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CABULLONA, Mexico - The towering ancient corn, which grows to twice the height of a man, was cultivated for thousands of years by Uto-Aztecan tribes, but had all but disappeared. Now, horticulturalist Jonathan Wick stoops over green shoots of the maize sprouting in a field near this Mexican village just south of the Arizona border.
“It was originally grown by the Aztecs, and it was their superfood,” Wick said of the Chapalote corn. “It was the food that they would roast and mill, make into a drink with water — pinole — the drink that they needed to keep them going all day long. It’s very nutritious.”
Wick is working to revive the ancient, once near-extinct, flinty, chocolate-colored corn first sown 4,200 years ago in a region extending from what is now northwest Mexico to Arizona.
Following in the tracks of a natural food revival that has popularized heirloom tomatoes, beans and squash at farmers markets across the United States, the arid Southwest borderlands is now at the forefront of a concerted push to bring back natural, genetically diverse and nourishing grains cultivated by local farmers, some over thousands of years.
Together with horticulturalist Victor Acedo and Mexican farmer Carlos Preciado, Wick hopes to parlay nearly five pounds of the precious Chapalote seeds into as much as 1,000 pounds of stock to supply local gardeners, farmers and enthusiasts in the Greater Southwest to grow next year for use in everything from polenta and cornbread to pinole and tortillas.
The trio are among a blossoming community of conservationists, gardeners, farmers, millers, bakers and consumers reviving neglected heirloom grains in a region that was once the crucible for the propagation of some of the most ancient corn varieties in existence as well as the oldest heirloom wheat in North America, brought over by settlers from Europe centuries ago.
“What’s going on here is incredible,” said Joy Hought of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson-based nonprofit promoting heirloom seed conservation, sharing and education. The organization has noted an explosion of interest in heirloom grains.
“We’ve made it work market wise, [and we are] rebuilding the infrastructure and getting a community together again around grains that I have not seen happen anywhere else in the country,” she added.
When I have these single varietal grains, there’s certain profiles and smells and tastes that I can mix and match with. It gives me more spices in the spice rack.
A leap of faith
In the past 20 years, the number of farmers markets across the United States selling local produce has grown more than fourfold to 8,268, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The growth comes amid rising concern about the nutritional value and safety of industrial farming in general, and of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food in particular.
An ABC News poll in June found that more than half of respondents - 52 percent - said they thought GMO food was unsafe, despite arguments by backers saying they are a cost-effective way to feed people and are just as healthy as regularly grown food.
“The U.S. market is saying, ‘We want a corn that isn’t hybrid or a corn that isn’t GMO,’ and bringing back some of those old corns … is a response to that,” said Acedo, a horticulturalist from southern Arizona.
Native Seeds/SEARCH has a selection of nearly 2,000 heirloom seed varieties. While the demand for heirloom grains remains small, it is growing fast, Hought said, driven by consumers “longing to reconnect with food and where the food comes from.”
Vigorous, fast-growing Chapalote, once thought to be extinct north of the U.S.-Mexico border, has become a top seller for the nonprofit. Other varieties growing in popularity include Tohono O’odham 60-Day - a tough, fast-maturing, desert-adapted corn from the namesake Native American nation straddling the Arizona-Sonora border southwest of Tucson.
Heirloom wheats bouncing back include Farro, the grain that fed the Roman legions, and Red Fife, a grain believed to have originated in Turkey that became a staple for bread in 19th century Canada.
The organization also offers White Sonora, the oldest wheat in North America which was first brought from Europe by Jesuit missionaries in the late 1600s for use in communion bread, and is now making a spirited comeback. From just a handful of seeds three years ago, Hought said farmers in the state now grow nearly 400 acres of the soft, round-grain winter wheat that is increasingly sought after for use in bread, pastries and pizza crust, with an expected yield of one ton per acre.
“It was very much a leap in the dark, a leap of faith … to begin with,” said farmer Steve Sossaman, who started growing the arid-adapted grain three years ago on 30 acres of his family farm southeast of Phoenix. He has since expanded to grow seven different heirloom grain varieties on 80 acres, sharing his knowledge and trading seeds with other farmers as far afield as North and South Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and New York.
Working closely with Sossaman and other local growers is Phoenix-based artisan miller Jeff Zimmerman, founder of the recently re-established Hayden Flour Mills, which grinds the heirloom corn and wheat fresh to order on a tabletop stone mill.
Right now we can sell everything that we grow,” said Zimmerman. “The niche is with chefs that want ingredients that are local and have integrity and are real … and that sets them apart from other chefs, so they have something unique that the customers want.”
From crust to crumb
The heritage grains account for only a tiny fraction — less than 1 percent — of the total grown in Arizona. Because production is micro-scale and yields relatively low, specialty wheat flours are more than four times as expensive as a standard organic equivalent on supermarket shelves, placing them out of the reach of some bakers in Arizona, where the poverty rate runs at 17.2 percent, two points above the national average.
“The problem is the cost. I can’t really raise the price of my product to [factor heirloom flour] in there because people are not prepared to pay a lot more,” said Barbara Greenley, who bakes buns, scones and hand pies to sell at a small farmers market in southeastern Arizona.
Zimmerman admits to doubts about whether the revival is scalable and ultimately sustainable, or if heirloom grains will remain a product for a small group of food enthusiasts. He believes they can become more competitive on price as production grows, and if efficiencies in transporting, cleaning, bagging and labeling grains and flours can be made.
However, there are clear signs that the grains are gaining traction in the state, where they are now sold as whole berries, flour and baking mixes by farmers markets, stores and online retailers, and are in use by dozens of local restaurants, brewers and artisan bakers who appreciate the particular balance of fiber, proteins, vitamins and minerals that makes each grain distinct.
“When I have these single varietal grains, there’s certain profiles and smells and tastes that I can mix and match with. There’s different color aspects, different smells, and different flavors. It gives me more spices in the spice rack,” said Marco Bianco, bread maker for the Bianco restaurants in Phoenix. He uses heirloom flours to make focaccia flatbreads, crusty artisan loaves and supple pizza dough.
In Tucson, meanwhile, artisan baker Don Guerra turns out as many as 800 loaves a week at his thriving Barrio Bread Co. His signature Heritage Grain Bread, marked with a saguaro cactus stenciled in flour on the crust, is a blend of White Sonora, Red Fife and an heirloom variety called Hard Red Spring which he chooses for color, protein levels, flavor and effect on crust and crumb.
“What’s really unique about this bread is you can taste really the environment it was raised in,” Guerra said, highlighting the sweet, toasted corn aroma of the desert-grown Sonora White wheat and the darker grain of the Hard Red Spring, which has “more pigments and it smells more like the fields, more like the grass that it is.”
“Every single piece of bread I make for my community is eaten,” he said, echoing the pleasure shared by others relearning how to grow, mill and bake heirloom grains in the storied borderlands where some originated. “It gives me great satisfaction.”