We have, for the past several years, been growing wheat on our farm. In this part of the country, that is unusual. We wanted to grow wheat because we saw grain as the big hole in the local food movement in this area. We are definitely not the only farm in the area growing grains, but there are still relatively few of us doing so.
Historically, grain was commonly grown in Massachusetts from the colonial era up until World War II.
We have trialled over three dozen different varieties of wheat on our farm. From the USDA’s Genebank, we were able to get samples of several heritage varieties that were historically grown in the northeast, such as Read, Fultz, Diehl-Mediterranean, Goldcoin, and Pedigree Early Genesee. One sample we received, Arcadian, had obviously changed over the past century during which it was only being kept alive in genebanks (the USDA actually lost this variety, but was able to get it back from the Russian genebank, with whom they had previously shared it). The sample of Arcadian that we received turned out to be quite different from the historic descriptions of the variety, and there is no way of knowing whether at some point it got mislabelled, mixed with a different variety, or mutated. The new Arcadian is a good variety in its own right, and we continue to grow it. Through a partnership with Eli Rogosa of Growseed.org and Northeast Organic Wheat, we have trialled many European Landraces, such as Giulgeri, Lutescens, Alsasc, Hungarian Landrace, Ukrainka, Rouge de Bordeaux, and Lagodekhis Grdzeltavtava. We have also trialled several modern varieties, of known and unknown provenance.
We have seed available of many varieties that we are growing. Look at our Seed page to see what is available!
Wheat has, for the past hundred years, been bred with very specific goals. As the wheat growing region has shifted west to the plains, breeders have focussed on qualities, such as drought resistance, important to that region, and neglected qualities, such as disease resistance, important to the northeast. Modern monoculture farms have no use for straw, so modern wheat varieties have been bred to be extremely dwarf in stature. Industrial production methods involve liberal use of soluble chemical fertilizer, so modern varieties have been bred to efficiently convert high, artificial fertility levels into high production and high protein content. Modern breeders have uniformly been focussed on measurable statistics, mainly yield per acre and protein %. Early maturity is another goal of modern breeding.
One concern that some people have begun to have is that modern wheat may not be as healthy for us as heritage varieties. The “Green Revolution” varieties of wheat that have been available since the 1950s represent a significant reduction in the genetic diversity available to farmers – most modern varieties of wheat are decended from only a handful of parent varieties. There has been a significant increase in recent years in the level of wheat intolerance in our population. While some of this may be the result of increasing awareness of the problem, given the long history of consuming wheat, it seems like the current levels of wheat intolerance (some estimates are as high as 10% of the population) indicate that perhaps there is something that has changed about modern wheat.
I have seen only a couple references to studies looking at modern wheat and modern levels of wheat intolerance, but the indications are that modern wheat produces a protein form that, in digestion, may break down into a toxin. Most people are able to handle the low concentration without problems, but others become sensitized to it, and develop an allergic reaction to all forms of wheat. While it seems unlikely that people who have already developed an allergic reaction to wheat would have their symptons alleviated by eating only heritage varieties, if the problem is in fact a result of a modern mutation in the wheat genome found in modern varieties (or perhaps brought about by modern production methods), then avoiding the consumption of modern wheats might prevent the development of these allergies to begin with. There is, as yet, no conclusive science implicating modern wheat varieties or modern production methods with the high levels of wheat intolerance in modern Americans, but that is hardly surprising – who would fund such a study? We have chosen to grow heritage varieties partially so that the broader genetic base that existed before 1950 could continue and be available for present and future generations.
Heritage varieties have many traits that we feel are valuable for our production systems. We are producing wheat in a farming system much closer to the norm of a century ago than the modern norm for grain production. We have livestock on our farm, so straw is valuable as bedding. Also, varieties that produce lots of straw have a correspondingly high production of biomass underground in their root system, which improves soil tilth and builds organic matter. We sow clover as a companion crop with our wheat, so we want a taller plant that stays taller than the clover until it it harvested. Our fertility is from natural sources, and so less concentrated and harder for the roots to get – we want a vigorous plant that will find fertility, and doesn’t need to be spoon-fed artificial fertilizers. To gain high yields per acre, most modern grain farmers seed quite heavy – often using four (or more) times as much seed as was typical fifty years ago. When seeded heavily modern varieties are bred to produce one main head per plant, whereas older varieties can produce twenty to thirty heads per plant when space allows.
In addition to trialling many varieties of wheat, we are experimenting with appropriate small-scale harvesting and processing methods and technology. Combines have replaced almost all other methods of harvesting grain in this country, to the extent that most people (including most farmers) cannot imagine any alternative. Combines are extremely efficient from a labor-saving perspective. However, they have encouraged large-scale, monoculture production that is entirely dependant on fossil fuels. In a small-scale diversified farming landscape in the Northeast, combines are simply not appropriate technology. Historically, grains were commonly grown in this region for almost a century after combines were invented. During that period, most farmers in this region did not use combines. Conventional wisdom of the time recognized that combines were ill-suited to the small fields and humid climate of the eastern seaboard. Instead of the combine, farmers switched from using grain cradles (scythes) and flails to using mechanical reapers and reaper-binders and mechanical threshers.
The two part harvesting method, in which the stalks are cut and field cured before threshing as a separate activity has several advantages for the climate and farming systems of this region. One major advantage is that the reaping can be done while the grain is not completely dry. With unpredictable rainfall patterns in the summer, we are not guaranteed sufficient dry weather at the right time of year to allow grain to fully ripen and dry in the field without getting damaged by rains. Farmers in this region harvesting with combines typically must run the grain through a Dryer after harvest to remove excess moisture – an expensive and energy-wasting method. Curing sheaves in shocks in the field uses sunshine to dry the grain. By allowing the grain to dry and cure in the sheaf, while still attached to the stalk, the grain is able to finish ripening and maturing, whereas when grain is combined before it is fully mature and then dried (the recommended practice for the Northeast), it is not allowed to fully ripen. Another advantage of using a Threshing machine rather than a Combine is that when all of the grain is threshed in the farmyard, rather than the field, the weed seeds are collected and can be fed to chickens, rather than being spread back onto the field.
We have been harvesting by hand for the past several years, using sickles, scythes, and various designs of home-made grain cradles. We feel that it is important that the methods for using the simplest and least expensive tools not be lost in our cultures headlong rush to mechanize. On a small scale, these hand tools are more appropriate than larger machines. We recently purchased an old Allis Chalmers All-Crop combine, made in the 1950s. This machine will allow us to harvest a larger area of grain than we were able to cover harvesting by hand. It is very difficult to clean all of the seed out of a combine between crops, so for many of the varieties that we grow, we will continue to harvest small areas by hand to ensure a seed supply with minimal contamination. We will be paying close attention to how the quality of the grain is affected by combining versus hand harvesting.