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Farmers explore markets for specialty grain crops

Issue Date: June 16, 2021
By Bob Johnson

Faced with short supplies of water and tough commodity prices, California farmers are looking increasingly to specialty markets to make it worth their while to keep grains in the ground during the winter.

While wheat acreage has declined for more than a decade in competition for land with tree and vine crops, farmers have turned to water-efficient crops such as triticale and barley or specialty grains sold to artisan bakers or malting houses that serve craft breweries.

"Small-grain seed production has been on a downward trend since 2007," said John Palmer, executive director of the California Crop Improvement Association. "Wheat has declined the most."

Ground devoted to the production of certified wheat and durum seed acreage has declined from more than 23,000 acres statewide in 2008 to fewer than 8,000 acres this year, according to Palmer, who presented his information during the University of California Small Grains–Alfalfa/Forages Virtual Field Day.

Specialists said the loss of winter grain acreage comes at a cost of lost water infiltration, disease suppression and other soil health qualities, as well as wildlife habitat.

Farmers are, however, finding alternatives that keep roots in the ground during the winter between plantings of crops such as processing tomatoes.

For example, UC researchers and organic farmers are in the fourth year of looking at wheat that could be grown organically with few inputs for the artisan baking market. This season, farmers at nine locations throughout the state tested 16 varieties for how they grow under organic management.

In small plots at Russell Ranch in Winters, UC grain researchers are also screening 50 varieties—half UC varieties and half off-patent wheat from around the country—for suitability to grow organically for sale to specialty markets.

"Early vigor is important for organic systems, because you need to compete with weeds," said UC wheat breeder Allison Krill-Brown, who is heading the research. "We are also looking at disease and drought tolerance."

There was relatively little disease pressure this dry season, she said, but the drought let the researchers see how the varieties fare under water stress conditions; even with two irrigations, the plants had just 10 to 12 inches of water.

"We want to identify and develop varieties with excellent culinary qualities for organic growers and California specialty markets," Krill-Brown said.

The California Wheat Commission is testing the grain from the trial and scoring it for baking quality.

"Instead of saying a variety is strong or weak, we try to say what the grain should be used for," commission Executive Director Claudia Carter said, noting that the grain is scored as suitable for pastry flour, flat breads or artisan breads, or breads and pizza.

Another commission program to help specialty grain growers is Golden State Grains, a website that helps wheat, oat, barley, rye, triticale, teff and corn farmers, seed suppliers, millers and maltsters find each other. There has already been interest among craft brewers in being able to source malt from locally grown barley.

"With climate change, I think winter barley is a crop that makes sense for California," said Isabel Alicia del Blanco, UC Davis small-grains breeder. "It uses less water."

Barley farmers are finding markets among the malting houses that have sprouted to serve the state's many smaller craft breweries, and UC researchers are helping with the development of varieties that can produce good yields of malting-quality barley.

Unlike most grains, malting barley is not best when protein is highest, because more moderate protein levels help in the malting process. The goal of a new variety, UC Capay, is to help growers hit this protein target with a minimal loss of yield, del Blanco said.

The 2020 release of UC Capay followed closely the recent releases of malting barley varieties UC Tahoe and Butta 12, and came before the anticipated 2022 release of UC 1911.

With increasing consumer interest in non-dairy milk alternatives, oat milk producers are taking a close look at experimental UC oat varieties.

UC researchers are also releasing two new triticale varieties, UC Atrea and UC Bopkak, according to postdoctoral researcher Josh Hegarty.

Triticale—a drought-tolerant cross of rye and wheat—has enjoyed a tripling of Crop Improvement Association seed acreage in the last 12 years.

"Triticale has come up," Palmer said. "I believe this is because triticale is being grown for forage."

UC has also researched kernza, a perennial wheatgrass.

"Unlike wheat, you don't till and replant kernza," UC Davis doctoral student Kaylin Diederich said. "An important difference is the no-till wheat does not have roots year-round, while the kernza goes dormant after harvest but the roots are still in the ground."

Although wheat had higher aboveground yields than kernza in two of the three years in Diederich's study, kernza put more mineralizable carbon into the ground, which she said could pay off in soil quality and might fetch a return in carbon markets.

As water becomes more scarce and markets grow tougher, UC researchers are also beginning to evaluate wheat varieties in terms of how much they can produce in forage—which can be harvested earlier with less total irrigation—and how well varieties perform under less-than-optimal water and nitrogen conditions.

"We are trying to understand how varieties do under stress conditions when there is not enough water or nitrogen," said Mark Lundy, UC Cooperative Extension small-grains specialist, who said researchers are posting stress stability ratings at

(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Sacramento. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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