In the unlikely setting of central Mendocino County, where vineyards and cannabis farms claim the vast majority of the agricultural real estate, Rachel Britten is cultivating 35 acres of amber waves of grain. As the owner of the Mendocino Grain Project in Ukiah, Britten has partnered with other farmers to launch a unique monthly subscription box. The contents? Locally grown organic dry goods. In addition to the flour milled from Britten’s wheat, the customizable box includes quinoa and heirloom beans. We caught up with Britten in late June, at the start of her third harvest season.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Wheat farming conjures up the plains of the Midwest. Why grow grain in California?
Grain lets you grow plenty of calories to sustain yourself, and it can be easily stored, which is why it is so relevant to food security—as we’re finding out from Ukraine. So much of the world’s wheat comes from there, but there are risks as well as efficiencies to consolidation. In March 2020, the big-box supermarkets couldn’t keep flour on the shelves. For a time, we were the only flour at the local co-op, which was a pretty interesting experience. Even though our sales grew twentyfold in a month, we had relationships with other farmers who filled in our supply gaps. It underscored how local food systems create resilience.
Just like you can get a cucumber from anywhere or you can choose to buy it from the farmers market, there are advantages to getting your dry goods locally. For one thing, it tastes better! You wouldn’t think that freshly dried beans would make a difference, but oh man, it does. Especially with quinoa—you can taste the difference, no question.
What are you growing?
I’m focusing on heirloom varieties known specifically for their flavor. There’s a romantic buzz around heirloom crops, but the practical aspect is that they were bred for conditions that are more like the conditions that I’m putting the plants in. I dry-farm, which means that I’m not using any irrigation—I’m farming with the rain and the pervasive drought.
Sonora is a white wheat that has been cultivated in California for a long time. It’s the gateway drug for whole wheat baking. White wheat is used to make pastries and cakes—it’s a little more delicate. So if you’re interested in switching from white flour to whole wheat flour, this is the variety I recommend. We also grow Red Fife. Bakers rave about its flavor, but it has lower protein content, so it’s harder to get big, fluffy breads out of it.
What’s it like to farm grain in California?
In produce farming, if you can get up at 5 a.m. and hustle, you can beat the heat and be out of there by 2 p.m. Grain farming is not like that. In the morning, the grain is too wet to harvest. You specifically have to wait until it’s miserable, and then you start harvesting. With the increased fire danger, we take a break in the heat of the day and go back again in the evening.
We’re right on the Russian River, and we don’t use any fertilizer other than compost and cover crops. We use a low-tillage system, which means minimizing the disturbance to the soil. It’s part of my farming values, but it also feels like a responsibility to my community. Local farming creates a really beautiful loop of accountability and understanding.
What are your plans for the future?
When I took over the business from Doug Mosel, who started it in 2009, largely what I inherited was the equipment. It’s a pretty equipment-intensive game, and that’s one of the reasons I think we’re not seeing other young farmers raising staple crops. If you have a half-acre parcel, there is no way it makes sense for you to own a combine, and it definitely doesn’t make sense for you to own the equipment to clean the grain. So we are creating an opportunity for small farmers who want to produce small batches of grain.
I have a friend in Humboldt who grows quinoa, and we do the processing of the quinoa for him. I have a network of small farmers that I’m often doing grain processing for, so when something cool comes through, I can say, “Hey, can I buy a couple thousand pounds?” My vision is to diversify our products from collaborations with other farmers and provide exposure to a lot of interesting and extremely tasty dry goods.•