Bringing White Sonora wheat back to the Sonoran Desert.

March 7, 2015

FeaturesIssue 11: March/April 2015

Baking is a sacred ritual, one that requires simple ingredients: water, salt, yeast, and flour. But there is another ingredient that is just as necessary: time. The time for seeds to be planted, for wheat stalks to grow tall and turn from green to golden brown, the time for threshing, for cleaning, for milling, for mixing, for kneading. Time for dough to ferment and rise. Time for dough to be rolled thin for tortillas. The story of White Sonora wheat is one of time, patience, and listening to the land.

In the early winter, soon-to-be wheat stalks look more like sprouts of grass.

In the early winter, soon-to-be wheat stalks look more like sprouts of grass.

The history of White Sonora wheat in the Sonoran desert begins with the people who brought it here and the people who grew it. In the seventeenth century, Spanish and Italian missionaries brought White Sonora’s precursor, a candeal soft white wheat, to the desert. By 1640, Opata and Lowland Pima Indian farmers were growing the wheat near Tuape, Sonora. When Father Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in Sonora in 1687, he brought the now well-established crop northward. Among the many crops the missionaries brought, White Sonora endured because it was drought-and disease-resistant, thriving in the arid Sonoran landscape.

Maribel Alvarez, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, has written extensively on White Sonora wheat. She found a reference to the grain in one of Father Kino’s journal entries from 1710 where he discusses bringing the grain to Pima and Yuma Indians: “I sent … grain and seed which had never been seen or known there, to see if it would yield as well as in those other fertile new lands; and it did yield and does yield very well.”

The head of the wheat stalk holds the wheat berries—the kernels we grind into flour and bake into bread.

The head of the wheat stalk holds the wheat berries—the kernels we grind into flour and bake into bread.

Ethnobotanist Amadeo Rea says the introduction of wheat “completely altered the life of the Pimans. Before they had this winter crop, the Tohono O’odham were entirely dependent on the summer rains for agriculture, [and] could raise but a single crop a year—if everything went right.” White Sonora meant that Pima and Tohono O’odham now had a viable winter crop to sustain their communities. Dams were built of mesquite branches to direct water and nutrient-rich silt to fields and wheat was harvested using sickles. Threshing was done with horses or mules on circular threshing floors called eras in Spanish, and the cleaned wheat was made into flour on volcanic grindingstones called taunas.

The Pima—along with Yaquis, Maricopas, Yumas, and Hispanics—adopted White Sonora wheat into their cuisine, making posole (poshol in Piman)—wheat berries soaked, cooked, and mixed with tepary beans—and huge flatbreads known as tortillas de las aguas (che’chemait in Piman). The White Sonora wheat was ideal because of the protein content that allowed dough to stretch very thin.

Over time, Alvarez says wheat “became integrated into the social fabric of communities that grew it, harvested it and consumed it.” In public art, in home décor, in religious festivals and cuisine, she says, Sonorans began to incorporate wheat as an indelible part of life.

For more than three centuries, White Sonora was one of the principal crops grown in the Sonoran desert. As industrialization of farming took root following World War II, cereal scientists and grain breeders began to think about how to stabilize and secure staple crops like wheat. Combining wheat bred to be high-yield and fertilizer-responsive with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems, farmers in arid climates were no longer dependent on drought-resistant grains. Farmers planted seed from short breeds to avoid rot and mold caused by stalks toppling from wind and rain.

Because of White Sonora wheat’s comparatively high protein content, it’s more suited to cakes and tortillas than leavened bread.

Because of White Sonora wheat’s comparatively high protein content, it’s more suited to cakes and tortillas than leavened bread.

While these changes helped farmers increase yields, something was lost. We lost diversity in the grains we consume. We lost our connection to eating what was adapted to grow in our local ground. We lost our connection to the earth.

Conservation scientist Gary Paul Nabhan, the co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, first spotted some of the last remnants of White Sonora wheat when he worked with farmers in northern Mexico in 1976. By the 1980s, no one was growing White Sonora wheat in the larger valleys of Arizona or Sonora, says Nabhan. The Nobel Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug had developed one of the first Green Revolution wheat varieties, Sonora 64—a semidwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant variety—purportedly using White Sonora as breeding material. In addition to the advent of commercial farming, Nabhan attributes the demise of White Sonora to a series of droughts and freezes, as well as a generation of farmers dying out, and with them, the knowledge and infrastructure required for traditional wheat farming. According to Jeff Zimmerman of Hayden Flour Mills in Phoenix, there were 44 mills established in Arizona Territory between 1865 and 1912. Today, there are only two.

In 2012, a coalition of local organizations was awarded a $50,000 USDA Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to bring White Sonora soft wheat and chapalote flint corn back into the local food chain.

