Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes:  New Deal Farm Security Administration Harvest Photos and Art

A remarkable team of photographers were associated with the Department of Agriculture’s WPA-era Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1943 including Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marjory Collins. Although they had little background in farming, these individuals immersed themselves in the realities of Depression era farming to create some of the nation’s most iconic images of the time. The group worked under the direction of FSA Historical Section director Roy Stryker to formulate a vernacular realism of images and articles that honored rural traditions. Rothstein (1915-1985) found it useful to overcome the suspicions of country folk by conspicuously carrying his Leica camera for several days when visiting with residents on a new assignment without actually taking any pictures. Eventually his subjects felt accustomed to his presence and would even ask to have their pictures taken in formal settings and for what Rothstein sought as “unobtrusive camera” shots: “the idea of becoming a part of the environment… to such an extent that they’re not even aware that pictures are being taken.” While visiting harvest fields in North Dakota, Montana, and Washington, Rothstein gained special appreciation for the significance of small details and came to understand with his colleagues that their mission was not photojournalism, but “photography as fine art” depicting “man in relationship to the environment.”

Marion Post Wolcott, Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia (1939); Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Marion Post Wolcott, Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia (1939); Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Russell Lee (1903-1986) was especially sympathetic to the rural poor and traveled widely in the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest in the spirit of his unpublished “Hired Man” project. Lee sought to document the essential if substantially neglected public depiction of hired farm hands and transient “tramp” laborers, also derisively called “hobos” and “bums,” who traveled the countryside to find work during the harvest season. The collaborative efforts of FSA photographers contributed to widespread public support for New Deal rural improvement programs as images of austere farm homes, windswept fields, and beleaguered harvest workers were featured at public exhibitions and filled the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers and periodicals. As her FSA colleagues worked extensively in the Midwest and South, Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) documented rural experience of the era from New England to the Southern states. Her stirring images also express the administration’s social consciousness and the presence of a woman sometimes provided them access to persons and situations that excluded other outsiders.

Ben Shahn, Harvest Dinner (1938); Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ben Shahn, Harvest Dinner (1938); Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Lithuanian-born Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was already an accomplished National Academy of Design artist and printmaker in Manhattan when also hired in 1935 as one of the first FSA photographers. He used his pictures not only to advance the agency’s moral mission to inform the wider population to support rural economic and social reform, but also as models for various forms of agrarian art including many harvest paintings and lithographs including Bountiful Harvest (1944), Beatitudes (1952), and Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967). The latter is a watercolor of several dozen black stalks of wheat highlighted by swaths of bright colors in areas where the stems cross. It was also used for Shahn’s illustration of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season….”) in a collection of photo-lithographs rendered with handwritten and illuminated text by the artist for Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris: The Trianon Press, 1967). In the book’s preface, Shahn attributes the origin of his artistic commitment to Old Testament references by family and community elders in his Jewish hometown and a particular verse from Solomon’s ancient book: “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion….” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).  

Shahn’s remarkable series of Ohio grain harvest photographs taken in August, 1938, on the Virgil and Cora Thaxton farm near Mechanicsburg consisted of over 200 images with many that feature women preparing and serving meals to famished harvesters. The artist’s notebooks include details on his hosts’ Depression era economic plight known to many tenant farmers who struggled with low crop shares to make ends meet:

Virgil Thaxton rents a 120-acre farm… [which] is the fourth farm he has rented within the last eight years. At each change he hopes to make enough to have a nice home for his family. Within the last eight years hogs have not brought more than ten cents on the foot. Wheat brought sixty cents per bushel this year. Mr. Thaxton is constantly agitated. He is conscious of the rundown condition of his farm. He would like to have it look as neat as Mr. Brand's own farm. In his agitation he is constantly pulling up a weed here, a weed there, but must then break off to tend the stock. Mr. Thaxton votes for Roosevelt…. Mr. Thaxton loves the land. Two years ago he was offered a small political job in the city. Mr. Thaxton: “But when I thought of the young wheat coming up and that pretty green on top of the hill and it is pretty I just wouldn't think of it. And then the children…. I hear wheat is bringing sixty cents now. If it only brought a few cents more I could afford to fix up this place. As it is, what with giving Mr. Brand his half, we can just get by.”

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967); Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris, 1967)

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967); Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris, 1967)

Shahn’s vernacular visuals provide an intimate look at domestic farm life as if Shahn and his camera are invisible observers inside the home. The midday meal was one of the most harried times for the apron-clad women who are shown cooking and serving, while men and boys dressed in overalls sit almost reverentially to partake of the abundant provisions and break from harvest labors. Shahn’s interior views show a sparsely decorated but comfortable home with paper calendar and mercury thermometer above a substantial wooden sideboard laden with meat, potatoes, bread, cake, and other fare. Another view shows a large framed picture on the wall of Christ holding a child, as if both are looking down at a boy—the Thaxton’s son, Harold, seated beneath them. Two tables covered with white fabric tablecloths are splendidly set with silverware, patterned china and Depression glass serving bowls, pitchers, plates, salt and pepper shakers, and wine glasses that probably hold a dessert. The workers eat quietly and drink coffee as if grateful for the bounty and mindful of the long hours of hot afternoon labor that await them.

