Friday, July 29, 2011

What was lost, must be remade.

I have become slowly obsessed with the notion of growing cereal grains over the past year and a half. Although I am very interested in open pollinated heirloom garden veggies, the grains are captivating me. I think the biggest part of the allure is the impossibility of growing these (or so I thought). I am stubborn and decline to give up on impossibilities.

For most of the last century, the modern concept of grain is a 10,000 acre plot of one crop, with a fleet of combines running across it. This seemed to be so far out of reach for me. I kept my focus on tomatoes, cukes, lettuce and squash, all safe, all traditional.  I was also calculating how much feed costs for my chickens, let me tell you it is a lot when you have 100. Then, by association I started to think about what goes into chicken feed;  corn, soy, mystery pellets, millet, wheat. After making this short list, I had an idea. What if I grew everything I needed?  Novel idea on a sustainable farm, isn't it?

I have this problem. Curiosity is never something I can sit with. When I have a question rattling inside my head, I look for answers. The Internet is a rabbit hole that I frequently follow to the point of falling asleep at the keyboard at night. I bought a book that I enjoy very much, and I think it started me on the correct path for a future with home grown grains.  It is "Homegrown Whole Grains" by Sarah Pitzer.  It is a beautiful little book with pleasing illustrations and nice introduction to both the culture of the grain crops and their uses, including recipes.  I also found an old pamphlet that I downloaded from the Library of Congress (for free). It is "Wheat Culture in Tennessee" by J.B. Killebrew 1877.

This old book opens the possibility of growing my own wheat here in TN. It also gives a first hand account of a history that is most likely completely lost to us. And since it predates the oil boom, it provides information on cultivation that is in keeping with organic methods. There is a list cultivars  that when crossed according to the table included, provides particular results that are either good or bad for the local climate, which by the way, is apparently on an isotherm with the north Mediterranean. The booklet lists the Mediterranean as the birthplace of wheat, and therefore TN is particularly suited to this crop. Who knew? 

So I start looking for the wheat listed in this book:  Old Lammas, Pearl White, Clustered Red, Boston Red, White Cove, Dark Cove, Donna Maria, Oxford Red, Satin White, King's White, Northumberland, Pearl. Gone? None appear in searches, who is growing them? No one? Are small secret samples of these hidden away in the vault of some multi-national company? Perhaps. What would be more tragic is that they are entirely lost. To believe the importance of this statement, one must understand the history of wheat in the US. From what I have found, wheat has been brought here by European colonists, grown, saved and cultivated in various regions. The varieties they carried here were the successful ones.  If you journey for two months across the Atlantic Ocean in a wooden washtub under sail, your are not going to carry wheat seed that you are ambivalent about. You are going to bring that which gives you the best chance of immediate success, what your people have grown for hundreds of years, seed that will keep you from starving to death.

So, our wheat heritage reaches back for milena only to be thrown away in the past 100 years? Are we crazy people?  Farmers were convinced by company XYZ, that the wheat #345 is the ticket to instant success. Throw away grand-pappy's wheat and grow ours, you won't regret it!  And they did. You cannot fault these farmers of the petroleum generation, they were trying to keep their families from starving to death too, except this time they were doing it by exchanging wheat for money. The money protected them. The wheat no longer protected them. 

What drove this ousting of the old varieties? Markets driven by the bushel. The higher yield of these new varieties pulled everyone along. Only problem is that these varieties were bulk and no substance. Heirloom wheat, what is left of it, is purported to have 20% or more nutritional content than "modern" wheat selected for high yield. Yield= bulk.

The solution, if you are into sustainable agriculture, is to redevelop your own wheat, a landrace of wheat as it is known.  This is exactly what some are doing, and it is what I hope to do. One must first start with a seed base. It is preferable to use an existing heirloom variety (today this is the only legal way to do it in a world of plant patents) and save seed from the best plants over several generations. The idea is that these seeds will be the best adapted to your local micro climate, your neighborhood.  The link below gives instructions on how to do it. 

There is something very beautiful about a patch of grain growing. It is like a movie scene, when the seed heads are set, I am compelled to extend my arms to the sides, palms down and just barely brush my hands across the tops of the grain heads as I walk through the field. It is like a blessing.

No comments:

Post a Comment