“There’s a lightbulb that goes off. Oh my gosh, this is what bread should taste like.”

People were drawn to the grain for many reasons. For Native Seeds/SEARCH, bringing back White Sonora was aligned with its mission of preserving heritage seeds. Research and education program manager Joy Hought says, “For us, it’s about climate change and bringing back crops that don’t abuse or overuse our natural resource.” Grants and special project manager Chris Schmidt adds, “Twenty to 30 years from now, these crops are going to be more important than ever. We need to work to preserve genetics and build the infrastructure for production now.”

In addition to the SARE grant, Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills in South Carolina, donated 5,600 pounds of White Sonora wheat seed over a three-year period so farmers wouldn’t have to face the expense of seed in addition to more labor and less yield.

Steve Sossaman of Sossaman Farms renovated his old pole barn into a milling space for Hayden Flour Mills. From left: Miller Ben Butler, founder Jeff Zimmerman; farmer Steve Sossaman; and Emma Zimmerman.

Steve Sossaman of Sossaman Farms renovated his old pole barn into a milling space for Hayden Flour Mills.
From left: Miller Ben Butler, founder Jeff Zimmerman; farmer Steve Sossaman; and Emma Zimmerman.

While a variety of heirloom crops have been growing in popularity over the years, extra enthusiasm and effort was needed to bring back heirloom grains. “Harvesting wheat involves complicated and technical processes,” says Hought. “It’s not the same as other crops where you can just pluck the apple off the tree and get it to the consumer. You have to get the grain at the right time. You have to thresh and clean it. Jeff Zimmerman has spent the last few years learning how to mill it; it’s a craft.”

Jeff Zimmerman grew up in North Dakota on a wheat farm; as the farm changed hands from his grandfather to his father, and now to his cousin, he witnessed the industrialization of the farm. A manager at an insurance company by day, Zimmerman has always prioritized food; so has his wife, a nutritionist, and their five children. Years ago, Zimmerman developed a passion for bread baking. But he found that even when he took the time to make bread from scratch, he was dissatisfied with the end result: “It tasted empty,” he says.

The mill at work.

The mill at work.

Zimmerman began milling his own flour and became inspired to restart the well-known Phoenix-based Hayden Flour Mills, a mill that had closed in 1998 after a 15-year decline. That dream kicked into high gear after the 2010 Farmer+Chef Connection, where Jeff met Marco Bianco, baker for Pane Bianco and brother of Chris Bianco, restaurateur and James Beard award-winning chef.

At his famous Pizzeria Bianco, Chris is committed to using the freshest ingredients and sourcing them locally; for years, he had been looking for a way to access locally grown and milled grain. Emma Zimmerman, Jeff’s second eldest and his business partner, had two degrees in bioengineering and was pursuing a Ph.D. in bioethics when she returned home to help her father with his passion project.

“I don’t know if Chris and Marco thought that we were serious, that we were really going to do it,” says Emma, laughing. They were. Jeff Zimmerman ordered a stone mill from Austria and soon it was installed at the back of Pane Bianco.

Although it was a tight fit, being housed in the kitchen of Pane Bianco had its perks. Marco Bianco could immediately experiment with the freshly milled flour and offer feedback.

“If you work in a marble quarry, you don’t necessarily see the statues. But if you are a miller and you’re working next to my brother every day, it’s a pretty interesting relationship when you are working, vetting things out. How was the hydration of it? Was the protein too high or low? So that dialogue became beneficial,” Chris says.

Ben Butler pours heritage grain into the stone mill; within minutes, fresh flour sifts out the other side.

Ben Butler pours heritage grain into the stone mill; within minutes, fresh flour sifts out the other side.

Bringing back White Sonora involved bringing back infrastructure for smaller crops—from farming and harvesting, to cleaning and milling—that no longer existed. At first, the Zimmermans were ordering the freshest grain they could find from out of state, but when Nabhan approached them about heritage grains, they immediately came on board. The first farmers they approached did not.

Emma explains. “The whole reason industrialized farming works is they have bred these grains to be high yielding; they’re very short and dense. You plant an acre and you’ll get 5,000 pounds. You go back to heritage and you get 2,000 pounds.”

But when the Zimmermans approached an old family friend, Steve Sossaman of Sossaman Farms, he agreed to grow their first crop of 10 acres of White Sonora in 2011 as a personal favor. But that first season made growing heritage grains a passion for him as well, Emma says; he recently renovated his old pole barn into a milling space complete with a tasting room.

Hayden Flour Mills is now working with five farmers growing 20 varieties of heritage grains. In 2014, they grew 300 acres of grain. With 200 wholesale customers nationally, Hayden Flour Mills can barely keep up with demand. Tucsonans can pick up their flour at Whole Foods, Native Seeds /SEARCH, Time Market, and at some farmers’ markets, or taste it in local restaurants like Zona 78, Gallery of Food, Canyon Ranch, Agustín Kitchen, Proper, Food for Ascension, and Pizzeria Bianco.