Farmhouse, Statehouse, White House — Agrarian Motifs and American Politics

Most everywhere in small town America local folks can provide names of favorite sons and daughters who left town to make a positive impact on the wider world. Many would like to think that youthful experiences born of rural community experience instill values of cooperation, hard work, and service to others that are evident in the lives of those who remain and others who head off to make lives elsewhere. Those of us raised in places like Endicott and St. John, Washington, heard many times about the exploits of locals raised on area farms who went off to distinguish themselves far beyond the rolling hills of the Palouse Country. I remember taking my E-SJ Middle School students in the 1990s to interview Carl Litzenberger, whose grandfather, Henry, was among the founders of our Palouse Colony Farm in the 1880s. Carl and his brothers were quite the adventuresome spirits and he told us about seeing a biplane fly over the Union Flat wheat field where he was working one day and deciding right then and there that we would do that someday. And so he did—studied blueprints, ordered parts, and built the thing with his brothers in their barn back about 1918 to become a true barnstormer. Carl became acquainted with Emelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, and host of other Roaring Twenties celebrities before another career of training World War II Army Air Corps pilots. He eventually served as a private pilot for political leaders back East before returning to the Northwest.

Endicott Union Elevator Company and Flathouse Railroad Grain Sack Storage (c. 1920); R. R. Hutchison Photograph Collection, WSU Terrell/Allen Library, Pullman

Endicott Union Elevator Company and Flathouse Railroad Grain Sack Storage (c. 1920); R. R. Hutchison Photograph Collection, WSU Terrell/Allen Library, Pullman

There are many tales like this to share, but one of the most notable individuals to hail from our home was Washington Mike Lowry—born in St. John and a graduate of Endicott, who served in Congress in the 1980s and as Washington’s governor in the 1990s. Mike’s parents were vital members of the community as Bob managed the local grain growers cooperative in the 1950s while Helen taught school in nearby LaCrosse. I remember well when Mike returned to Endicott in 1992 for a downtown rally at which he announced his candidacy from the back of a wheat truck. Not long afterward in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Mike helped in significant ways to facilitate the Operation KareLift project that provided Northwest food and medicine to children’s hospitals and orphanages throughout the Russian Far East. We were saddened to learn of Mike’s passing this past spring and joined in a celebration of his life at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton near Seattle last May. Washington’s former governors were attendance along with other leaders who offered eloquent remarks on Mike’s longstanding commitment to the less fortunate. For me the most memorable reminiscence came from Pastor Kacey Hahn who recalled how last fall she asked for volunteers from the congregation to help with arrangements for a month-long tent city on church property for area homeless. She remembered that Mike had been among those who raised his hand but thought little more about it until coming to work early one weekend and hearing loud whistling from the downstairs laundry room. She investigated and found Mike making music while folding a mountain of clothes from the newcomers. At the memorial service Pastor Hahn asked how many retired politicians, or those from other walks of life, would spend time in such anonymous service, or as volunteer advocates for migrant farmer housing and the host of other humanitarian causes Mike so fervently pursued.  

As I continue to compose my treatise on harvest motifs in agrarian art and literature, my thoughts have turned to their use as political campaign slogans and images. The transformation of America from the land of self-sufficient yeomen to commercial farmers using labor-saving equipment took place throughout the nineteenth century when the rural populace still worked hard and sought land ownership, but depended increasingly on cash crops transported by newly constructed railroads to Eastern and foreign markets. The concurrent advent of improved agricultural mechanization fostered larger farm acreages and greater need for communities with bankers, merchants, grain brokers, equipment dealers, blacksmiths, and workers in other businesses and trades. The time increasingly witnessed a shift in rurality from small-scale farming as an end itself to consolidated land holdings that supported an array of local businesses, and held land value in similar regard to the old attachment to the land itself. Yet the agrarian myth of diligence, honesty, and independence had enduring appeal and remained a powerful symbol of the nation.

