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Entrepreneur develops local grain economy

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Baker Don Guerra gets close and personal in examining heirloom wheat for his breads.
Don Guerra is promoting the cultivation of a variety of ancient heritage grains that are more flavorful and nutritious than today’s commercial flours.

Twentieth century steel baron Andrew Carnegie was famous as a rich industrialist who repeated the often-quoted phrase, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

He might have felt differently if he’d had the chance to meet Don Guerra, who has made it his life’s mission to develop a local grain economy in Arizona.

Guerra “lives on bread alone” as an artisanal baker who brings 2,500 loaves out of his ovens weekly --- and is rapidly approaching the baking of his 1 millionth loaf since kneading his first dough.

While achieving initial fame with his Barrio Bread branded products using locally sourced grains, his crusade extends further, that being to build a grain-based economy specifically created around heritage/heirloom wheat varieties like Sonoran white, a candela wheat once a major staple crop in desert borderlands.

“I really want to push forward on expanding a local grain economy to make people aware they have a choice when it comes to flour,” he says.

And although definitions of heirloom may vary with growers, some traits apply like non-GMO, typically organic, more easily digested, and able to reproduce from the same seed year to year.

Garage-turned-bakery

Entrepreneur Guerra once mixed and baked his sourdough product in a converted home garage-turned-bakery.  Crazy hours back then, 80 or more a week beginning each evening with a culture starter that needed tending at 2 am in order to be oven-ready as the sun came up.  Back then, he produced 500 loaves a week.

Today he does that in a day and is about to expand his local wheat and flour program even further as part of his growing Southern Arizona Grain Chain with the arrival of the newly created Barrio Grains.

Utilizing a USDA Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program grant (his third grant representing over half a million dollars), he will be able to further promote the cultivation of a variety of ancient heritage grains that are more flavorful and nutritious than today’s commercial flours.  “The breads they produce are like Arizona sunsets, beautiful pigments on the grain, like a painter has combined a varied palette and turned it into a beautiful expression of edible art,” he says.

The latest grant funding will allow him to expand his crusade further, engaging area farmers as strategic partners to grow more varieties of heritage grains.  “There’s a variety of grains we can look forward to growing that we haven’t in the past as well as some new varieties possible with more and more farmers getting excited and coming on-board.

“Throughout the U.S., more and more participants are becoming aware of grains for bread as well as for brewing and distilling and more growers are joining that bandwagon.”

Guerra has been a prime motivator of an expanding healthy grain market.  “It’s exploding now although it’s taken some time to build up momentum.  It requires some patience, something farmers are well acquainted with.  Platforms like this take time and effort to build, but once built, hopefully they’ll last a lifetime and that’s what I want to leave as my legacy --- healthy local grains and a consumer community that support that effort.”

As evidence of that growing farmer support, BKW Farms in Marana, Ariz., allocates a portion of its nearly 300 acres to organically grow Sonoran as well as Red Fife, Khorasan, Durum, and Hard Red with the acknowledgment they are ready to expand that growing acreage as demand increases.

In the metro valley of Phoenix, Hayden Mills is the big producer via its acreage at Sossaman Farms in Queen Creek.  Specializing in alfalfa with rotations of wheat and barley, 130 of their 800 acres get dedicated to growing 6-8 varieties per year of the never-been-hybridized grains.

“While our grains are not certified organic, they are grown sustainability and without use of chemicals.  They are then stone-milled where the grain is sheared into flour by rotating stones, preserving the integrity and nutrition of the whole grain,” they report.

Colorado to California

There are similar local grain economies starting to proliferate in other Western sites.

In Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance has spent seven years conducting a heritage grain trial program that has resulted in impressive biodiversity --- seed stocks of over 250 ancient and heritage grain varieties.  The hope is that farmers will join in their excitement to grow out and scale up those varieties.

Likewise in Los Altos, Calif., The Whole Grain Connection also encourages increased supplies of basic whole grain foods instead of refined flour that contains only endosperm.

“We support those who have opened their eyes to the reality that it was a big mistake to remove bran and germ from wheat flour.  The time is now for a joint effort to produce healthful whole grain foods,” says director Monica Spiller.

Another similar undertaking is the now-10-year-old Mendocino Grain Project being farmed on 50 acres.  “Our vision is to provide staple crops, primarily grains, to Mendocino and surrounding counties for local consumption --- and to support the growing of grain in Northern California,” they advertise.

MGP’s owner, Rachel Britten, told the Napa Valley Register: “It’s a real pleasure to work with farmer partners who are growing sustainable, organic, heirloom grains,” in this case, Sonoran White, Red Fife, Rouge de Bordeaux, Central Red, Durum-Iraq, and Khorasan."

Collectively, these efforts are aimed at expanding the growth of respective local grain economies.

As Guerra says of the latest link in building a grain chain in Arizona, “My goal in life is to make meaning.”

And bread.

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