Using the sifters to get flour from the ground grains.

Using the sifters to get flour from the ground grains.

In 2014, Hayden Flour Mills was one of nine companies to win Martha Stewart’s American Made contest, showcasing American companies doing innovative work. The award included a $10,000 prize, a trip to New York, and a spread in Martha Stewart Living.

“People just seem to react to eating Marco’s bread, or eating a really good bread,” Emma says. “There’s a lightbulb that goes off. Oh my gosh, this is what bread should taste like. Even me, starting out, I didn’t think about flour. It’s just powder in a bag. You don’t think about where it comes from. All of a sudden, you think: Why does this taste so good and what is it made of? And you realize, Oh, this is rye or barley; there’s all this amazing diversity behind it. I think it goes back to people tasting the food that is made with these really good ingredients.”

At $10 to $12 for a one and a half pound bag, Hayden’s flour is two to three times as expensive as conventional all-purpose flour. “This used to be something I apologized for,” Emma says. “But now, I say: Isn’t it amazing that you now get this grain that didn’t even exist in this region five years ago at your Whole Foods? You treat it differently. This is the true cost of flour. We are so out of touch with what food costs.”

Hayden Flour Mills offers educational discounts to schools to make their flour more accessible, and they hope that over time, as heritage grains grow in popularity and infrastructure is established, heritage flour will be available to everyone.

Riding down a road in Marana, past the mid-century steel silos that signal arrival at BKW Farms, fourth-generation farmer Brian Wong points outside his window to the small field that has just been furrowed up, brown dirt piled alongside shallow ditches waiting for seeds to be planted. This was the very field BKW used to grow its first round of organic White Sonora wheat three years ago.

BKW just celebrated its 75th anniversary but this was its first venture into organic farming and the first time it had grown heritage grains since the Green Revolution. BKW’s main crops are cotton and durum; the wheat is exported in its entirety to Spain. Not a part of the SARE grant, BKW Farms became involved after farmers Ron Wong and Karen Dotson attended the Native Seeds/SEARCH grain school and learned about heritage grains such as White Sonora wheat. They realized that more and more local restaurateurs, brewers, and bakers were becoming interested in local heritage grains, which gave them an opportunity to grow crops that would stay in the local foodshed.

At BKW Farms, three generations of farmers are committed to growing White Sonora wheat. From left: Brian Wong, Ron Wong, and Ralph Wong.

At BKW Farms, three generations of farmers are committed to growing White Sonora wheat. From left: Brian Wong, Ron Wong, and Ralph Wong.

In 2012, they obtained 1,800 pounds of White Sonora seed from Native Seeds/SEARCH’s inventory and planted their first crop of certified organic White Sonora on 15 acres. For their conventionally grown wheat, they typically get 7,000 pounds an acre. With ideal weather that initial growing season, their first harvest yielded a total of 40,500 pounds, or 2,700 pounds per acre. Inside their climate-controlled storage room are the fruits of their harvest: huge white totes holding tons of the small tan berries. Because of their high yield, they were able to donate double the amount they borrowed back to the seed bank.

This year, they will plant two new heritage grains: organic Red Spring and organic Durum White. (They’re also growing barley to be made into beer by local breweries.)

“We know how to grow things,” Wong says. “The biggest problem is not growing but the selling and making sure people want what we are growing.”

At Ramona Farms, Ramona and Terry Button are growing White Sonora wheat not only because of its growing market, but also because of its history. When Schmidt asked the couple to help bring back heritage grains by cleaning White Sonora wheat and Pima Club seed, and growing half of it, they immediately agreed. They planted 15 acres and returned double their yield.

Growing White Sonora wheat fit with Ramona Farms’ commitment to honoring traditional farming done by the Pima Indians. Today, Ramona and her daughter Velvet do outreach on the reservation and teach the importance of reintroducing native crops into modern diets, hoping to instill pride in young people for what their ancestors did to develop agriculture in Arizona.

Terry credits the work of organizations like Native Seeds/SEARCH and individuals like Nabhan and Rea for providing a market for place-based heritage grains. “Health-conscious people are wanting to improve their diets. Native foods are being introduced to high-end restaurants,” he says. “It’s gratifying for us because we think maybe there will be a market. Without a market, we can’t preserve seeds just with seed banks. Seeds have an expiration date. They have to be replotted and grown back and that seed stock needs to be replenished. If we do have a market, we can save these crops. Indian corns, tepary beans, heritage grains—they contain survival qualities we need. If we can preserve diversity in seed stock that have other traits, we could avert famine in the future.”

