The Rise of White Sonora Wheat

In addition to its rich history, its disease resistance, and its drought tolerance, this heritage grain has belatedly been recognized for its superior culinary qualities.

By Gary Paul Nabhan


Fall 2012

Wheat bread

White Sonora is the oldest cake flour in North America — and possibly the best.

Photo by Gary Paul Nabhan

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As I look out each morning to the fields below my straw-bale home on a ridge overlooking the Native Seeds/SEARCH farm in Patagonia, Arizona, I scan the fields to see if the White Sonora wheat there is ready for harvest. It is comfort to know that this summer — three centuries after this heirloom bread wheat was introduced to Arizona and California — White Sonora’s whole-grained flour and wheat berries will be commercially available again to bakers and brewers in my home state.

And just as it “takes a village” to raise a child, it has taken a generous collaboration of people from many cultures and walks of life to bring the West’s oldest bread wheat back to the marketplace and table. Heritage grains have been among the slowest of the heirloom seeds to return to the local-food movement, but recently, from Low Country in the Carolinas to the Desert Borderlands of the Southwest, that has all begun to change.

Culinary Uses

White Sonora is an heirloom bread wheat that was introduced into North America by Spanish and Italian missionaries under the broad category of “candeal cereals” suited for making communion bread. By 1640, it was being successfully sown in America’s most arid farmscapes alongside another, more consistently barbed wheat which the same Jesuit padres called “espinguin”.

The soft bread wheat that was later given the name White Sonora had round-seeded grains that are nearly opaque, pale-colored with a blush of pink. Their papery “glumes” or chaff that surround this cereal grain are reddish-brown, velvety, and either barbless or weakly barbed. This grain grows on long cylindrical heads which are formed by slightly-squarish rows of spikelets. Although their plants are rather short and thin-stemmed, White Sonora has broad green leaves that are just as resistant to rust as its grain is to the fungus called Fusarium. For these reasons, White Sonora has survived where other historic wheat varieties quickly succumbed to disease.

In addition to its rich history, its disease resistance and drought tolerance, this heritage grain has belatedly been recognized for its superior culinary qualities. It has become highly-prized by bakers for both the sweet, earthy flavor and nutty texture of its flour, and by brewers for its fermentable and maltable wheat berries.

When first exposed to its flour a decade ago, Sausalito baker Eduardo Morrell found that White Sonora’s low-gluten dough made a very dense, moist, chewy bread rather than a high, lofty loaf. Then he tasted his results:

“The [White Sonora] bread just packs more of a punch ... The flavor is there. It is front and center,” the co-owner of Morrell’s Bread told James Beard Award-winning food sleuth Tara Duggan.

If that endorsement was not sufficient to interest you, then listen to legendary heritage grain expert and Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts. Glenn has this to say about the White Sonora wheat flour that he has experimented with in his Carolina “rice kitchen”:

“White Sonora has a lingering sweetness on the back palate and a haunting minerality ... It has the potential to be the best cake flour in all of the U.S. It can also be a great brewing wheat. I’d like to get my hands on a source of malted White Sonora, because it’s already naturally sweet and should be perfect for artisan beers.”

Brewmaster Brenden Dobel at Thirsty Bear Organic Brewery in San Francisco agrees. He has used White Sonora grown at Full Belly Farms for two microbrews, Hoes Down and Full Belly, and finds its wheat berries to be well-suited to these Belgium-style, wild-fermented whitbiers. Offered seasonally for the last several years at the brewery and custom-made for the Hoes Down Family Festival at Full Belly Farms, the White Sonora brews have been ranked in the top 15 ever offered by Thirsty Bear Organic Brewery since it opened its doors in 1996.

Cultivation

Curiously, White Sonora was consistently valued by brewers, bakers and tortilla makers in Arizona and northern Mexico for centuries before it underwent a decline, and more recently, a rediscovery. It  appears to have been first introduced to the Sonoran Desert not far from the present United States-Mexico border between 1640 and 1650. That’s when Padre Lorenzo de Cardenas provided its seed to Eudeve Indians on lands cleared around an ancient spring near the rural village of Tuape, Sonora. Initially, its yield was less than that of the native corn varieties of the Sonoran Desert, but within a century, missionaries noted that they had recorded yields of White Sonora which were more than twice that of corn grown on the same ground.

It appears that by 1710, White Sonora reached Piman and Yuman Indian communities in present-day Arizona through the hands of Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino. For that reason, it is sometimes known as “Kino’s wheat” among agricultural historians, along with other names such as Flor de America, Sonora Blanca, and Trigo Mota. Around the time of the California Gold Rush, Sonoran prospectors brought it into Alta (Upper) California, where it played a role in fueling and feeding miners and loggers alike.

White Sonora had already become one of the two most prominent wheat varieties in Baja California by 1740, and its cultivation spread to at least a half dozen desert oases on the peninsula by 1774. There, the famous chronicler Miguel del Barco described how it was sown by Native Americans under the guidance of Spanish missionaries in the 18th century.

