The Joy and Science of Growing Wheatgrass
Flash back to January 2007. Les Niles was delivering a fascinating interview to the Reader about large-scale corporate agriculture—his life’s work before taking a position at Stella Gardens in East Troy, WI where he managed, taught and grew organic wheatgrass. Flash forward to present and we now find Les and his wife and partner, Pat, owning and operating BlackSheep Enterprises, the Co-op’s newly independent, organic wheatgrass growers.
Not long after the original profile was printed, Les and Stella Gardens (part of Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a 20-year-old learning center working to revitalize our food and farming systems by reconnecting families to local, seasonally produced, safe, secure, healthy food) stepped down as our wheatgrass producer, leaving the field open for newly trained farmers to fill local production needs. By the middle of 2008, though, the Co-op’s Juice Bar was still searching for a consistently premium wheatgrass source for our Owners. Meanwhile, Pat and her family were researching a decision to expand their consulting business to include a full-time farm operation. That, plus a daily view of the farm’s under-utilized greenhouses was pushing Pat, who wanted to see them back in full operation again. “The best gift I had,” she said in a recent interview, “was you guys looking for someone. I had just made that decision when the phone call came.”
About her her ultimate decision to expand their consulting business to include the wheatgrass operation, she said, “[Les] had developed an art to growing wheatgrass, and when I first started to investigate it, I discovered, in some people’s opinion, he was one of three people in the country able to grow wheatgrass year round. So I had a great mentor.”
Originally, we profiled Les in his role as Farm Manager and Vegetable Production Specialist, working and living with his family at Stella Gardens, which is property owned by founders of Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI). Located a mile north of the Institute's main campus, the biodynamic farm was and is again home to a cold house wheatgrass operation where Pat and her employees now manage the production and intensive, year-round, daily care of their crops.
Les modestly restated their commitment to teaching and being a resource for farming in a way that balances what the farmer loves to grow with market viability. On that he said, “Consulting, teaching—it’s in our blood; it doesn’t stop,” then added, “If someone comes to us and says, ‘Commercially or privately, I want to raise wheatgrass,’ we still have the same philosophy that I used before which is, ‘Yes, we will train you how to do it.’ We’ll also offer to produce for you, because most people find out the amount of water you’re using and space and sunlight and everything else that’s involved and [though] it’s not that hard to grow, it just grows so fast you have to be willing to keep up with it.”
During our conversation about BlackSheep’s focus on quality, Les explained more about the challenges inherent in growing wheatgrass. He said, “The plant, when it starts from seed, is taking nutrients from the seed mainly, and converting that with moisture into succulent tissue. As soon as [the shoot gets] to the point where it’s starting to draw more from the soil, it’s starting to say to its self, ‘Okay, next step is to make a strong enough plant to be able to put out a seed head and support that seed head.’ So as it gets taller, it’s starting to produce more fiber and it’s starting to go from succulent tissue, which is full of nutrients, to less succulent that’s going to, in the end, be the support for that seed head. I’m looking at it from the point that I’m raising wheatgrass to juice and understand the plant is looking at it as ‘I have a seed and the purpose of that seed is to produce a whole bunch of other seeds.’”
Seed stock for BlackSheep wheatgrass is the same variety used with the former operation, starting with MFAI’s organic wheat seeds. BlackSheep starts their wheatgrass by soaking the wheat berries for 24 hours in clean well water. Only non-chlorinated water from the farm’s well is used in production and the water is tested yearly to ensure purity. After the initial soaking, the seeds are rinsed for 24 hours before being spread like thick frosting over organic dirt in one-inch trays. Describing the sprouting process in our earlier interview, Les said, “We don’t put the berries down into the dirt. With Mother Natures’ typical response to send the shoot up, the shoot part does not enter into the organic soil. [It’s] all growing on top, [resulting in] a cleaner product.” Then, using only a flood mister from above the plants, water is used mainly to cleanse the product several times a day to carry any dirt down the shoots and through to the soil.
To prevent mold from forming on the wheatgrass, it is crucial to control humidity and temperature in the greenhouse. The target for their ‘cold house’ is 50-60 degrees with a relative humidity of 70-80 percent. Natural gas fuels a matrix of hot water pipes running under the growing tables to maintain the temperatures when Wisconsin’s winters go too cold, but their use of heat is very limited. The typical winter growing cycle for a flat of wheatgrass is about 14 days, which Les states is manageable, but summertime means a shorter growing cycle of eight days, requiring a more rigorous pace to keep up with the sprouts. Pat and Les explained that their cultivating process is based on creating an intensity of flavor and flavonoids (antioxidants), and in order to get that color, flavor and sweetness, the greenhouse environment has to stay cool.
To maximize production in the greenhouses, Pat explained, “We’re using two tiers for plants and have increased the operating area inside the greenhouse by about 25 percent.”
With careful observation of daylight and regular rotation, multiple crops are stacked in the greenhouse, including bedding plants for field crops. Les assures us that wheatgrass is always grown on top, and bedding plants that will be going out into the field are only tiered underneath.
Pat and Les Niles moved their family to the East Troy area after spending decades farming in the eastern U.S. Les is still consulting part-time for MFAI and balances the remainder of his time volunteering to assist Pat with marketing as well as plenty of opportunities to consult for area farmers. The two share a history of being raised in and among “traditional” farming but having moved to more sustainable methods, now embrace the “black sheep” label their families have affectionately given them. Les cracks a big grin as he jokes, “We’re a little strange.” To which Pat explains, “We grew up among many conventional farmers. I was raised in a community that discussed stewardship of the land. Conservation was a big part of where I grew up. It was conventional, but that sense of stewardship left people’s minds open to be very cautious about how they [farm].”
While praising the Juice Bar staff’s great care of and enthusiasm for wheatgrass, Pat summarized some of their farming philosophy, “Our emphasis and focus is on what we’re producing and the quality has to be there. It has to be quality for you; it has to be quality for us and, above all, it has to be quality for that end consumer. [Wheatgrass] really was the first choice in choosing a product.” Pat said, “If we needed an income—and we certainly did—this gave me an opening to do something that we knew and loved. [Les has] always loved growing wheatgrass and it opened the doors back up for that on a regular basis.”
For more information about the Michael Fields Agriculture Institute and the many other crops they cultivate, see their website at www.michaelfieldsaginst.org. For more information about BlackSheep Enterprises, please see www.blacksheepenterprises.webs.com.