You might enjoy the rich sweetness in a slice from the Barrio Bread Company, or sip it from a seasonal brew at Tucson’s Dragoon Brewing Company.
What you might not know is that the wheat used in these local breads and beers is also locally sourced and, while relatively uncommon in Southern Arizona now, was once grown here in abundance.
Ron Wong and Karen Dotson have been cultivating and growing organic white Sonora wheat for the last three years at the Wong family’s BKW Farms in Marana.
This year’s crop is coming along, taking up two of the smaller fields — 10 acres and 15 acres — that are part of a 12,300-acre operation that also includes cotton, durum wheat and other commercial grains, as well as grazing land.
During the last week, Dotson said, the stalks of the white Sonora wheat have grown another 5 inches, and the heads, where the wheat berries grow, are starting to form.
Meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirements for organic status is tedious and time-consuming, Wong and Dotson said. Everything must be carefully recorded, closely monitored and immaculately cleaned.
It takes two to three hours just to clean the combine, which is used to cut and thresh the grain, and which must be rid of other fields’ remnants before being used on organic crops.
Still, Wong said, the farming part is comparably easy. “Asking a farmer to do record keeping? That’s practically impossible,” Wong said, laughing.
During the first year, the crop yielded 2,700 pounds per acre, while it was 1,700 pounds for the second year. Wong sells the wheat berries for $1.25 per pound for smaller quantities and $1 per pound for 500 pounds and over. At this time, they are only selling the berries, which can be milled into flour, cooked and eaten, or used as seed.
So far, BKW is losing money on the heritage wheat. “It’s so much easier to sell a field to someone who gives you a check in 10 days,” he said. Even so, he remains committed to growing it.
One of the main objectives, Dotson said, is providing the wheat to local buyers, and getting people more interested in where, and how, their food is being grown. And with white Sonora wheat’s history here, along with its drought-resistant makeup, it’s an ideal crop for those purposes.
idea grows into reality
White Sonora wheat is believed to have been brought here by missionaries and Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in the late 17th century, although its exact history is not known.
Until about 100 years ago, the wheat was widely grown in parts of Arizona, Colorado, California and Utah, said Joy Hought, research and education program manager for Native Seeds/SEARCH. The plant thrives in low-moisture conditions and was ideal for the Southwest, at least until irrigation became widespread and more modern grains, with bigger yields, took hold.
As a soft, white wheat, it’s best-suited as a pastry flour to make baked goods, such as muffins and cakes, but it also complements well the harder red wheats used to make bread. (It is believed by some historians to have first been used to make communion wafers, feast breads and tortillas, while more modern uses tend toward breweries and artisan bakeries.)
Dotson first tasted the wheat a few years ago at a Baja Arizona sustainable agriculture class. She had recently retired after 27 years with Tucson Water, her final post as administrator of the Water Systems Planning Division, and begun working for BKW Farms. Dotson had been encouraging Wong to try organic farming, and the bread she tried that day piqued her interest in the growing organic wheat.
“I’ve wanted to do something other than the big commercial projects,” she said. “I was always asking them, ‘Why don’t you grow organic?’ Then I ate this bread and I said, ‘This is it.’”
Dotson met the Wong family about 20 years ago, when BKW Farms — in its 76th year of farming here — partnered with the city of Tucson in a groundwater saving project. Through the agreement, BKW uses Central Arizona Project water, owned by the city, in exchange for the city accruing credits for future groundwater pumping. (Learn more at wwww.bkwazgrown.com)
“I am very close to many of the Wongs, and my children grew up with Ronnie’s children,” Dotson said. “We’ve been together a long time.”
In 2012, a local collaboration, paid for through a $50,000 USDA Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant, was started to revive a couple of the oldest varieties suitable to the arid Southwest: white Sonora wheat and Chapalote flint corn. Grant participants included farmers handling very small operations, Hought said, as well as a couple of larger farms. BKW obtained its first seeds for white Sonora wheat from Native Seeds/SEARCH.
The project, Hought said, provided an incentive to farmers to try out heritage grains. “Typically, it’s a farmer in Ron’s position who can do it because he already has a successful, conventional farm,” she said.
While Avalon Organic Gardens and Ecovillage in Tumacacori grows about 20 acres of the white Sonora wheat each year, Hought isn’t sure how many other farmers are still growing the heritage varieties here, as the project ended more than a year ago.
The focus now is how to make growing the old varieties more economically viable, she said, and “not just a trendy thing that only certain people can afford.”
Don Guerra, owner of Tucson’s popular Barrio Bread Company, has been working with heritage grains for about four years.
He first met Wong and Dotson at Native Seeds/SEARCH in 2013, and was excited to learn about their organic white Sonora wheat. Guerra had been buying the wheat, which was not organic, from a flour mill in Phoenix.
Buying locally is a better fit for his very local business.
Guerra doesn’t own a shop, but sells directly to the public through community-supported agriculture pickup points, including the Saturday farmers market at Plaza Palomino. His customers also sign up for an email list to receive a “bread alert” that lets them know what types of loaves are available. (Learn more at barriobread.com)
“Local farmers and food artisans are working together to bring this to the public,” he said of BKW’s organic wheat. “I think it’s exciting to see we have something special in our own backyards.”
Tristan White, the facilities manager at Dragoon Brewing Company, 1859 W. Grant Road, No. 111, said the brewery uses BKW’s wheat in its seasonal beers, Ojo Blanco and Half Moon Dunkel Weisse. It is also working on a sour beer that will use the wheat, but doesn’t know yet when it will be ready for release. BKW also supplies its organic wheat to a brewery in Bisbee, one in Chandler and four in Tucson.
“Why do we buy from them? Well, they’re cool people and we like to buy from cool people,” White said. “It’s also about keeping money in Tucson, and it’s a pretty high-end product.”