John McNevin, engraved by John Rogers, Washington at Mt. Vernon (1859); Steel engraving on paper, 7 x 10 ⅛ inches; New York Public Library

John McNevin, engraved by John Rogers, Washington at Mt. Vernon (1859); Steel engraving on paper, 7 x 10 ⅛ inches; New York Public Library

Vermont genre artist Junius Brutus Stearns (1810-1885), famed for his series on the American Founders, depicts a harvest scene in George Washington—Farmer (1850) in which the president, a reincarnation of the Roman general Cincinnatus, is clad in formal wear while conversing with his overseer as grain is cut by Mt. Vernon’s slaves. The symbolic scene is inspired by ancient writers like Hesiod, Virgil, and Horace whose writings in praise of husbandry formed the basis of a classical education for American upper classes, but overlooks the brutal realities known to toiling workers deprived of opportunity to own land. Cereal grains were raised in the South to a much lesser extent than cotton and tobacco, but agricultural mechanization came more slowly. The iconography of the benevolent harvester president as national patriarch and gentleman farmer was well established by the early nineteenth century. Popular prints followed Stearns’s painting including the fanciful harvest scenes of Washington at Mt. Vernon by Nathaniel Currier (1852) and by John Rogers (1859). The stereotype of hardworking, noble scythe-wielding agrarian remained a powerful image for nineteenth century politicians who sought to capitalize on public regard for rural rectitude and the patriotic farmer-leader. For this purpose various party organizers designed broadsides with agrarian imagery to promote candidates with campaign prints like William Henry Harrison, the Farmer of North Bend (1840), and Farmer Garfield Cutting a Swath to the White House (1880). The approach apparently reaped the expected benefits as both candidates, and many other seeking other offices, were elected.        

Currier & Ives, Farmer Garfield Cutting a Swath to the White House (1880); Lithograph, 13 x 10 ⅝ inches; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Currier & Ives, Farmer Garfield Cutting a Swath to the White House (1880); Lithograph, 13 x 10 ⅝ inches; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Palouse Heritage Harvest 2017

This past week we commenced our 2017 Palouse Country heritage grains harvest by working with our longtime friends Joe and Sara Delong at their incredibly beautiful and historic if somewhat remote ranch along the Palouse River about five miles upstream from our Palouse Colony Farm. The Delongs have partnered with us to raise landrace Sonoran Gold wheat, Purple Egyptian barley, and other heritage grains and this past week it was time to commence the annual harvest.

The Delong ranch is well known in our region as the oldest farm in the county and also has the special distinction of being the one continuously owned longer than any other family around. Joe’s frontiersman ancestor, Indiana native Joseph Delong, drove a team of oxen over the Oregon Trail in 1862 and eventually settled in 1869 on the Palouse River where the family farm is now located at the end of long gravel road. I think Great Great Uncle Joe would be proud of his 21st century namesake since he and Sara have worked long hours for many years to be good stewards of the land where they continue to raise grain and livestock in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Joe is a master mechanic who can keep equipment of any vintage running forever, and in the shadow of immense and rugged basaltic bluffs they share the landscape with deer, golden eagles, and occasionally errant moose and elk.

Palouse Heritage Red Russian Wheat; Delong Palouse River Ranch

Palouse Heritage Red Russian Wheat; Delong Palouse River Ranch

I’ve known the Delong family most of my life since they farmed just a few miles from where I was raised. Back in 1980 I interviewed Joe’s father, Ray, who was not only proud of his pioneering past but had also preserved many priceless documents handed down since the farm had been established decades earlier. The journals and account books kept by Joseph, Sr. provide a rare glimpse of life on the Palouse frontier during its earliest years of settlement. The records reveal the kind of self-sufficiency rarely known in our day as he tended a considerable orchard and established a packing house as well as raised grain and livestock. He also established the first store in the vicinity to supply farm families who came later and travelers who passed by on the historic Kentuck Trail.

Joe, Sr.’s journal entries from the late 1800s record information essential to pioneer life under such scribbled headlines as "Smallpox Cure," a concoction of sugar, foxtail, and zinc sulfate, "Recipe for Preserving Green Fruit," and "Grasshopper Poison." Related knowledge of value clipped from early issues of the Walla Walla Statesman and Palouse Gazette was safeguarded between the small, lined pages of his hardboard bound books providing the mathematical formula "To Measure Hay in Ricks," stories about Lincoln and Grant, and favored verse: "Let live forever grow, and banish wrath and strife; So shall we witness here below, the joys of social life." Perhaps to advance social relations with the travelers and neighbors who frequented his place, DeLong also found time to jot down riddles. One favorite of this thinly bearded soul with kindly mien was in rhyme: "I went to walk through a field of wheat, and there found something good to eat. It was neither fat, lean or bone, I kept it till it ran home. (An egg!)”

