In Praise of Grains

Grain growing is one of the frontiers of home gardening; people start with vegetables and move to fruits; strawberries, cane fruits and home orchards. Perennial vegetables like asparagus and artichokes or culinary herbs often follow. We tend to shy away from growing grains.  Grain growing takes so much space; grains are so cheap to buy.  But, now more and more gardeners are taking up the challenge to grow their own grains.

I got my wake-up call from an article in the Washington Post on March 13, 2011 by the founder of the World Watch Institute, and Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown:

The United States has been the world’s breadbasket for more than half a century. Our country has never known food shortages or spiraling food prices. But, like it or not, we will probably have to share our harvest with the Chinese, no matter how much that raises our prices.

A small patch of grain can be broadcast by hand.  When I do this, I feel connected with ancient people; there is something almost biblical about this practice.  Broadcasting is a meditative dance; the continual moving forward while sweeping the arm to and fro while evenly scattering the seed.  If you prefer a more accurate form of seed dispersal, one low-tech option is to use a grass seed broadcaster.  Think of sowing a lawn, but one that will grow tall and go to seed.  If you have a big sunny backyard, a 30 ft. by 30 ft. patch of winter wheat sown in the fall will produce 50 lbs. of dry wheat berries the following early summer.

The other end of the spectrum is transplanting seedlings of grain.  Before you throw up your hands in disbelief, consider this. It is possible to produce the same 50 pounds on a mere 300 sq.ft. area. That is enough wheat to make a one-pound loaf of bread every week of the year. If your space is limited, try this Grow Biointensive technique.  Mind you, it is part of an entire process described in How to Grow More Vegetables: THAN YOU EVER THOUGHT POSSIBLE, ON LESS LAND THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE. John Jeavons and the Ecology Action staff have quantified the yields of grain grown by transplanting seedlings.  So, I’ll leave you with these seeds of inspiration and in the fall instead of planting cover crops for the winter; consider sowing some amber waves of grain.

Keep an eye out for more about grains–easy choices for the novice; harvesting with an Austrian Scythe; how flailing can be graceful, and more surprises.

Why am I Fascinated by Olive Oil?

Why am I fascinated by olive oil? Maybe it’s my Italian heritage and the fact that I just returned to California after thirty years of living elsewhere. Or, perhaps it is because I am drawn to the 100-mile diet concept and the potential for making cooking oil makes me giddy. Whatever the reason though, I can’t look at the ubiquitous olive tree in a parking lot without breaking into a smile.

Once you start looking, olive trees grow everywhere in California. The Spanish padres brought them when they headed north from Baja California. I remember driving through a region not far from Ensenada, called Santo Tomas that was all olive orchards. In fact, the most common variety of Olive is the Mission. But, I’m going to stick with where I am in northern California.

I’ve had my eye on about sixty trees that flank one of the roads through the vineyard where I live. Maybe I’ll take some photos from the tower.  I started researching and writing this last November.  Last week I had the opportunity to learn something new about olives that inspired me to rework this and share it with you.

Okay, so this is what I discovered in my eagerness to learn the secrets of successful olive oil making. I was thinking along the lines of local production and self-reliance. I visited the mill where the Frey’s had pressed their olives the week before. I called and wanted to watch olives being pressed into oil.

At the Olivino press in Hopland, I was stunned by the technology and the science involved in creating fine olive oil. I never expected to find a state-of-the-art facility right here in Mendocino County. Yvonne Hall, co-owner and plant manager was obviously a very busy woman. When she realized I was willing to return a few hours later when she had time to talk, Yvonne was really helpful, giving me a tour, answering my many questions, and spelling words out so I could write it all down.

Now, I didn’t realize that the thrust of this olive oil movement was from wine growers who wanted to create an olive oil based on the Lucchese oil from Tuscany, considered by many to be the finest olive oil in the world. Yvonne and her partners went to Italy to find the best equipment. What I was witnessing was a renaissance of olive oil fifteen years into its unfolding. People have gone to Italy and brought back the same varieties that are grown there in Tuscany. I had thought Mendocino was on the far northern edge of this crop and the varieties were selected based on similar climates, but no this is a world-class creation. They are growing and pressing olives in Napa and Sonoma counties also.

The good thing, from my local-foods approach is that Olivino has a community press day or days when small farms can bring whatever amount of olives they grew and throw them in the press. No guarantee that what you take home is from the specific olives raised on your land, but you are getting local oil. So I thought what I would see was so local appropriate technology and was shocked to discover a marvelous highly competitive art from unfolding.

Let me just interrupt right here and tell you something about me. If you are going to follow this blog, you should know that I have an endless curiosity when I explore something new. I have to devour the entire body of knowledge, whether it is building my own house, understanding Fideicomiso–the Mexican laws for buying property, or growing wild mushrooms.  So, be forewarned; I might go off on tangents from time-to-time.

I want to write about the bright green oil pouring from the machine and the floral taste of the fresh oil with a final note of pungency at the back of my throat; but if I wait for all that I may never post this! Consider this just the first glimpse of my passion with olives.   By the time this blog has a following, I will be posting regularly. The tiny olive flowers are just beginning to bud here at a thousand foot elevation.