Pane Bianco’s Marco Bianco turns White Sonora wheat into delicious desserts and pastries.

Pane Bianco’s Marco Bianco turns White Sonora wheat into delicious desserts and pastries.

A soft wheat, White Sonora, when ground, crumbles. The density of the flour makes it challenging when used on its own for bread, which requires more elasticity, but White Sonora is perfect for pastas and pastries. The taste is hearty, fresh, of the earth. Marco Bianco bakes with White Sonora for cookies, biscotti, and tarts. Barrio Bread’s Don Guerra uses 12 percent of the grain in his baguette mix because the soft flour adds contrast to the harder varieties he uses.

In Marco’s kitchen, loaves made of Red Fife and soft wheat are set aside to proof while other oval loaves in the oven have begun to develop a dark brown crust. A historian in the guise of a baker, he knows not only every property of White Sonora wheat but also every detail of its history in the history of farming and milling in Arizona.

Marco likens modern all-purpose flour to having one kind of red wine. While all-purpose flour has good baking properties, bakers have no idea what kinds of grain are being used. “The thing we eat the most, we know the least about,” he says.

He now works with 12 varietals for the assortment of bread, tarts, and pastries he makes for the Bianco restaurants. “If you were growing your own wheat and making bread every day you would start to know the tendencies of that varietal. We lost that. We’re starting to get it back now,” he says.

100% White Sonora wheat Tres Leches cake.

100% White Sonora wheat Tres Leches cake.

Bringing back local heritage grains farmed without the use of chemicals in growing or baking may allow for more people to have access to wheat. Marco says, “It’s really in the last 10 to 12 years that there’s been an explosion of people with gluten problems. When the bread is allowed to have a long fermentation, it breaks down the gluten so it is more digestible. In commercial baking, components are added to the bread to mimic the natural fermentation process but do it in less time. Commercial bakers making 10,000 loaves a day want bread to be done in three and half hours, start to finish. It takes 18 to 24 hours for one of my breads.”

And, he says, “If you look at the back of the bread label, there are 25 ingredients you can’t pronounce,” Marco says. “My bread has four ingredients: a sourdough starter made from wild yeast, water, flour, salt.”

No research exists that proves products made with heritage grains are better nutritionally or digestively. Joy Hought says, “There are too many variables: breeding, growing, processing baking.” But anecdotally, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “People with nonceliac gluten sensitivity who buy our flour to go home and bake with, come back and tell us they didn’t have the reactions they typically have,” Emma Zimmerman says.

At Native Seeds/SEARCH, Sheryl Joy collects harvested seeds of White Sonora wheat for storage.

At Native Seeds/SEARCH, Sheryl Joy collects harvested seeds of White Sonora wheat for storage.

Some argue that it is conventional farming techniques rather than fast-track baking that leads to potential allergic reactions in consumers. “My dad had a list of best practices for conventional farming methods for wheat,” Emma says. “It lists 30 chemicals that you spray on that crop. The last one is spraying Roundup so it all dries up uniformly. That [ends up] in the wheat head.”

No one involved in the process of bringing back White Sonora wheat to the local foodshed will take credit. Conversations are filled with effusive storytelling about the others involved. Emma Zimmerman credits the Biancos for making space for their mill. Marco Bianco says Jeff Zimmerman was the spark that got the whole thing going. Chris Bianco praises Glenn Roberts for donating the initial seeds and Gary Nabhan and Chris Schmidt for connecting folks around the SARE grant, which provided much needed money and infrastructure to get the project going. BKW expressed gratitude for the bakers and local brewers, who have been vital in communicating both their support and what they need in their grains.

But everyone is excited about the success of bringing back White Sonora wheat, not only because of its value to our palate and our pantry, but also because in doing so, they have developed a model for bringing back other wheat varieties.

In our modern world, urgency is a part of daily life. We are always on our way somewhere, always checking our devices. We don’t sit still; we don’t have much patience. In a culture in which humans have often attempted to control the land rather than listen to it—where time is commodified rather than respected and honored—returning these heritage grains is a radical act.

Mature White Sonora wheat stalks. Photo by Dena Cowan.

Mature White Sonora wheat stalks. Photo by Dena Cowan.

“A broken tradition is now revived,” Nabhan says. “We affirmed White Sonora’s value in the very place where Norman Bourlaug won a Nobel Prize for breeding high-yield wheat. It reminds us these things aren’t obsolete.”

Chris Bianco says that everything is about communication and connection. “We’re in the relationship business. We are in relationship with each other, our consumers, our environment,” he says. “I’m just a little raindrop. For this thing to work it’s going to take a big puddle, a pond, and an ocean of change. We are all a part of change.” ✜

Lisa O’Neill originally hails from New Orleans but has made her second home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Find her online at The Dictionary Project or at

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