Pioneer Joe Delong and Colt (c. 1900); Courtesy of Joe and Sara Delong

Pioneer Joe Delong and Colt (c. 1900); Courtesy of Joe and Sara Delong

Apples from the Delong Orchard

Apples from the Delong Orchard

Most folks with whom DeLong most often shared such wit and practical knowledge were families of those who later settled near him on the pine covered slopes of the Palouse River Valley. Names frequently appearing in his account books include Ben Davis, Frank Smith, Steve Cutler, Link Ballaine, and E. E. Huntley. These families came to DeLong's store to visit, collect mail, and procure staples, often on credit. DeLong's inventory included eggs, onions, coffee, sugar, and baking powder; soap, sarsaparilla, and tobacco. He also stocked hardware supplies like nails and wire, and such curatives as oil of anise, oil of bergamot, and sulfuric of ether. DeLong and his neighbors spent considerable time building and repairing split rail fences to hold in their livestock, and also experimented with a variety of grains and fruits to determine those best suited to the region’s soils and climate. Joseph also planted hundreds of apple trees that he obtained from Walla Walla nurseries as well as pear, cherry, plum, prune stock, grape vines, and currant bushes. Summer visitors to his store could always expect a good supply of Tall Pippins, Yellow Bells, and Northern Spy as well as soft fruit and vegetables which he sometimes traded for salmon with Indians who seasonally passed along the old trails along the river.

Harvesting Palouse Heritage Scots Bere Barley at Delong’s

Harvesting Palouse Heritage Scots Bere Barley at Delong’s

Thanks to Joe and Sara’s regard for heritage and health, we were able to complete harvest this past week of our Sonoran Gold soft white and Red Russian soft red wheats which we will soon be transforming into flavorful all-purpose flours. We had a few breakdowns but we’ve come to believe there’s nothing made of metal that Joe can’t repair in short order. Brother Don, nephew Andrew, and I took turns driving truck while Joe did the hard work on top of the combine—a 1959 McCormick combine that hasn’t missed a harvest since 1959! Perhaps the company should send him a new one, though at $650,000 that’s probably not likely. As we were finishing up in a corner of the field I noticed a row of old plum trees along a fence line loaded with dark red fruit. So on my next trip to town I returned with a bucket to retrieve some for Grandma and returned with enough to keep us all in jam and sauce until next year.

Whites of Their Eyes, and White Lammas Wheat — The 2017 Northwest Colonial Festival and Early American Heritage Grains

With a state named for the first president, counties that honor Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, and towns like Mt. Vernon, perhaps it was only time before the Northwest should host a full-blown Northwest Colonial Festival complete with Concord Bridge battle reenactments and Early American grain demonstration plots courtesy of WSU/Mt. Vernon and Palouse Colony Farm. You may recall from blogs posted earlier this year that in partnership with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, founder of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, and Stephen Jones and Steve Lyon at WSU/MV, we embarked on a marvelous adventure to (1) document specific grain varieties raised by George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, and other “Founding Farmers,” (2) find any samples that had been kept vital in US and world germplasm collections, (3) begin propigating them, and (4) share samples with the dedicated heritage-minded folks at Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Vernon’s Living History Farm, and the National Arboretum in Washington, D. C.

Colonist Encampment, 2017 Northwest Colonial Festival; George Washington Inn, Port Angeles, Washington

Colonist Encampment, 2017 Northwest Colonial Festival; George Washington Inn, Port Angeles, Washington

Among our most recent partners in this special endeavor has been Dan and Janet Abbott, proprietors of the George Washington Inn, a five-star B&B situated on fifteen acres overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Washington State’s coastal communities of Sequim and Port Angeles. The inn is an incredible full scale replica of President Washington’s Virginia estate mansion with exquisite period interiors, only with updated conveniences! Lois and I were guests of the Abbotts this past winter and marveled at the meticulous care taken to develop the building and grounds as a tribute to the democratic ideals and legendary hospitality of the Washingtons and other Founders. We were even joined for a breakfast by General (Vern Frykholm) Washington himself in full uniform and in keeping with the occasion we supplied the Colonial White Lammas wheat flour for the pancakes. The Father of our Nation said he hadn’t tasted anything so delicious in over 200 years.

Dan and Janet spearheaded the first Northwest Colonial Festival in August, 2016, and with such an overwhelming public response made plans far in advance of this month’s August 10-11 event that attracted reenactors throughout the country including regiments of British regulars and American colonist soldiers. Dan and friends had built a model of the famous Concord Bridge just east of the inn and I’m happy to report that once again the patriots managed to drive the Redcoats back and claim victory. A vast encampment is set up along the long driveway from the Finn Road entrance and organizers and participants go out of their way to make for a family-friendly experience where kids can experience how colonial families lived, worked, played, and ate. There are games, music, marching soldiers, demonstrations on Early American printing, spinning and weaving, cooking, and a host of other crafts so you might want to mark calendars for August, 2018, in case you missed it this time around.