In late fall or early winter, floodplain lands near a spring were cleared and plowed into fields with long furrows. Once ready for planting, one man would walk along the furrow, opening planting holes with a digging stick, while another man or woman would follow behind him, sowing 6 to 8 pre-soaked wheat seeds into the holes, and covering them. The field was watered every eight days until the wheat had sprouted and begun to tiller. The field was then watered on a less-frequent basis until ready to harvest in late spring, yielding as much as 30 to 100 times the volume of seed initially planted.

Borderland Foods

White Sonora soon became the major staple crop of Northwest Mexico, the U.S. Southwest, and all of California. Its use extended beyond European-style breads and beers, as well as Indian pinoles and atoles. It became the favored grain for flour tortillas, which all but replaced corn tortillas in Sonora and Arizona. Its dough could be stretched so long and thin that giant sobaquera tortillas were made with it, then filled with meats, beans or cheeses.

Borderland foods such as burritos and chimichangas owe their existence to White Sonora, and are now celebrated and eaten around the world. For this reason, White Sonora wheat was recently boarded on Slow Food International’s Ark of Taste.

Rise, Fall, & Rise of White Sonora

By the 19th century, the Pima Indians had become Arizona’s first export-oriented food entrepreneurs, sending White Sonora and the other wheat back along the Santa Fe Trail into the Midwest and East. By the time of the Civil War, they were producing millions of pounds of White Sonora for long-distance trade, and their flour kept thousands of Yankee and Rebel troops from dying of hunger during the last years of that tragic conflict. The central valleys of California and Arizona — not the Great Plains of Kansas and Oklahoma — were America’s bread baskets during that era.

But not long after the reunification of the Confederacy with the Northern States, the Pima had their own conflicts with recent immigrants to Arizona, who gradually usurped most of the water running toward their irrigation ditches and wheat fields. By the 1930s, the Gila and Salt Rivers had largely been dammed and diverted away from the Pima, and their once-flourishing wheat economy began to collapse.

However, White Sonora continued to be dry-farmed on the Native American lands then known as Papago Indian Reservation. Up through the 1970s, the O’odham or Papago on both sides of the border raised White Sonora and took it by wagon to be ground into flour at the Hayden Flour Mill on the banks of the Salt River in Tempe, Arizona.

When I was in my twenties, I assisted the last few “dry land” wheat farmers in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, by plowing with draft horses and sowing White Sonora in the opened furrows. Perhaps that was the last White Sonora grain to be regularly grown in their water-harvesting fields. We harvested the grain by sickle and threshed it with horses and mules as well. But as climate change advanced and droughts caused crop failures, White Sonora disappeared from many farming villages in both Arizona and adjacent Mexico.

About the same time, Nobel Prize Winner Norman Borlaug’s new hybrid wheat varieties spread throughout the region, but most did not have the taste nor texture desired by expert tortilla makers.  One of Borlaug’s Green Revolution releases was named Sonora 64, and reputedly used drought-resistant White Sonora as one of its parents. But Mexican farmers began to confuse Sonora 64 with White Sonora, and soon the ancient heirloom was no longer grown as a separate field crop. Between 1975 and 2000, it virtually vanished from the Sonoran Desert landscape.

Then, around 2010, folklorist Maribel Alvarez of the Southwest Center began to trace the history of wheat in the region and its relationship to Norteño cultural identity; at the same time, artisanal baker and miller Jeff Zimmerman and Beard Award-winning chef Chris Bianco began to seek out heritage grains for a mill they were planning. Their paths converged, and with the seeds saved by Native Seeds/SEARCH, CIMMYT, Anson Mills and the Whole Grain Connection, a link-up was made between the region’s oldest surviving heritage cereal, White Sonora, and the oldest historic mill in Arizona, Hayden Flour Mills.

With the leadership of Chris Schmidt and others at Native Seeds/SEARCH, a regional collaboration was formed that now includes six Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo producers, as well as food banks, researchers, millers, tortilla makers, pastry chefs, bakers, and heritage food promoters. Parts of this collaboration have been generously funded by the USDA’s Western SARE program to assist with on-farm research, training of producers, and promotion of value-added products that will allow both farmers and millers to gain a modest return on their investment in this heritage-grain conservation initiative. 

It is still too early to claim that the long-term survival and revival of White Sonora wheat is assured. Nevertheless, more farm-to-table progress has been made in keeping this heritage grain alive in the Desert Borderlands within the last year than had happened over the previous half century. White Sonora has become a classic example of how an heirloom seed can find new uses, new markets, and new advocates rather than being relegated to the status of a “thing of the past.”

As Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills recently stated, “There is no such thing as the new grain for the future. There are only the great grains that we left behind that we now need to restore to their proper places in our cultures.”


Gary Paul Nabhan is an agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist, and internationally celebrated nature writer whose work has focused primarily on the plants and cultures of the desert Southwest. Gary is also an orchard-keeper, wild forager and Ecumenical Franciscan brother in his hometown of Patagonia, Arizona near the Mexican border.