March 30, 2020
Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…America has cultivated a rich agricultural legacy when it comes to grains. And, much like heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables, American farms are returning to their roots with heritage grains. These grains begin as seeds that are unaltered by modern large-scale agricultural practices. Most of the wheat we see in supermarkets has been engineered to resist disease and produce higher yields – an accomplishment that has allowed American agriculture to thrive in the global market. Advocates of heritage grains are eager to see the rise of these traditional crops as a complement to the large-scale agricultural business. Heritage grain farmers and advocates now say the country has an opportunity to enjoy greater flavor and a sustainable long-term crop, both economically and environmentally.
In large measure, due to the farmers and foodies alike, heritage grains are making a slow and steady comeback. Ancient by any stretch of the imagination, these seeds have been carefully preserved for centuries by gardeners and farmers from all over the world. This collective endeavor requires extraordinary care; the soil must be right and ready for these more delicate seeds to grow. While seedsman of the 19th century were adept at the complicated process, we no longer farm that way on a large scale. However, as the concerns of American consumers rise with gluten sensitivities and mass-market foods, heritage grains offer a possible alternative. Could heritage grains be more nutritious, diverse in flavor, and easy on the environment?
According to organic farmer Curt Niklasson and Top Chef baker Sébastien Boudet: “Farmers are dependent on the seed distributors and since the modern seeds don’t have the right resistances, they are dependent on pesticide producers, and since the pesticides kill the healthy microbes in the soil, they are also dependent on the fertilizer companies.” While this interdependent system has been critical to large scale agricultural success, some are seeking different practices that can deliver on nutrition, flavor, and environmental sustainability.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization warns that by 2050, more than 90 percent of the earth’s soils could be degraded. This keeps folks like Indiana farmer Rick Clark up at night. “Diversification drives the system,” he says. “I care deeply about building soil health and will sacrifice yield to maintain soil health.”
Recent studies indicate that farming practices which are better for the soil can also be better for eaters. Turns out growing vegetables and grains in healthy soils packs a healthy punch for a healthy gut, replacing the need for probiotic supplements and even staving off inflammatory reactions in gluten-intolerant bellies. For those who must avoid gluten, the idea of a fresh baked loaf of bread that won’t twist the stomach into knots is intoxicating. That, coupled with the fact that heritage grains are hardly ever grown with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, could lead to a healthier daily bread alternative for consumers.
While we have yet to see heritage grains farmed at scale with significant economic impact, large corporations are now paying attention. In 2017, Clark was honored as Dannon’s Sustainable Farmer of the Year and Land O’ Lakes gave him the Outstanding Sustainability Award. Pioneers of heritage grains like the Wilken family at Janie’s Farm in Illinois, fifth-generation farmers using certified organic and regenerative practices, continue testing and refining these practices. The verdict is not in yet, but the bread basket is at least more bountiful with choices.