“O beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain . . .”
These words, written by Katherine Lee Bates in 1895 capture an image of our country that we still treasure today. However, there are differences between 1895 and 2012. The tall waving wheats that gilded our midwest in 1895 are now only a foot tall, barely shuddering in the breeze..
The early 1940s saw the beginning of the Green Revolution, an agricultural shift that used technological advances and irrigation systems to develop new strains of dwarfed grains. These hybrids were promoted along with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The laudable goal was increased yield to feed the ever growing hungry populations of the world.
Eli Rogosa, who now lives in Colrain with her partner CR Lawn, the founder of Fedco Seeds in Maine, was hiking in the hills outside Jerusalem about 11 or 12 years ago when she found an interesting grass-like plant that she could not identify. That grass turned out to be an ancient wheat. Rogosa learned that this wheat was no longer grown, that 90 percent of the wheat used in Israel came from the United States.
Rogosa ultimately found her way to the director of the gene bank in Israel and learned that native wheats of the region were on the verge of extinction. She later learned the European Union was in the same position. She believed that the ancient grains were valuable because they evolved to be compatible with the specific climate and soil. She believed this compatibility was important for our food supply now.
In 2007 she wrote a proposal titled Restoring Ancient Wheat that funded a seminar that brought together genebank curators, seed-savers, farmers, chefs and others to see what action could be taken to remedy this situation. She explained “Modern wheat, the most widely cultivated crop on earth, is bred by industrial breeders for uniformity and high yield in favorable environments with little regard to the needs of traditional and organic farmers with low-input field conditions, or markets that value taste, nutrition and local cuisine. Important characteristics, such as extensive root systems for nutrient scavenging, nitrogen-use efficiency, and resistances to local disease complexes tend to be minimized in modern wheats.” Uniform modern hybrid wheat depends on the extensive use of fertilizers, irrigation and pesticides which carry substantial expense. This kind of agriculture is not sustainable.
She worked under a European Union grant for five years, collecting seeds and carrying out field trials to find the best heritage wheats that could be grown today. Most recently she worked under a three year grant from the USDA, again carrying out wheat trials, this time in UMass fields in South Deerfield. A final conference held in the field last summer attracted academics from the University of Vermont, the University of Maine, farmers, bakers and people like me who wanted to know whether the northeast could once again grow a significant measure of its own wheat as they did in the early part of the 20th century.
Last week I visited Rogosa who is now coordinator of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, a farmers’s cooperative to restore and conserve world landrace grains on the verge of extinction. I walked with her through the patches of various tall wheats, and found I had no real idea of what a wheat plant looked like. Most of us are familiar with beautiful sheaves of wheat, and the seed head, but I never realized that a single wheat seed sent up a group of between 20 and 30 tillers, or stalks of wheat. Each stalk has a seed head which means that a single seed can produce up to 600 seeds!
The difference between a modern wheat and an ancient or heritage wheat like Banatka is that the modern wheat is short, only about a foot tall, and the roots are correspondingly stubby. They also have a higher gluten content.
It is the extensive deep root system of the heritage wheats that make them thrive in organic soils, in dry climates. Rogosa plants her seed by hand, a foot apart. This is much farther apart than standard seeding, but the root systems need the room. Many of the heritage wheat roots emit a weed suppressant, and I could clearly see that certain varieties had few weeds around each plant. These wheats do not need irrigation, an important capability as we deal with more weather extremes.
Rogosa is not a farmer. She does grow wheat for seed that is sold in small amounts through the Heritage Wheat Conservancy’s website www.growseed.org so it is not too surprising that she plants by hand, and takes a little sickle out to harvest by hand, only bringing the fattest seed heads in to be sold.
“I’m very careful when I give people seed. I choose only good plants because I want people to succeed. I often give people seed in exchange for the best of the first crop. And no one has not completed that exchange.,” she said.
I visited on a perfect summer day, sunny and breezy. “I farm for beauty,” she said, and the tall waving wheat, some golden and dry, some still a soft green that were not quite ripe. She said that when she is harvesting wheat to make flour she cuts it down when it is a little green.
Rogosa has been happy to see the interest in small scale wheat growing by leaps and bounds. Local wheat can be grown sustainably, can add to our food security, and to more delicious food. Unique wheat varieties give farmers a special niche for marketing their crops. Locally, Uppingil Farm sells its own wheatberries, and freshly ground flour, the Wheatberry Bakery and Cafe in Amherst offers a grain CSA, while the Hungry Ghost Bakery in Northampton has its Little Red Hen Project that is encouraging the cultivation of small plots of grain and is working with farmers to grow wheat, rye and spelt for the bakery.
I have ordered a tiny amount of Emmer seed, the mother of wheats, from Heritage Wheat Conservancy. This is a winter wheat that I will plant this fall. You will be hearing more about wheat gardening as I progress. ###
Between the Rows July 21, 2012