Move over quinoa — there are some new grains in town.
Well, actually, they’ve been around for centuries, but they’re getting new exposure thanks to the efforts of Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms in Los Osos.
The mechanical engineer-turned-farmer is reintroducing some of the world’s oldest grains to the marketplace, as well as herbs, spices, culinary pollens, peas and fava beans. Though selection varies according to season, the storable dry products are available via the business’s website and at several local groceries. (Current locations are listed in the info box).
Kandarian landed in farming via a circuitous route. A six-month stint at Raytheon convinced him that high-tech management wasn’t for him, even though he was working on such lofty projects as the first space shuttle. In 1970, he joined the venerable Bodger Seed Company at the urging of Kenneth Bodger, his former Fresno State University professor and grandson of the company’s founder, John Bodger.
So began a 40-year career in the seed industry. Kandarian remained with Bodger as a production manager/mechanical engineer for another decade before branching out on his own as a seed farmer in the San Joaquin Valley.
He came to the Central Coast in 1999, and now farms several properties in and around Los Osos, some of them his own.
Originally, his local farming operation was focused largely on California native plants such as poppies, lupines, grasses and forbs — fairly typical crops for a seed farmer at the time. Over the years, Kandarian began to apply his inquisitive scientific approach, agricultural experience and personal passion to the ancient plant strains long ignored by conventional agri-business.
Those efforts led to the establishment of Kandarian Organic Farms in 2013.
“It’s kind of become an avocation gone crazy,” he acknowledged.
Though every year is different, “right now I have about 200 crops going,” he said. All are organic, non-genetically modified and farmed biointensively (which can involve planting a variety of crops in conjunction and/or rotation) to naturally combat weed growth.
Working with national seed repositories, Kandarian receives unique and typically hard-to-source seeds from all over the world. Sometimes the allotment is “only seven seeds, but that’s enough for me to begin trials,” he said.
Among his more familiar crops are garbanzos and green lentils, tarragon and sage, buckwheat and black barley. Kandarian even grows organic catnip for the lucky felines in your life.
However, most of the varieties he grows are unfamiliar to modern mainstream consumers, especially when it comes to grains. Maybe you’ve heard of amaranth, spelt and kamut, but how about emmer farro, einkorn and a wheat/rye hybrid called triticale?
While the latter is a relative newcomer, developed in the late 19th century, “emmer farro is 9,500 years old and einkorn is 17,000 years old,” Kandarian explained. Both are species of wheat, but einkorn occupies a special place in human history.
“It’s what allowed us to become sedentary farmers versus hunters and gatherers,” he said. “It’s the grain that made us come together as communities.”
Many of these nutrient-dense whole grains are becoming associated with a myriad of health benefits. Among those are, purportedly, reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and certain types of cancer.
“Many of these ancient wheats are more easily digested” than modern varieties, Kandarian added, opening up the possibility that they could be tolerated better by those with gluten sensitivities.
The ever-inquisitive Kandarian is drilling down on the gluten tolerance idea by further studying the “4,000 varieties of barleys, ryes and durum wheats, many of which are from developing nations or the Middle East,” he said. He’s also looking into planting more heirloom and Old World beans, as well as more unexpectedly omega-3 rich crops such as the primrose family of flowering plants.
“I don’t farm like everybody else,” Kandarian acknowledged. His broad, biodiverse approach flies in the face of the vast majority of the world’s agriculture, including the type of farming he spent most of his life doing.
Perhaps this is a case of knowing the rules well enough to break them.
Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at email@example.com.
Kandarian Organic Farms
805-528-4007 or kandarianorganics.com
Where to find: SLO Natural Foods Coop and Whole Foods Market in San Luis Obispo; Sunshine Health Foods in Morro Bay; Nature’s Touch Harvest and Nursery in Templeton; Soto’s True Earth Market in Cambria. (More locations are pending.)
How to prepare: Several of Kandarian’s crops are finding their way onto the menus of Central Coast restaurants including Luna Red, Novo Restaurant Lounge and Foremost Wine Company in San Luis Obispo. However, you don’t need to be a professional chef to appreciate these products. Most cook up just like the grains, peas and beans you’re used to preparing — some may need a little extra time and/or liquid — and several recipes are listed on the Kandarian Organic Farms website.