White Sonoran Wheat

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White Sonora Wheat is a soft grain, white winter wheat primarily grown in California’s Sonora region. It is also known by the names: Kno Wheat; Trigo Flor, Flor de America, Trigo Mota or Sonora Blanca in Spanish; and Olas Pilcañ in Pima. As a winter wheat, it is planted and sprouts in the fall, from approximately September to December before any freezing occurs. Then, the plant hibernates until spring, at which point it continues to grow and mature, finally being ready for harvest in July.   The grains are round-seeded and are nearly opaque, pale-colored with a tint of pink. The wheat chaffs (or “glumes”) are reddish brown, and protect the seeds inside. The grain is categorized as a soft pale red grain, meaning that it is easier to grind and better for using in pastry due to its low protein content. When milled, it produces a light, white flour. The wheat has become adapted to the southwest coast including Baja, the Sonoran desert and California, and specifically to a semi-arid climate. It is a hardy plant, resistant to drought, cold, disease and rust (a plant fungus). Traditionally, the flour was used in making the dough for tortillas, which in turn were used for burritos and chimichangas, reflecting the influence of Mexican culture in the region the growing area. Additionally, the wheatberry (the entire unprocessed wheat kernel) was also used in traditional dishes such as pinole, a porridge, and posole, a stew. The wheatberry is also being used to make some classic wheat beers.   White Sonora wheat is thought to have been brought to the Sonoran Desert by Padre Lorenzo de Cardenas between 1640 and 1650. During this period, Cardenas provided the seed to the Eudeve peoples, who began to propagate the wheat near the rural village of Tuape, Sonora, not far from the present United States-Mexico border. Originally, this wheat was used in the creation of communion bread, and soon became a staple food for the region’s inhabitants. White Sonora wheat was also important in farming as a rotational crop, used for renewing the nitrogen and minerals in the soil. The Pima people were soon growing and making use of this variety, becoming the first food exporters in Arizona in the 19th century. They sent the wheat eastward, into the Midwest and the east coast. The Sonoran wheat production at the time was credited with the prevention of the starvation of both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, as at that time the wheat production was measured in millions of pounds and the central valleys of California and Arizona were “America’s breadbasket.” This wheat also helped with a critical shift in the use of flour tortillas over corn tortillas in what is considered “Borderlands cuisine,” referring to the area between northwest Mexico and the southwest United States. Many of the foods associated with that cuisine also owe their existence to the wheat, such as burritos and chimichangas.   The wheat also was used as part of gene selection for the Sonora 64, a plant which was bred by the Nobel Prize winning Norman Borlaug, and was one of the first plants in the Green Revolution. This new variety lost the taste and texture that was so distinct and pleasing in the original variety. The creation of the Sonora 64 spurred the commercial decline of the White Sonoran wheat in the 1970s and 1980s, as there was some confusion amongst farmers concerning the differentiation between the new Sonora 64 and the heritage variety. This caused the virtual disappearance of the crop from the landscape. Recently, there have been renewed efforts to understand and preserve the rich cultural and regional history surrounding White Sonora wheat. Today, the wheat persists in some rural villages and is making a mild resurgence amongst artisanal bakers in the region thanks to its rich, sweet, earthy and nutty flavor like those typically found in whole-wheat flours, but with the lightness and low protein levels of a white flour. Furthermore, CSA groups (Community Supported Agriculture) are slowly finding individuals who are willing to pay an equitable price for it.

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