Early American Heritage Grain Plots; George Washington Inn, Port Angeles

Early American Heritage Grain Plots; George Washington Inn, Port Angeles

My special interest was in the grains of Early America and Dan invited Steve Lyon from WSU/Mt. Vernon and me to present on this topic at one of the afternoon sessions. We met folks who had come from as far away as Arizona and I especially enjoyed getting to know Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin (Mr. and Mrs. Gregg Hardy) Franklin from Utah who go to great length to fully dress and act the part. Dr. Franklin reminded me that his brother was a prominent New England farmer and that he had great interest in “agricultural improvement” by introducing new techniques to improve soil fertility and bringing new grain varieties to the colonies from Europe. I was heartened to hear that others who took part in the festival had heard of the work we had done this past year through Palouse Heritage to reintroduce Virginia White May wheat and Scots Bere barley to the National Arboretum and Colonial Williamsburg.  George Washington and Benjamin Franklin lauded the fertility of American soils in their correspondence, as did Thomas Jefferson when writing of the Piedmont region in his Notes on Virginia (1785). He also also famously proclaimed, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” and the haven of “substantial and genuine virtue.” Jefferson envisioned a vast network of yeoman farmers who would be rendered self-reliant and virtuous through possession of private property. Widespread appreciation for both commerce and cultural heritage grounded in religious values is evident in Early America’s many weekly and monthly newspapers and other popular publications.

Festival Celebrity Visitor Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, AKA Gregg Hardy of the Colonial Heritage Foundation

Festival Celebrity Visitor Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, AKA Gregg Hardy of the Colonial Heritage Foundation

Although a confirmed Philadelphia city-dweller, Franklin visited farms throughout the area and turned his scientific mind to experiments with grains and grasses and crop rotations. He famously proclaimed, “The great Business of the Continent is Agriculture,” carried on extensive correspondence with Scottish agricultural improver Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782) and through interest and influence circulated ideas as well as seeds to promote more productive farming. Franklin was also the prime mover in establishing The Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, predecessor of American public libraries, to promote members’ literary and political knowledge. Franklin served for a time as the organization’s librarian and gathered numerous agricultural titles that were widely circulated.

Agrarian allusions were common in the expressions of Franklin’s Poor Richard who observed that the divine call to “Places of Dignity and Honour” went forth to those who cared for land and livestock: “David keeping his Father’s Sheep,” “Shepherds feeding their Flocks,” and “Gideon from the Threshing Floor.” The same 1756 edition of the Almanack and Ephemeris offered verse that resonated with the prevailing Protestant work ethic of Franklin and his readers:

 

Learn of the Bees, see to their Toils they run

In clust’ring Swarms, and labour in the Sun:

…Unless you often plow the fruitful field,

 

No grain, but mix’d with Thistles it will yield.

…Plough deep, while Sluggards sleep;

And you shall have Corn, to sell and to keep.

 

The pithy sayings and light-hearted verse that made the Almanack a best-seller in colonial America reflect Franklin’s creed regarding liberty of persons as a “key freedom” so Americans could own property and enjoy the fruits of their labor in the philosophic tradition of John Locke and John Milton. But in Franklin’s view, such freedom should have reasonable limits since unrestrained personal liberty could transform into exploitation that threatened the public good through radically unequal distribution of wealth. While touring Scotland and Ireland in 1771, diplomat Franklin had seen firsthand the widespread abject poverty of the countryside which he attributed to absentee landlords and exploitive farming practices. He proposed an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 to limit the large concentrations of farmland and other property which he believed would be “destructive to the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

Franklin’s designs for paper currency in 1775 as an expression of growing spirit of American independence also incorporated familiar agrarian imagery. TRIBULATIO DITAT (Threshing Improves It) proclaimed the banner of a circular shield in the center his two-dollar bill that featured a flail above a sheaf of grain. Invoking the colorfully stirring rhetoric characteristic of Franklin, he described the image as symbolic of “enriching virtues” in an anonymous submission to the Pennsylvania Gazette: “…[T]ho at present we are under the flail, it blows, how hard soever, will be rather advantageous than hurtful to us: for they will bring forth every grain of genius in arts, manufactures, war and council, that are now concealed in the husk…. And threshing, in one of its senses, that of beating, often improves those that are threshed.”

Franklin United Colonies Flail and Sheaf Two-Dollar Bill (1775); Private Collection

Franklin United Colonies Flail and Sheaf Two-Dollar Bill (1775); Private Collection

 

 

