear, so clear that it's a clarion call – and the industry has shoved it under the rug, over and over and over again," she said.

To these do-it-yourselfers, who make everything from their own clothes to their own cheeses, the extra effort it takes to grow your own wheat field is worth it. And in the eyes of farmer Andrea Crawford, L.A. has the perfect landscape for this wheat revolution to unfold.

"People are so excited; they want wheat fields in Los Angeles. And we could have them. If you start to sort of put on your land eyes, you can see that Los Angeles is all spread out — everyone knows that — but what that also means is there's a lot of land around. There are vacant lots, there's great big open spaces, there's vast acreage under the power lines all over the city," she said.