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Using Ancient and Perennial Grains to Build Soil Health

Larry Kandarian focuses on ancient grain and perennial wheats at his farm in Los Osos, California.


Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms in Los Osos, California has been a farmer for over forty years. Starting with a conventional model and then transitioning to a diversified organic farm, Kandarian’s career in agriculture has progressed by rewinding back to the beginning.

 “Farro is the very first thing mankind ever grew.” Kandarian says, “In Paleolithic times we were not only hunting, but also gathering einkorn.”

Kandarian Organic Farms boasts almost two hundred crop varieties, most of which are commonly known as ancient grains: old varieties of heritage or heirloom grains preserved from pre-industrial times and saved year-to-year. For Kandarian, growing ancient grains is personal: his ancestry hails from the exact region where grains were first cultivated by early civilizations in Ancient Mesopotamia.

“My dad was Armenian from right near Iran, so it just made sense to grow some of those grains. I love them,” he said.

Kandarian got his start in the flower seed business. “I’ve done flowers, herbs, vegetables and grasses. It was natural to move to [grains] in 2007 during the economic downturn because nobody was buying flower starts while the housing market was going to hell!”

With their high nutrient and fiber content, ancient grains not only offer an ideal nutritional staple for Kandarian’s customers, but also an opportunity for him to preserve unique varieties. The farm produces certified organic, quinoa, millet, flax, Teff, chia, emmer farro, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Farro, spelt, rye, Kamut, sorghum, einkorn, triticale, Hard Red Winter Wheat, Black Barley, Nude Oats and Sonora White Wheat.

“A lot of the seeds we started with came from the seed repository of the United States and then we get seeds from all over the world. With my background in the seed business I’m able to take a small sample and make more.“

Kandarian not only provides nutritious grains and grain blends as a health product, he grows them in a way in which grains and legumes working in tandem on a field to fix nitrogen and balance soil.

“The Teff gets to be twelve to eighteen inches tall while the khorasan gets to be around five feet. Then we cut them together, thrash and separate the seeds,” he said.

Kandarian even grows several trios grains on one field, such as einkorn, Teff and Sonora Wheat, and farro, fava and flax. The trick is to have enough contrast in seed sizes to allow easy separation at the end of processing. Multi-seeding is a simple process for Kandarian.

“We’ll either hand seed or use a spin spreader,” he said. “We’ll cover the larger grains first and then put the Teff on top and add the sprinklers.”

Ancient vs. Modern Grains

While grains are having a moment of derision in popular dieting literature, Kandarian believes the problems with grain lie not with grains themselves, but with agricultural practices and breeding for scale and efficiency rather than nutrition.

“The good thing about ancient grains is they are alkaline-based, while modern grains are acid-based, and acids can promote cancer,” he said.

Kandarian is also concerned about pesticide inputs. “When you spray grain with RoundUp, the seeds that are green finish maturing with the RoundUp absorbed inside.”

But abandoning grains altogether, like in popular iterations of the Paleo diet, would be a mistake in Kandarian’s view.

“If I was a Paleolithic person hunting and gathering and I came upon this big grain head of einkorn as opposed to other foxtails and weeds, there’s no way in hell I wouldn’t eat it.” Kandarian said. “The Paleo diet should include ancient grains.”

Kandarian points to Paleolithic remains found in West Asia as evidence.

“In our Paleo ancestors’ guts they did have grains: they also had einkorn in their teeth. We can handle grains, which is why we have molars in our teeth to grind those kinds of things,” he said.

Where modern grains have failed nutritionally, Kandarian believes ancient grains offer a solution. He subscribes to the Weston A. Price philosophy of pre-soaking grains with apple cider vinegar to help eliminate the bitter phytic acid in the bran layer as well as lectins.

While ancient grain varieties provide superior nutrition, Kandarian says that they have moved to the margin of the grain industry over the last 100 years as the growing process became more tailored towards the uniformity required by machines.

“Most grain farmers are looking at dollars: they’ve got a combine that cost them half a million dollars so they have to run a lot of stuff through it,” he said.

The pressure to produce more per acre lead farmers to prefer chemical fertilizers and shorter, sturdier varieties yielding thousands of pounds an acre — exponentially more than ancient grains. “We use a different process from the conventional combine harvesting. A combine is literally the combination of two processes — cutting and thrashing. Because we have such different height of grains, we use two machines, the wind rower and the thrasher. So we pick up the grain out of the wind rows laid out on the detritus of the field and then we pick that up just like picking up a carpet and thrash it.”

Growing Perennial Wheats

While maintaining his love of ancient grains, Kandarian has also been an early adopter for new perennial wheat varieties. He has grown these experimental grains for 20 years.

Kandarian Organic Farms currently grows 60 acres of a perennial wheat called Kernza developed by the Land Institute. Kandarian is drawn to the way perennial wheats come back every year without needing to be replanted.

“Annual crops require tilling and fertilizer inputs,” he said. “They have a shallow root system: typical wheat roots go down about two feet while a perennial wheat can have a root system as deep as thirty feet.”

The expanded surface area of these dramatically long root systems offers perennial plants better nutrition.

“Plus, the fact that you’re not tilling means you’re sequestering carbon as opposed to letting it escape,” he said. “As the soil gets more aggregated the water intake improves so that even if you have a slope the soil planted with perennial wheat has minimal runoff, which prevents the nitrogen from collecting in the waterways and causing dead zones in the ocean. It’s a win/win.”

