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March 30, 2006

Heading: Talk of the Table, Feeling our oats in Humboldt County, illustration of grain ears


In a recent North Coast Journal article on eating foods grown within 100 miles of her home, Shannon Tracey pointed out the difficulty in finding local wheat and, by extension, other grains. This begs the question, "Is it is possible to grow grains for local consumption in Humboldt County?" If historical experience is any indicator, then the answer is a resounding 'Yes,' but the answer is also more complicated.

Humboldt produces lots of food on its 33,000 to 50,000 acres of prime agricultural land. When European people moved here in the 1850s, they brought grains, hay, cows, vegetables and fruit trees. The soil was rich and there was plenty of water. From 1860 to 1900, agriculture was a booming industry in Humboldt County. Potatoes, oats, barley, peas, corn, hay and butter were shipped out of Humboldt Harbor in large numbers. Humboldt supplied all of San Francisco with peas.

At that time, wheat grown in Humboldt County was famous. Humboldt won first prize for wheat at the 1893 Columbian Expedition in Chicago, a 19th century version of the World Fair. Humboldt County wheat kernels were considered plump, heavy grains that grew at nearly double the expected per-acre production of the times. At the turn of the 20th century, there were five flour mills in Humboldt County, located from Rhonerville to Hoopa.

Humboldt County also produced award-winning oats. In 1880, the County produced a third of all the oats grown in the state. Again, people were amazed at the productivity of the land in Humboldt County, which produced 120 bushels per acre when the norm was 40 to 80 bushels an acre.

That was one hundred years ago. Do we grow grains now? The answer is that we do -- sort of.

The wheat-producing regions of Humboldt County were the inland valleys, on the Eel and the Trinity rivers. The soil was noted to be highly productive for grains, but it was later determined that much of Humboldt County wheat was too "sticky" for the marketplace. Coastal wheat had too much bran, not enough grain. There were problems with spring rains and plant fungus. Once the railroad transportation brought in competition from wheat from the Midwest, local production fell off.

The oat-producing lands, mostly coastal bottomlands, have become the dairy farms of today. Many organic farmers grow oats in Humboldt County today, but they are used as a cover crop and are plowed into the soil before they form their seed.

If there is any grain we could grow successfully in Humboldt County, it would be oats. Planted in the fall, oats grow through the winter season, with the winter rains. Oats love the moisture and mild climate of this county.

Wheat also grows in the winter, but wheat prefers a colder climate, and drier springs. If one wanted to try growing wheat in Humboldt County, the inland valleys are best. Plant Hard Red Spring Wheat in the fall or spring and harvest in July. One could expect to produce about 2,500 lbs. per acre, which will make about 2,500 loaves of bread. The real trick to grain production is the threshing, and then the grinding. But that's another article.

Other major grains that we eat include corn and rice. How do they perform in Humboldt County?

Corn is a domesticated form of teosinte, a wild, perennial grass native to Middle America. It is an American plant, but it was not grown in Humboldt County until Europeans brought the seed. Being a heat-loving, summer-growing plant, corn grows and produces well in the inland valleys. Humboldt can ripen sweet corn in most the county, and has long, hot enough summers in the inland valleys to ripen and dry grinding corn varieties. The coast, with the cool summer fog, is less predictable for ripening a long-growing corn. Typically, silage corn is grown on the coast for the dairy industry.

Rice has never been grown in Humboldt County on any large scale, if at all. It may or may not be practical to grow here. The nearest rice fields, 200 miles to the southeast in the Central Valley, are in climates not that different from some of the lowland interior areas of Humboldt County. Rice prefers a long season, warm climate and most varieties require large quantities of water. Humboldt County has the water, especially this year. With such fun varieties as Mochi, Thai Jasmine, Basmati and Arborio grown in California, there may be some worthwhile experimentation for growing rice in Humboldt.

Some grains -- barley, amaranth, quinoa, teff, triticale, millet, sorghum -- are either are less consumed or barely tried here. One might expect barley to do well, from its winter-growing heritage and our will to make good beer. Amaranth and quinoa aren't eaten much in our society, but they are high in protein. Amaranth, a relative of our notorious pigweed, can be planted in the spring and harvested in summer, with very little irrigation or fuss.

If petroleum oil becomes very expensive, could Humboldt County people live within a 100-mile diet? With an upcoming energy crisis, is Humboldt County a good place to live? Maybe so, if we invest in supporting local food production. We can produce such great food if we support our local farmers and educate ourselves about what and how we feed ourselves.

If you have historical stories or information about the cultivation of grains, fruit and vegetables in Humboldt County that you would like to share, please go to and click "submit articles," or mail to Food History Humboldt, 1645 Virginia Way, Arcata, CA 95521.

Susan Ornelas and Dick Hansis are members of the Humboldt County Peak Oil Action Group, www.


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