It has been a while since I have posted anything, chiefly because I have been swamped with work this spring and early summer. Another challenging year as I expected, with weather extremes to boot. I stopped a little early today after being frustrated trying to scuttle hoe crops in wet, gooey clay soil. Not the best conditions to hoe in as one is likely to simply move the weed an inch or so, where it will simply take root again in the presence of all that moisture. So, instead of whining about how tough it is to farm in the presence of EWEs (extreme weather events), I thought it would be refreshing to touch on something extremely inspiring as well as critical for the future of food in the years to come; the incredibly rich diversity among the cereal grains: rye, oats, barley, and specifically wheat.
Many years ago, I became hooked on open-pollinated, heirloom seed. My head nearly exploded when I read through my first Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook! I simply could not believe how many different types of tomatoes there were. Incredible varieties neglected by
garden centers and grocery stores across the country. A little deeper into the world of heirlooms and you soon discover that this heritage of diverse foods extends to every garden veggie imaginable. From peas and lettuce to peppers, eggplant, and more obscure crops like cardoon and ground cherries. Of course this mind bomb extends deep into the pantheon of fruit cultivars. 5,000 distinct apple varieties and still counting?
Take this whole bit about extreme diversity to a place less common in our way of thinking as gardeners, homesteaders, and culinary consumers: grains as heirlooms? Overlooked for the wealth of diversity by most because few of us experience grains up close in a tangible way. Most see grain fields from a distance from the highways or we experience grains as a finished product like flour, pasta, or breakfast cereal. Once you start growing a crop like wheat in the back yard, you
will quickly discover what a fascinating garden plant it is (as well as all the other cereal grains). I have discovered that the diversity of grains is as exciting and inspiring as the vast number of tomato varieties there are to choose from. Like veggies, grains come in a great variance of sizes, colors, and flavors, as well as a broad number of varieties bred for specific uses ( hard wheats for breads and soft varieties for pasta, cakes, and cookies). Wheat grains can be white, black, red, yellow, brown, purple, and even blue-ish. Some are high in protein, and gluten content varies greatly from variety to variety. Some varieties only grow 2′ tall and others can surpass 8′ in ideal conditions. There is wheat bred for bulgur, baking, beer, and thatch for roofs in England. And of course, there is a complexity of flavor characteristics and textures closely tied to the many culinary uses.
I thought I would share a few photos of the wheats I have been growing this season. You can quickly see how different they are from one to another. These are all immature, and
the stark differences (and beauty of each variety) are more noticeable when they reach maturity and are ready to harvest. I might add, that cereal grains, like wheat and barley, take on a whole new class when defining heirloom. Most heirloom tomatoes, for example, can be dated back to the early 20th century and 19th century, with a portion dating back hundreds of years. Grains are usually classified as heritage ( early 19th century going back to the Middle Ages) and ancient (some like Emmer and Einkorn wheat can be traced back 5,000 years or older). From my research there exists 30 distinct species of wheat, and some 30,000 varieties. Of course the true number is
probably much larger, but keep in mind that many varieties have disappeared altogether, while others, like Hourani and Jaljuli, were near the brink of extinction when smart folk, like Eli Rogosa, brought them to light and encouraged farmers to grow them (Check out The Heritage Wheat Conservancy). Other rare varieties have been kept by seed banks like the USDA and CIMMYT in Mexico. I have one strain of Hourani gleaned from the USDA seed bank as well as Jaljuli from CIMMYT. There are also many excellent seed companies (like me, just a bit bigger) who are offering many of these wonderful varieties, Bountiful Gardens, Sustainable Seed Company, etc. If you want the real, radical approach, please check out KUSA Seed Society. This is not a seed company but rather a source for the rare
and uncommon. Lorenz Schaller has been the impetus behind this organization’s mission to save and secure some of these precious grains. I have gotten many of my varieties from KUSA, and am now growing them out in third year trials.
I believe that we are living in a time when 2 major issues face us in regards to food security. Namely, an ever-growing population of hungry humans who deserve to be fed. Secondly, we face “Global Climate Weirding” Call it what you may, but weather, weed, insect, and disease pressures are mounting. I personally
believe that the solutions to these problems will not be worked out in a corporate laboratory, where profit and share holdings are the driving forces behind meeting these challenges. Instead, I believe, emphatically, that the solutions will come from tapping into all the available plant diversity, from grains to veggies and medicinals, to fiber and oil crops! The traits in staple crops that we are seeking: disease resistance, drought resistance, wet soil resistance, and so forth, all ready exist. They do not need to be created in a lab and marked as proprietary!