The Great American Grain Gathering 2017

Bread and Cracker Making in WSU/Mt. Vernon’s New Bread Lab

Bread and Cracker Making in WSU/Mt. Vernon’s New Bread Lab

The seventh annual July 27-29 “Grain Gathering” sponsored by Washington State University’s Bread Lab at Mt. Vernon/Burlington in northwestern Washington State once again brought together a vast throng of folks interested in farming, baking, nutrition, and heritage. Representing 23 states and 7 countries, some 350 attendees heard presentations on a variety of topics including whole grain baking, bagel rolling, and barley teas! Huge thanks to Stephen Jones, Steve Lyon, Wendy Hebb, Kim Binczewski, and army of Bread Lab volunteers. The three-day event is a remarkable opportunity to meet others who share interests in restoring healthy local grain cultures and rural economies, and also serves as a grain reunion with fun and fellowship shared around delicious breads, brews, and other regionally sourced products. Newly featured this year were German muesli with fresh milled oats supplied by Wolfgang Mock who came from Germany, San Francisco baker Josey Baker’s sprouted, flaked breads, and a range of satisfying barley teas shared by Dr. Andrew Ross of Oregon State University. Andrew comes his interest in barley tea naturally; seems that this flavorful restorative beverage is popular throughout his native Australia and that brands like Robinson’s are said to be the secret of Queen Elizabeth’s beautiful complexion.

Speaking of beauty, you may recall from some past references in this forum how striking the view (and flavor) of the landrace soft red wheat English Squarehead, also known long ago here in the Northwest as Walla Walla Red. I still it’s pretty awesome and will include a view of it again here, but also compare it to a new contender recently raised in the Mt. Vernon heritage grain nursery—White Odessa, a soft white wheat from Ukraine. I took this photo during the conference and Steve Lyon reported it has been seeded late in the spring, so is still pretty green, but certainly a beautiful grain. Perhaps in a few weeks we’ll have some baked goods to sample!

White Odessa soft white wheat (2017)

White Odessa soft white wheat (2017)

English Squarehead soft red wheat, with Grandpa Scheuerman’s Palouse Colony helpers Zachary and Micah (2016)

English Squarehead soft red wheat, with Grandpa Scheuerman’s Palouse Colony helpers Zachary and Micah (2016)

“Food ethnographer” June Jo Lee opened this year’s Grain Gathering with an informative if sobering keynote regarding American dietary habits and related health issues. Among other points she made was that demographic data gathered for 2015 showed the first decline in US life expectancy since the Civil War! She noted heavy reliance on commodity foods like industrial flour that has been sifted and bleached in ways that remove nutritious germ and bran, as well as an increase in chemical additives to food and agricultural production methods. But she also noted reasons to hope for healthy alternatives: “Emerging regional food systems are critical expressions that bring together geographic, relational, and cultural dimensions. Change from dominant ‘big systems’ will be incremental but represent a viable alternative for those who care about their own health and that of the land.”  

The following day’s keynote speaker was Dr. James Scott, scholar of agrarian studies and peasant societies at Yale University, and author of The Moral Economy of the Peasant and numerous other books and articles. His presentation was titled “How Grain Made the Ancient State,” so as one ever interested in both history and politics I was pleased the conference featured information on a topic like this. I scribbled notes as fast as I could and most of what appears below is verbatim; should you find these matters of special interest I commend to you Dr. Scott’s many published works.

Wheat is the foundational grain of Western civilization, and my object is to offer some provocative reflection on that significant fact. It is extraordinary that in our day about half of human caloric intake is from cereal grains—wheat, rice, barley, maize, and others. Agriculture, therefore, has sustained world culture, and made possible for us to settle down in one place. But the traditional narrative may be misleading in some basic assumptions about how that all took place.

Cultivation of grains took place at least 4,000 years before any widespread settling down ten to twelve thousand years ago. It was resisted likely because it required considerably more work and planning than hunting and gathering. “Flood retreat” agriculture was likely the first approach to farming since annual flooding of the great rivers of Mesopotamia provided renewable soil for populations that lived along the wetlands. So why and how did the transition take place? It was by no means a rapid process as some have suggested. There are several theories to consider including the killing off of big game by hunters, or perhaps a cold snap in the weather that made life away from the wetlands more difficult. Whatever the reason, and there may have been several contributing influences, it appears we were forced into agriculture.

Hunting and gathering appears to have been widespread throughout the Middle East for several thousand years after the emergence of the “domos complex,” or Neolithic camps with houses, gardens, and domesticated animals. This was an entirely new phenomenon in human history, and the concentration of people, plants, and animals led to the first infectious diseases. These all came from animals as mutated forms of contagion came to infect humans living in close proximity to animals, a situation that continues to foster disease in many parts of the world today. The same is true of crops when plant populations of single varieties are crowded closely together.

The advent of agriculture also led to a narrowing of the diet, so we ask why every great civilization came to rest upon grain production—rice in southeast Asia, millet in China, wheat in Egypt, barley in Mesopotamia, and maize in the New World. So why not roots and tubers like potatoes, cassava, and sweet potatoes? Very possibly because (1) grains have the advantage of growing above the ground so are more easily found, (2) stands tend to ripen at about the same time, (3) can be easily dried and stored, and (4) have high unit nutritional value. So grain was the ideal commodity for government taxation and appropriation which formed the economic basis of statehood. Pastoralism keeps you out of state control. So grains came to mark superior cultures of specialized labor that formed cities. 


