Heirloom Grains: You Are What You Wheat
For John DeRosier, of With the Grain farm, a discussion about grains is really a discussion about humanity.
This perspective explains the giant pregnant pause that occurred when we asked him about his local, organic, heirloom grain farm. It was a silence that spoke volumes about the depth, breadth, complexity and true boundlessness of the topic of grain growing. And it was followed by a passionate, thoughtful and insightful flood of refreshing and wholesome ideas about the world of wheat, farming, food, nature and society.
Weeks after our talk, there is still a bag of all-purpose refined white flour staring back at us from the pantry. His words planted a seed that is taking root and forever transforming the way we look at the starchy household staple.
“LIKE, REAL HEIRLOOM”
Grain does not seem like an emotional topic. But as DeRosier describes with contagious concern how certain centuries-old varieties of grain stored away in Syria (the ancient home of grains) are being lost for all eternity in the midst of wars and bombings, you’d think we were talking about the world’s last koala bears being lost in crossfire.
It’s partly because of DeRosier’s zeal, but also because of the weight of his story, the history of grains, which is also the history of civilization. As if speaking a likewise ancient language, DeRosier’s words about the ancient roots of grains come out with the urgency of someone who knows he might be the last person to give breath to a long and cherished human tradition.
“We’ve been growing grain for at least a thousand years. So these go way back,” he says, pointing out one of the wheat grains he grows locally, called Sonora, which was first grown in California in the 1500s by Native Americans near San Miguel Mission. “So when I talk about heirlooms, this is, like, real heirloom.”
He goes on to explain that the whole family of winter grains we know so well—wheat, barley, oats, rye—stretches way back to the original father of all wheat: einkorn. “It’s basically a wild grass that was the first wheat we domesticated.”
It took a mere 10,000 to 12,000 years of people surviving by these grains and painstakingly developing the different varieties to get to where we are now.
“It’s absolutely magical that people dedicated their lives to these plants and these plants in turn returned energy to the people’s lives, “ he says with genuine enthusiasm. However, his outlook clouds over as he gets to the more recent history of grains.
“Today we grow such few varieties—like less than five. It’s a major narrowing; it’s like if you only had one kind of apple—Granny Smith, that’s it. And there’s so much diversity out there, so many flavors. That’s where my passion comes in.”
Voraciously following DeRosier’s breadcrumb trail of exotic-sounding, mysteriously flavorful and versatile grains with names like kamut, emmer, sorghum, millet, teff, amaranth and freekeh, which once were commonplace and each had its unique purpose in the culinary and cultural realms, it became more and more strange that our society seems to have traded this richness of many, for the homogeneity of the ubiquitous white flour.
Like many other problems we see in the world today, he says the loss of variety goes back to the industrial revolution and society’s drive for finding shortcuts and mechanizations, the shortsightedness of which often comes back to bite us.
“When the roller mill was invented in the late 1800s that changed humanity more than anything had in a really long time; that was a huge change. Grain basically shifted production from all this diversity to the special varieties that could handle that kind of milling,” DeRosier explains.
Around the same time, agriculture jumped from a long process of hand harvesting and working with horses to using large-scale combines. Finally, the use of irrigation, fertilizers and herbicides changed the tradition of rotating and resting land, and of working with the seasons and climate of nature. Like so many foods today, DeRosier says, grains are now “bred more for harvesting and handling than they are for any nutritional quality.”
The fruits of our human ingenuity can be seen in widespread problems in our modern-day society, according to DeRosier, including everything from water shortages to gluten intolerance.
PUTTING THE GLUE IN GLUTEN
“If you imagine a peach,” DeRosier says, “you’ve got the outside, fuzzy part; the juicy, fleshy part; and then the pit. The magic of grain and the reason why it’s been such a special food for humanity is that it has all those parts fused together in one.” He explains that the modern practice of wheat processing (done in part to cut out the oils that are subject to turning rancid and shortening shelf life) removes the mineral-rich “skin” (called bran) and the healthy-fat-and-protein-rich “pit” (called germ) of the grain, leaving just that sweet, starchy center (called endosperm).
This process has helped to redefine the notion of bread in modern society as a light, fluffy concoction—the iconic Wonder Bread.
“That’s not necessarily the history of bread,” DeRosier says. “That’s a very recent invention.” He says that in order to get that kind of bread, you have to use flour that has been milled and refined with chemicals. “It’s enormous how much processing you go through to get that white fluffy bread.”
Appetizing and economical as it may be, if you’ve ever taken a piece of that white bread, moistened it and packed it down to the size of a pea, you begin to understand what the reformulated recipe does to the human digestive system.
That white, starchy mass goes into the stomach and essentially turns to glue, he explains, sticking to the little hairs in the digestive tract (called villi), smothering them and killing them off. The physiological incompatibility, DeRosier says, is part of the reason for the large numbers of people now going “gluten-free” or complaining of wheat intolerance.
The fact that growing masses of Americans, bloated from the highly concentrated starch and allergic to the chemical fertilizers and herbicides of modern grain, are beginning to look to ancient varieties like buckwheat and quinoa is good news, he says. But it is also just the beginning of what will be a very long process that will take a complete overhaul of our perspective on grains, our farming and our lifestyles.
GRAIN GROWING PAINS
“When you hear people talking about growing their own food, they’re talking about vegetables. Because we don’t think of grain as a source of food, we think of it as that thing underneath everything,” says DeRosier. “My interest is helping introduce people to the concept that grain is really as diverse as all the vegetables and it really ought to be treated like a vegetable, in terms of its freshness.”
But getting back to the idea of growing our own grains is harder than it seems. First off, there are logistical hurtles.
Growing healthy grains requires a lot of land, a large investment in specialized, hard-to-find equipment, and a major reliance on weather. For his operation, DeRosier leases 150 acres, which sounds like a lot until you realize that he is only ever using a quarter of it at a time. He rotates the dry-farmed, organic plots in order to avoid disease, which heirloom grains have not evolved to resist. He also has a number of small lots scattered throughout the county in order to meet the ideal conditions for different grains, without the use of irrigation: He grows moisture-loving oats in the Los Osos Valley and heat-loving wheat in east Paso Robles, for instance.
Then, since grain production today is done by the few and the large, the new machines available for milling and cleaning are enormous and designed for large-scale operations. If you want to make flour from your grains, you must become licensed to sell a “food product.” And then, of course, you have to learn how to cook the grains, many of which are completely foreign to the modern household and taste bud.
Finally, he says, you need to learn how to eat like an ancient grain grower and slow down. Grain, he explains, is mostly digested in our mouth with the enzymes found in saliva. “So, if people aren’t chewing, they don’t get good grain digestion.”
HUNGRY FOR CHANGE
In the end, DeRosier emphasizes that change must come from the consumer. No farmer is going to go to all this trouble and expense unless there is a market demanding fresher, more sustainable and more nutritional grains—the grains that have stood by our species for centuries and which just might get us through the climate fluctuations, illnesses and environmental depletions we are currently seeing.
“It’s a little scary to see how much we’ve lost and what that means. That’s one of the biggest revelations that have come to me: it’s not a lifetime project. [I realized,] ‘Oh my god, I can only grow this grain 50 more times.’ That’s not very long and that’s the rest of my life!” He worries that there are not currently enough people interested to make the impact needed; “If there were more, I’d feel more hopeful.”
Help the local heirloom grain movement by joining With the Grain’s CSA. One share of oats for the fall season consists of a two-pound bag every other week for three months, and costs around $60. Learn more at WithTheGrain.org.