Ancient grains are the future

Rebuilding the grain chain will take a coordination of many people (farmers willing to grow ancient grains, millers able to turn grains into flour, bakers and chefs willing to buy this flour, and consumers willing to pay a little more for this nutrient-dense, sustainable crop) but the effort is underway in New Jersey.

You can see into the future of food by looking to the past. The distant past. The way, way, way distant past, to early human civilizations in Mesopotamia.

There, about 10,000 years ago, humans began cultivating einkorn, largely considered the first grain crop to be grown and harvested. Einkorn has a low gluten content, so it was used mainly for flat-breads — gluten being the protein in wheat that helps bind baked goods — but it also means that it’s easier for humans to digest.

Einkorn blended with wild grass to create emmer, and its sturdier molecular structure lended itself better to bread. From there, emmer mixed with goat-grass to varieties like spelt and other “modern” wheats, which have further growing and baking advantages. This group of grain, with the addition of kamut, is what we call ancient, or heirloom, grains.

From there, tens of thousands of grains sprouted into existence. Packed with protein and nutrients, these grains are better for us, and the production of them is better for the Earth than the common, industrialized wheat we consume today—in fact, 95% of the world’s wheat comes from one commoditized form of nutrient-low wheat that stands sturdy in the fields and, for many, sturdy in the gut. You know it—it’s the flour you get at the store.

So how did we go from tens of thousands of grain varieties to, essentially, one?

Mike Rassweiler, North Slope Organic Farm, over a bed of harvested, filtered wheat.

Industrialization led farmers to switch to common and durum wheat, which is less susceptible to natural destruction, and can be processed quickly with heavy machinery. But those cultivation processes also happened to strip the wheat of its bran and germ, and thus its health benefits, which has led many people to swear off wheat products entirely because they can’t digest this nutrition-starved variety. 

The reason why this bastardized form of wheat is so common is also proved by the inverse. Standing between four heritage grain trial fields on a sweltering summer afternoon on Mike Rassweiler’s North Slope Organic Farm in Hunterdon County, the challenge of growing and harvesting ancient grains is obvious: black mold on some of the wheat has pushed up harvest time, tall weeds in the rye patch make sifting through grain time-consuming, and it’s hard to separate the berries from the chaff on spelt. Plus, the equipment on-hand makes for a labor-intensive process of cutting, sifting, sifting again and then drying. It takes about 30 minutes and four people to hand-clean one row of cut wheat.

And yet, we taste the raw wheat and see the bucket of berries finally separated from weed, straw and chaff and it seems like there’s a will to find a way forward. Rebuilding the grain chain will take a coordination of many people (farmers willing to grow ancient grains, millers able to turn grains into flour, bakers and chefs willing to buy this flour, and consumers willing to pay a little more for this nutrient-dense, sustainable crop) but the effort is underway in New Jersey.

“New Jersey has a lot of these stone mills that are sitting dormant scattered across the state, which is a testament that [grain cultivation] was once happening pretty extensively here,” says Lenny Bussanich of River Valley Community Grains, which mills and sells local, heritage flour and also works to grow the local grain chain. “It was done and it could be done again.”

There’s no better case in point than the Howell Living History Farm in Titusville. It’s been a working farm for close to 300 years, and farmer Rob Flory planted three acres each of hard red winter wheat and oats there. The challenges in those small-scale plots typify the challenges involved in cultivating heritage grains.

Take equipment, for instance. Crops are harvested at Howell with a horse-drawn binder and a 1966 John Deere combine. Refurbished equipment like that may not be expensive to purchase, but requires maintenance, time and they are difficult to transport to other farms that might not be able or willing to purchase grain harvesting equipment—just imagine the logistics of moving a piece of machinery that takes up most or all of the road on a county highway. Sharing specialized equipment like combines, seed cleaners and mills is also problematic because chances are farmers will need the equipment at the same time, amplifying those issues with transportation.

Then, if you have the right equipment for the right grain, a turn in the weather could still spell doom for heritage grain fields.

“Half our wheat and a third of our oats are down on the ground from these intense downpours we’ve been having,” Flory says. “We’re so handicapped by the fact that we’re trying to grow wheat that’s like the old fashioned wheat where the stalks were long because your machinery was made to bind that.”

Rob Flory hand-cutting grain.

Now that doesn’t mean that all heritage grain is too fussy to grow; there are thousands of varieties after all. It just means more work needs to be done to figure out which heritage grains can be grown sustainably in New Jersey; such was the impetus for the grain trials at North Slope Organic Farm, done in conjunction with the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey (NOFA-NJ). The more farmers dedicated to heritage grains, and the more grains that are tried, the quicker we’ll find varieties that work here. Bussanich points out, for example, that the early returns on warthog, a hard winter wheat, have been fantastic. And there’s a market for it, too: warthog is prized by bread bakers and brewers for its outstanding flavor and moderate protein content. And, again, that’s just one variety.

Indeed, a fully formed grain chain includes a robust market of buyers that are willing to create products with heritage grain and take on some of the risk of growing plots of it—that is, it can’t be all on the farmer if a few acres of Durum Iraq, for instance, don’t grow well. One way to do that: Other localities are starting to institute subsidy programs and cost-share agreements to ensure growers, buyers and interested stakeholders take on equal risk in the growing process.

Shaking grain berries out of harvested crop.

Too, alliances like the Northeast Grainshed help connect growers with food producers and consumers to help raise awareness of heritage grains and the associated costs and risks. For instance, the Grainshed operates a regional program that works to brand locally grown heritage wheat—much like you would see Jersey Fresh branding on local produce or even a DOCG label on wines from certain regions of Italy. Such branding concentrates the work of those in the grain chain and gives something recognizable to consumers who want to support the system.

The Grainshed also coordinates a Neighbor Loaves program in various areas. In one instance of the program in New Jersey, wheat is grown at Ruthie’s Farm in Marksboro, milled at River Valley Community Grains, baked into bread at Montclair Bread Company, which is purchased by customers and donated to Toni’s Kitchen in Montclair, where people in need can get the loaves.

It will also help to get young people and new/future farmers familiar with heritage grain. That work is being done, in part, at Montclair Community Farms, which gets young people involved in urban farming, with food produced sold at low cost from a mobile farm stand. Farm manager Lana Mustafa says the program recently received a USDA grant to get kids—nine of them—involved in the grain chain.

“We got this grant to help stimulate the market for small grains,” Mustafa says. “We’re working with inner city youth, teaching them about entrepreneurship, agriculture, culinary arts. The hope is to get grain from farmers, support them ,and make things like biscuits, pizza dough, pretzels, granolas, oatmeal things like that.”

Grain trials, nonprofits, cost-shares… it’s all a start. But, like harvesting and cleaning a row of heritage wheat, it’s time, patience and diligence that’ll connect the Jersey grain chain, and to continue to lengthen it.