I took part in this year’s Grain Gathering event as part of the “Heritage Grain Production and Marketing” panel including Steve, acclaimed San Francisco baker Josey Baker, and Dan Abbott, proprietor of The George Washington Inn near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula. You may recall that landrace grains are pre-hybridized varieties of wheat, barley, oats, rye, and other cereal “races” that adapted over thousands to particular regional “land” environments. In this way they developed flavors, shapes, colors, and other characteristics that distinguished them from those that grew in other parts of the world. The terms “ancient,” “heritage,” and “heirloom” are a bit squishy, but relate to a few relevant considerations. Many experts consider “ancient” wheats to be plant species that are genetically different and more primitive than true wheats, so these would include grains like einkorn, emmer, and spelt that retain their indigestible hulls even when threshed, which requires a dehulling operation in order to process them for consumption.

Grain Gathering Reunionizing (l to r): Wolfgang Mock, German miller and entrepreneur; Elizabeth DeRuff, San Francisco area Episcopal Grain Chaplain and Bishop’s Ranch director; Steve Lyon, WSU/Mt. Vernon Senior Agronomist; Richard Scheuerman; Katherine Nelson, Washington, D. C. agarian artist; Andrew Ross, OSU cereal chemist, barley tea brewmaster, and Australian surfer!

Grain Gathering Reunionizing (l to r): Wolfgang Mock, German miller and entrepreneur; Elizabeth DeRuff, San Francisco area Episcopal Grain Chaplain and Bishop’s Ranch director; Steve Lyon, WSU/Mt. Vernon Senior Agronomist; Richard Scheuerman; Katherine Nelson, Washington, D. C. agarian artist; Andrew Ross, OSU cereal chemist, barley tea brewmaster, and Australian surfer!

“Landraces” are true threshable wheats many thousands of years old so are also considered “heirloom” and “heritage” varieties in the general sense of the term. However, USDA publications sometimes reference any grain over fifty years old as an “heirloom,” which I suppose is fine if you have in mind things like Grandma’s quilt and favorite cookie recipe. However, with the advent of plant hybridization in the 1890s, it became possible for grain breeders to combine the traits of landraces to create new varieties in order to boost production, even if flavor and nutrition were less of a consideration. (Many of our family elders, for example, told us that their parents held on to landrace grains like Turkey Red because they made breads and other baked goods that tasted so great, while marketing their modern hybrids.) So here at Palouse Colony Farm & Mercantile we typically use the term “heritage” to mean pre-hybridized landraces—“Grains the way God made them” so to speak, and while their cultural associations across North America and throughout the world are fascinating, we especially appreciate that numerous studies have shown why they are important for crop disease resistence and genetic diversity in our age of monocultures, and have healthy whole grain goodness with rich varietal flavors, rather like fine wines!     

Grain Gathering Landrace Grains Nursery Tour, Mt. Vernon

Grain Gathering Landrace Grains Nursery Tour, Mt. Vernon

As part of our Grain Gathering panel on heritage grains, Steve Lyon and I also led a tour of the experimental plots Steve has carefully tended on properties adjacent to the WSU/Mt. Vernon Extension & Research Center. Two busloads of participants joined us for the short drive from The Bread Lab where were dropped into a marvelous time machine that transported us back to ages past in one of the largest landrace grain nurseries anywhere in the country. We could actually see varieties raised in Early America by George and Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon, and others with colorful names that harken back to medieval times and beyond—Talavera Bellevue, Bordeaux Blue, Red Marvel, Afghan Black-Awned, Orange Devon, and one of the first raised in the Northwest, Pacific Bluestem.

The conference’s Friday afternoon keynote was presented by Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder with Bill Gates of Intellectual Ventures, a research and venture capital think tank headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, which is also home to world renown Modernist Cuisine. The many culinary projects championed by Myhrvold and his team at MC have included a best-selling multi-volume book series that describes with masterful illustrations how modern technologies can explain and enhance time-honored methods of food preparation. Myhrvold, who also served for many years as chief technology officer at Microsoft, has completed among his many other accomplishments post-doctoral studies in astrophysics at Cambridge (!), so we’re delighted he has turned his broad interests to grains and baking.

He found time to make a trip recently over to the Palouse Country with a team to take pictures of summer harvest and capture some beautiful images that will appear in the long-awaited MC sequel, five-volume Modernist Bread of 2,600 pages, scheduled for release this coming November. At $640 for the complete set, I probably won’t be sending out too many for Christmas presents. My modest contribution was cultural information on heritage grains and a summary of research on their nutritional benefits. Consistent with his passion for the subject, Nathan is a rather animated presenter who informed us that the series has a total of 2,642 pages, 5,689 illustrations, and over a million words!

