An heirloom wheat revival is grinding its way through Arizona, and the star of the show is the drought-tolerant wheat cultivar named ‘White Sonora.’
A century ago, you could have walked into a wheat field in southern Arizona and disappeared. In those days, the popular wheat in the Gila River Valley was ‘White Sonora.’ Freakishly tall compared with modern wheats, ‘White Sonora’ often towered 6 feet or more above the sandy soil. The plants shaded out weeds, resisted common diseases, needed little or no irrigation because of their deep roots, and produced abundant straw for livestock. The cultivar seemed a perfect fit for farmers in the Desert Southwest.
But when modern wheat flooded the market, farmers succumbed to the lure of doubled yields, even though the new cultivars also required irrigation and, later, herbicides to thrive. By the mid-1970s, ‘White Sonora’ had all but vanished from the fields of the Desert Southwest, and Arizona’s once-abundant flour mills had closed. The tasty heirloom flour made with ‘White Sonora’ berries also faded from the consciousness of consumers, who accepted the new normal — commercial flour of average quality, ground at out-of-state mills from a mix of wheat cultivars.
This was the situation in 2011, when Jeff Zimmerman had a personal epiphany: He loved good bread but couldn’t find local flour to make tasty loaves. Zimmerman’s solution was to open Hayden Flour Mills, borrowing the name from an historic Tempe business. (The original Hayden Flour Mill operated in the late 19th century, one of about 40 Arizona mills at the time.) Zimmerman planned a vertically integrated business — one that grew the grain, milled the flour, and shipped the product.
The heart of Zimmerman’s milling passion has always been heirloom grains. He compares commercially made flours to MP3 audio files — compressed versions that are mere imitations of the original music. By contrast, he says tasting bread made from heirloom flour is like listening to a concert in person. “These cultivars are the full expression of the grain’s genetics. They’ve got more flavor and better nutrition than any modern wheat.”
One of the earliest hurdles to getting Hayden Flour Mills up and running was finding heirloom grain. Most local farmers weren’t willing to give up land they’d dedicated to high-yielding modern wheat. So, Zimmerman got in touch with Steve Sossaman, whose family has been farming in Arizona since 1919, and Sossaman committed 30 acres to the project. As a grateful Zimmerman puts it, “Steve was willing to lose money for five years to get things started.”
Hayden Flour Mills received its first heirloom wheat seed — 1,000 pounds of ‘White Sonora’ — in 2011. The entire half-ton was donated by Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills of Columbia, South Carolina. Instead of being leery of a potential competitor (Anson Mills also grinds and sells heirloom grains), Roberts hoped to feed a revival in heirloom grains that would benefit everyone.
Why choose ‘White Sonora’? This soft spring wheat matures early — often in just 90 days — and thrives in the mild winters of the Sonoran Desert (large parts of Arizona, California, and northwestern Mexico). The plants have deep root systems, making them a remarkably drought- tolerant wheat cultivar and saving on irrigation costs and labor. Although ‘White Sonora’s yields are about half those of modern cultivars, the planting rate is modest, and that means a farmer’s seed expense is lower. Growing wheat in the desert has another advantage: The climate is so dry — about 6 percent relative humidity in the summer — that applying burn-down herbicides to a wheat field to desiccate it prior to harvest is pointless.
‘White Sonora’ is one of the oldest surviving wheat cultivars in North America. The cultivar developed its full potential in the Sonoran Desert over the course of three centuries, beginning in the late 1600s when Spanish missionaries brought it to the continent, allegedly to provide flour for communion wafers. Its introduction to northern Mexico gradually changed the region’s culture and cuisine. Today, corn tortillas are king in much of Mexico, but flour flatbreads are the go-to carbohydrate in the northwest because of ‘White Sonora.’ Its high gluten content allows cooks to stretch dough into large translucent tortillas, known as burros in traditional Sonoran cuisine. This culinary influence has spilled over into the Desert Southwest of the United States.
Steve Sossaman planted ‘White Sonora’ on his Queen Creek, Arizona, farm for the first time in December 2011. He harvested the grain in June the following year. Yields were small — much smaller than those of heavily irrigated modern wheats elsewhere in the valley, but he and Zimmerman had expected that. They ground their first crop of ‘White Sonora’ into flour and began marketing it. Bite by bite, area chefs and bakers became infatuated with the flavor it imparted to food. ‘White Sonora’ heirloom flour is often described as nutty and naturally sweet. (I concur, having baked several loaves of bread with it.)
The partnership Sossaman and Zimmerman founded in 2011 has grown about as quickly as, well, ‘White Sonora’ wheat in the desert winter. Hayden Flour Mills’ business has doubled every year. Keeping up with orders for its unbleached, additive-, pesticide-, and herbicide-free flour is a challenge. The company outgrew its original mill (200 pounds of flour per hour) and acquired two more (700 pounds per hour) — but it’s still not enough to meet demand. More than 120 acres on the Sossaman farm are currently devoted to heirloom grains, and other area farmers have begun growing for the mill as well.
The Hayden crew continues to experiment with other heirloom grains. Sossaman grows emmer, also known as farro (Triticum dicoccon), a chewy ancient wheat that once flourished in the Middle East. Another heirloom wheat, ‘Red Fife,’ is especially suited to bread baking. Two cultivars of barley grow on the farm: ‘Black Nile’ from Egypt and ‘Tibetan Purple,’ both of which do well in the Sonoran Desert because they originated in harsh climates. Three cultivars of durum wheat on the property provide semolina for making pasta in the solar-powered mill room.
Despite its growing popularity, ‘White Sonora’ still accounts for less than 1 percent of all wheat grown in Arizona. Zimmerman, Sossaman, and their family business — three of their daughters work at Hayden Flour Mills — aren’t letting that deter them from their goal of making the desert bloom again with ancient grains.
• Botanical name: Triticum aestivum
• Local Spanish name: Sonora Blanca or Flor de America
• Classification: Soft white spring
• Characteristics: Pale red grains in a beardless, compact head
• Height: Up to 6 feet or higher
• Best areas to grow: Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah
• Seed: www.RareSeeds.com; www.SustainableSeedCo.com; www.NativeSeeds.org
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