The sustainable food
movement has filled our plates with grass-fed meats, artisan cheeses and organic
produce. But what about grains?
Some chefs and farmers
are working to plug the gap in the sustainable food scene by bringing back
locally-grown, high-quality grains.
Across the street from
a steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Rick Easton peers into an outdoor,
wood-fired brick oven. The lanky baker’s black overcoat is dusty with the
specially blended flour Easton uses to give the pizza crust its characteristic
As a professional
baker, Easton has the time--and desire--to seek the perfect flour for whatever
he’s baking. The rest of us don’t often have that luxury: the vast majority of
flour sold in the United States is generic, “All Purpose.”
“All of it, it’s bred
to work on an industrial scale...and none of it is actually being bred for
flavor,” Says Easton.
But that’s beginning
to change. An increasing number of farmers are beginning to raise heritage
grains—older varieties of wheat that were popular before agriculture took off on
an industrial scale…Easton now buys some of his bread flour locally, with grains
grown by Nigel Tudor--one of several Western Pennsylvania farmers experimenting
with raising commercial quantities of heritage grains.
“We grow hard red
winter wheat, soft white winter wheat, rye, spelt, emmer, hulless oats, open
pollinated corn, hard spring wheat, and buckwheat,” says Tudor.
Nigel Tudor’s einkorn
crop isn’t large enough for commercial sale. But, he’s planted several grains
that have historically thrived on land like his Washington County farm. Some of
his organic rye and wheat is distilled into whiskey, and another is growing in
“This is a type of
emmer that was brought by German immigrants to North Dakota. But, see, emmer is
real trendy—except people know it as a different name—faro. You can make great
pasta out of it,” says Tudor.
Tudor and his parents
started farming this 100 acre plot of land he calls Weatherbury Farm in 1986.
Today, he strolls its rolling hills and points to a small plot of land where
there’s a plant that can trace its roots back over 10,000 years to Mesopotamia.
“This is einkorn, this
is the oldest grain that humans grew. This is where civilization started,” says
Most of civilization
grains were grown locally, but improvements in transportation led to regional
specialization; today most grains in the United States are grown in the northern
and central Great Plains.
Following WWII a shift
in agricultural production, characterized by hybridizing plants and the use of
synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, led to the selection of just a few favored
varieties of high-yield grain.
The heavy reliance on
chemicals would prove to have long-term environmental consequences, but there
were also positive outcomes of this industrialization. For instance, resistance
to a debilitating fungus called stem rust was developed, which dramatically
increased the reliability of the wheat crop.
So, why aren’t more
farmers growing heritage grains?
Agricultural Economics professor Jim Dunn says that while heritage wheats might
be tasty they have a significantly lower yield--and can be harder to
process--than modern, industrial wheat. So it’ll take some effort for farmers
like Tudor to achieve economic sustainability.
“In general the cost
of producing a bushel of an obscure variety of wheat is going to be a little
higher than the more typical varieties, and the number of customers for that are
going to be more dispersed,” says Dunn.
Despite the higher
costs, the benefits of heritage grains could extend well beyond the pleasures of
the breadbasket. Like other local foods, shorter shipping distances will reduce
greenhouse gas emissions. And Dunn points out that wheat’s number one fungal
enemy--stem rust--has been slowly spreading internationally again. This
potential calamity is an argument for a diverse gene pool of heritage grains.
“We’re going to have
to come up with some type of wheat that is resistant to it. Or we’re going to
have a lot different wheat cultivation yields than we have now,” says Dunn.
Still, for some chefs,
and bakers like Rick Easton, the heritage grains renaissance is a welcome
development and a gift to the senses.
“The flavor is the key
for me, over anything else. We don’t even have the language to discuss the
flavor of wheat,” says Easton.."