wheat, no cotton
Our very serious drought in Northern California means that Sally Fox didn't plant cotton on her Capay Valley farm this year for fear that her wells will run dry long before the cotton has had it's necessary drink.
On a recent visit, we walked the fields where last year's cotton harvest prospered, now carpeted in the golden glory that is Sonora wheat. As we kicked up dust and reckoned with the relentless midday sun, Sally told us the story of Monica Spiller, a chemist and decades-long advocate and developer of 'landrace' wheats, including the varietal of Sonora that Sally now farms. Named for the Sonora mountain region of Mexico where it was first identified in the early 1700's this heirloom grain becomes a delicate flour once milled, rendering easily to flatbread, hand formed tortillas or even flaky pie crust. I've coaxed it into pizza dough with a generous glug of olive oil and made it into sourdough bread coupled with hard red wheat from the dynamos that are Anson MIlls.
Sonora wheat and Sally's naturally colored cotton have a certain soul in common, thus fitting that they take turns in the same field, but they also have a certain type of woman in common, women with a deep enough ferocity to steward seeds into radical action. It is hard to connect with the sharper edges of this work when bathing in Sonora's Palomino tide, the endless blue sky as sole contrast to the field below. It is harder, still, to be disappointed that cotton won't make an appearance this year and remember why and remain convicted to do something about it. The pretty in the field can be so dazzling, and I am thankful for this, but I am more thankful for the examples of female ferocity that have led me here.
As we walked deeper along the field's edge, Sally pointed out the shift in height from one row to the next and I was proud to know why that pattern repeated across the wide expanse. I was happy to remember the rows of black eyed peas she'd planted in between the cotton last year, both as nitrogen fixer and to encourage bees to hum along in discrete plots. We'd picked and shelled several hauls of those peas, returning to our southern roots with proper Hoppin' John and vinegary mustard greens. I could see the wheat standing taller, more proud from the nitrogen left behind by the peas and for the first time since visiting this farm, I felt a personal connection to the field's recent history, a far different dazzling than the pretty but definitely dazzling all the same.
Across the street, Sally's land continues where she's planted Teff for the first time on a parcel recently farmed for kale, as evidenced by the occasional vigorous volunteer. We cracked open wheat berries, tasting the early crop, and I tore off some kale leaves for snacking. The teff field is overrun by the infamous devils claw, an invasive plant that apparently has some medicinal qualities and whose clawlike pods can be used for basket making. I've only known it as a wicked beast to uproot and curse, a true threat to both crop and Sally's sheep, who have occasionally been wounded by the dried, curved pod. More Sonora wheat sits on the other other side of the Teff, an experimental plot that was planted later and is flourishing. Sally kept referring to the two crops as trials, one a clear success, the other less so though still too early to judge, but these are only experimental because of the severe drought and the intense demands of a flock that needs feeding and a farm that needs income. The line between these two experimental fields reads to me as the line that separates dazzling from ferocity, which is why I continued pulling up Devils claw as we walked back to the car, tuning out Sally's insistence not to dirty my hands.