Heirloom Grains with the Sustainable Seed Company

Robyn Jasko

Robyn Jasko › Robyn Jasko is the creator of GrowIndie.com, which is all about food independence, diy-style. She ...


Farmer John Fendley, founder of Sustainable Seed Company, was first drawn to growing grains when he realized the high monetary and environmental cost of buying grain feed at the store, and he wanted to find a more sustainable way to feed his animals. Today, this California-based company sells one of the largest selections of heirloom grains in the country, along with 1500 other Old World varieties of vegetables, medicinal herbs, and flowers.

“When I first started feeding our chickens, I’d go to the feed store, like most people, and a 50lb bag of grains would be $7. Since then, the prices just kept going up, especially for organic grains. Now, it’s $17 or $18 a bag—which is just insane,” recalls Fendley. “Plus, protein in most feed mixes today is made using GMO soy. They can’t use it in organic and it is not supplemented by the government which is one of the reasons for the higher cost.

Fendley also notes the high carbon footprint tied to today’s grain industry as one of his main motivations for their path to sustainable grain growing.

“Most grain is trucked in from the Midwest on 18-wheelers, using petroleum. If you look back at the model that we had, even just 70 or 80 years ago, grain used to be locally grown. Most communities throughout the United States had their own form of grain mill, and you produced your own.”

According to Fendley, grains require a lot of phosphorous to grow well, and this adds to the high environmental footprint of growing commercial grains.

“Phosphorous is being mined, and we are running out of it,” he adds. “It’s not sustainable. The price for phosphorus is increasing, more than gas, year over year. Grains have to have phosphorus to produce strong stems and produce good seed heads.”

To offset the demand for phosphorous and grow a more sustainable feed supply, Fendley suggests farmers and home-growers supplement their grains with chicken manure, which is naturally a great source of this mineral.

“If we went back to the way farmers used to do things, which is producing our own grains, then we aren’t using gasoline to truck it around, and we are providing something that is fresh and locally grown,” he adds. “All the products that come from that process also go back into that community—so in addition to feeding your livestock, farmers can use the by-products of grains for everything on the farm, from animal bedding and roof thatching, to making beer.”

Starting a Grain Garden

For the home gardener, growing grains has many advantages, whether you have chickens to feed, or you just want to have your own organic supply of heirloom grains right in your backyard.

One of the easiest grains to grow according to Fendley is barley, a short season grain that doesn’t require as much watering as other varieties, like wheat. Hulless varieties of barley don’t even need to be threshed, helping retain key vitamins and minerals that are normally lost in this process.

“Unlike other grains, you don’t need a machine to harvest hulless barley,” says Fendley. “Plus, it’s a total superfood. High in betaglucan, barley is 18% protein, and wonderful in soups, stews, salads, homebrews, and for baking.”

Ready to harvest in just 90 days (about half the time of wheat) barley doesn’t need a whole lot of space in your garden. Fendley estimates that the average home-grower can harvest a pound of barley in a 20-square foot space raised bed. Fendley’s favorite variety of barley is Ethiopian Hulless, a jet black variety that is adaptable to several climates in the US.

If you are gluten-free, amaranth, millet, sorghum and quinoa are good additions for the home-grower, and can be directly sown as soon as your frost-free date passes. These can also be grown in raised beds, or even very large containers or whiskey barrels.

Fendley has also had great success interplanting grains with other crops. A few of his favorite pairings are barley and beets, or, to substitute amaranth for corn in a three-sisters garden, so the beans climb up the amaranth while the squash plants create a ground cover that naturally squelch out the weeds.

Heirloom grains, cultivated before GMOs entered the scene, may also be easier to digest, and are superior when it comes to flavor, according to Fendley.

“In the 1950’s and 1960s, grains were highly manipulated,” says Fendley. “Commercial grains may not be as easy for us to process. Plus, you definitely notice the difference in flavor. We get calls from bakers all the time asking for our heirloom grains. I think if more people grew and ate heirlooms, they would know what they were missing out on.”

Do you grow or do you think about growing your own heirloom grains?

Photo Credit: Sustainable Seed Company