I don’t eat (or drink) the #barley

Once upon a time, barley was the top crop here in Ventura County. For decades, sixty to eighty thousand acres were grown here.

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Today, barley hardly shows up in our county at all. I happen to grow a little. But I don’t eat it. I don’t even harvest it for our friends in Ventura’s growing microbrewery scene.

I know this seems wasteful. There’s a drought on… I’m aware of that. Yet, I’m growing a crop with no intention of harvesting it. Crazy.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. We grow barley as part of our orchard covercrop, along with ryegrass. As a covercrop, it is there to support our cash crops: lemons, avocados and figs. An orchard floor is a tough place… it gets walked on, driven on, mowed… it’s working land. So one reason I don’t harvest the barley is simple: not that much survives until it would be ready to harvest.

But that unharvested barley and rye are not wasted. They return a few thousand pounds of biomass to every acre of our orchard every year. That biomass is essential to the carbon content of our soil, which has been improved through farming, not depleted. The increased organic content of our soil and open structure improves water infiltration and retention. We are more efficient users of water because we have the “unused crop”, not despite it.

Unharvested grains reseed themselves more economically than sowing new seed every year. In short, the barley I grow is worth more to me as seed than it is as food. Natural reseeding also allows the soil structure to remain undisturbed for two or three years at a time.

There may be a day when orchard covercrop barley will provide the malt for my favorite brewers…that would be fun, but for now, I need the barley to nourish the soil, not me.

Ventura Agriculture: The First Century

The second installment of my history series for TotallyLocalVC.com covers the beginnings of agriculture in Ventura County. This period saw tremendous political change, as Ventura passed from Spain to Mexico to the United States. Change in the farmscape was just as pronounced.


Grains of Time

It is not widely known that barley was once Ventura County’s top crop. In the late 1800’s more than 60,000 acres within the county were planted with it. Eventually, barley disappeared as a major commodity in Ventura County. Even in the 1890’s, it was tough to compete in a global market place with a crop that is priced by the ton. Today barley is experiencing a minor renaissance on local farms. We have planted barley the past five years as part of our rotational cover crop strategy to build soil and fight erosion. If it seems odd that we are growing a crop that never gets eaten, consider the following: Most grain produced in the United States is not destined for human consumption. Instead, it is used to “feed food” in feedlots and chicken houses. Our grains are “feeding food” as well, but they go right back into the soil where they were grown alongside the lemons, avocados or figs that they nurture. I wonder how consumers would take to a  “grain finished lemon”?