While encouraged by these ecological effects, Kandarian is careful not to treat Kernza like a silver bullet.

“Kernza yields 600 lbs an acre, maybe eight or nine maximum, and then you have to take the husk off, so they’re working on de-hulled varieties where the seeds come out easily (like our Ethiopian Blue Tinge Farro) but the variety we currently grow holds the seed pretty tightly so we have to take that husk off mechanically.”

Kandarian is optimistic about future varieties and crosses with higher-yielding wheats, and is willing to move forward with Kernza because of the dramatic improvements in his soil. “Kiss the Ground [a regenerative agriculture nonprofit] came out and did some sampling and found that our Kernza field that has been in for twenty years has the highest infiltration rate of any soil in the United States. 30 inches of water an hour. The typical amount is about half an inch an hour.”

Always interested in staying at the cutting edge of perennial grain development, Kandarian looks forward to trialing new varieties.

“I’m working with Dr. Steven Jones of the Bread Lab at Washington State University to get one of his perennial wheats called Salish Blue, which is a cross between a wheatgrass and a wheat,” he said.

Kandarian works carefully with his grain varieties to select ones that will perform best in his region.

“People said I couldn’t grow Teff but it grows extremely well here,” he said. “They think it has to be 110 degrees like in Ethiopia, but that’s not the case — it just needs to stay above freezing.” Over the years of working with grain varieties on the farm Kandarian has saved his seeds and found that they adapt to perform better with time.

“You never want to discount a variety and just move on, I will always try something at least twice,” he said. “Like for example a tritium variety from the Indus Valley that didn’t seem to like it here. I want to keep alive as many grain varieties as I can, so I’ll try it again next year.”

Growing for Soil Health

On his own acreage, Kandarian is using every inch of land to work in tandem to produce food.

“I own 130 acres and we’re farming the bottom 65 on a sloped hill going up about 100 feet and the top will be used for grazing,” he said.

On the upper pasture, oak trees provide acorns for Kandarian to finish his market hogs and this frost-free zone will allow the farm to have avocado trees in the future.

“Any place you can grow avocados you can grow coffee and other sub-tropicals, so we entertain the idea of putting a lot of different things in,” he said.

Arriving at organic practices was an evolution for Kandarian. After farming conventionally for the first 30 years of his career, Kandarian’s first attempts at organic struggled.

“I really failed miserably when I first came to Los Osos in ’99, I just couldn’t keep up with the weeds,” he said.

By 2007, through close observation of his land and help from the Soil Health Academy and Conference, Kandarian arrived at successful practices.

“I learned how to grow soil first and then crops on the soil later, and once you get into that mindset it makes everything a lot simpler,” he said.

Kandarian uses cover crops and carefully-timed planting of taller species to manage through the weeds, always conscious to balance the carbon/nitrogen ratio and the bacteria/fungus ratio. “People ask, ‘how do you know if your soil is good’ and I answer, ‘put a shovel in it and if there’s worms it’s good!'”

Kandarian eschews heavy tilling and opts for lighter methods. “We just strip till where we’re going to put our crops in, so every 30 inches I run a ripper shank down a little bit just to get loose soil, then we drag it, plant in a low spot to retain moisture.” Relying on careful successions of annuals and cover crops, Kandarian’s soil structure is held together by root systems that communicate and share nutrients.

“There’s an awful lot of exchange that goes on under the soil: you can’t always tell what’s going on just based on what’s on top,” he said.

Kandarian’s latest project is incorporating animals onto the farm. “We’re getting a herd of sheep now. We’re not just regenerating the soil but we’re also preserving the blood lines of rare and endangered animals by running them behind rare and endangered grains.”

These ruminants will provide pastured meat and fiber for local use and will help process the stems and stalks of the grain fields.

“These animals provide not only their feces and urine but also their saliva when they bite on the perennial crops, which triggers the plants to grow even more: it encourages root branching and faster growth,” he said. “Some animals wrap their tongues around the plant so they grow even more; other animals like sheep have two sets of dentures that allow them to bite lower so you can’t leave them in one spot for too long.”

Kandarian uses mob grazing and rotational grazing with electric fencing systems to keep the animals on fresh forage and keep land impact at its prime efficacy.

“We’re getting a [guard] donkey and a herd of St. Croix, which are hair sheep so you don’t have to shear them, the hair just drops off; and because they don’t have wool they don’t produce lanolin which changes the taste of the meat.”

Kandarian chose St. Croix because of their threatened status as documented by the American Livestock Conservancy, and also plans to run large-growing hair sheep like Dorper and Barbados. The plan is to run these sheep on after-harvest fields of grain to clean up the stalks and stems left by the almost 200 different crops. “There’s a lot going on.” Kandarian says.

Along with his new foray into multi-species grazing, ever expanding palate of old and new grains, Kandarian Organic Farms is working towards cultivating more collaboration and education opportunities. Kandarian’s operation is in the process of rebranding to “Heart and Soil Farms,” which will encompass the many ventures this operation is taking on.

Kandarian is very optimistic about the future of agriculture when he sees more opportunities for young people to learn about ancient grains, organic farming methods and permaculture living. “The more kids we can teach to grow a seed rather than play on their iPad, the further we’re going to get. I have a lot of faith in the new generation.”

With strong ties to both ingenuity and antiquity, Kandarian seeds that future with every grain he plants.

Learn more about Larry Kandarian at www.kandarianorganics.com or on Instagram @kandarianorganicfarms.