 

 

 

Turkey Red Wheat Harvest 2017

This past week marked the beginning of our Palouse Heritage harvest as our first crop of organic Turkey Red bread wheat was cut at our partner Brad Bailie’s Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington. We have been raising this legendary hard red bread grain for the past two years in order to carefully increase our seed stock, and finally this year we had enough for several acres of organic production at Brad’s farm since we needed space at our Palouse Colony Farm for the flavorful soft red variety English Squarehead, also known as Red Walla Walla, which historically was used for pastries, biscuits, and other flatbreads as well as for crafting nutritious Old World Hefeweizen cloudy brews.

Harvesting Organic Turkey Red Wheat; Scene of the Great Yellow Jacket Harvest Battle

Harvesting Organic Turkey Red Wheat; Scene of the Great Yellow Jacket Harvest Battle

Turkey Red is the legendary grain long raised by our German ancestors in Eastern Europe where bread wheats had grown since time immemorial from the Great Hungarian Plain to the steppes of Russia and Ukraine. Prior to the introduction of Turkey Red to the Midwest in the 1870s, a winter variety sown in the fall, and its genetic spring-seeded cousin, Red Fife, an Eastern European relative that came to North American via Scotland, all wheat breads in early America and Canada were made from soft white flour sometimes mixture with low gluten milled rye, barley, or oats, or “thirded” combinations of these grains. The resulting baked goods were rather dense but still flavorful and served as the “staff of life” for countless families in eastern American and on the western frontier. Our elders here in the Northwest told us that their crops of Turkey Red as recent as the 1950s were too precious to sell like modern hybridized grains for national and world markets. Instead they held back sufficient quantities of Turkey Red to be milled at area flour mills in Colfax, St. John, and at tiny Pataha south of the Snake River near Pomeroy where historic Houser Mill has been substantially restored by the Van Vogt family with a portion of the main floor refurbished as a restaurant and museum.


"Our elders here in the Northwest told us that their crops of Turkey Red as recent as the 1950s were too precious to sell like modern hybridized grains for national and world markets."


Unexpected happenings often occur when commencing harvest and this year’s first round provided a couple interesting moments. After going a few dozen yards on our first round in Brad’s combine, I stepped behind the machine to blow on the ground and see if too much grain was being blown behind. Even the most advanced combine in this day of high tech threshing and electronic monitoring betrays some grain loss, but Brad’s John Deere was running very clean. I jumped back on and paused when entering the cab so we could check for any cracked grain going into the bulk tank where the grain is stored before unloading into a truck or in our case, large fabric totes capable of holding a ton. We had no sooner reached our arms back to retrieve a handful of grain that a wild onslaught of very angry yellow-jackets burst forth swirling around our heads! In an instant we received their stinging message of most likely disturbing a nest in the process of putting running augers and dumping grain into the bin, so we retreated back into the safety of the cab.

Marsh Hawk Stubble Nest

Marsh Hawk Stubble Nest

On the next pass around the field I noticed an enormous bird fly from the uncut grain we were approaching as the combine reel flailed along like a rapidly moving ferris-wheel. Brad immediately stopped the machine and said he it was one of several marsh hawks with whom he had shared his property. Brad is an advocate of natural growing systems and seeks to preserve native species, so was concerned that the hawk’s next was likely in the path of the combine’s next round. We descended the ladder and slowly approached the area in the uncut wheat from which the bird had taken flight. Sure enough there we found a trampled area about two feet in diameter with two white eggs resting in the center. Late July seems somewhat late for a hatch, but not being experts on marsh hawk habits we thought the eggs were likely still vital or they would not still be tended. So we returned to the machine and cut in a wide circle all around the next to keep it protected, and hoped no coyotes would find their way to the small golden sanctuary.

Later in the day I took a sample of the Turkey Red to the Connell Grain Growers substantial grain handling facility in Kennewick in order to get it tested for protein and moisture. The place is a massive complex located along the Columbia River and a several tractor-trailers filled with wheat were waiting in line to dump their loads in the elevator grates for storage in the adjacent concrete and metal silos. I was ably assisted by Kara Shibley, Angie Garcia, and Jose Carrea-Moya who shared my interest in heritage grains though our conversation was regularly interrupted by intercom calls and other office traffic attesting the incredible pace of harvest work inside such offices as well as out in the fields. The result came back in moments most satisfactorily, so we did it again with another sample and the numbers were identical—low 9.1% moisture, and very strong 13.5% protein—fully two percent higher than the average of modern hard red wheats then coming to the elevator. With that good news it was back to work and preparations to harvest our stands of soft red English Squarehead (aka Red Russian), Purple Egyptian hulless barley, and other grains scarcely seen in the region for over a century. The flavorful and nutritious adventure continues!

Jose Correa-Moya Testing Turkey Red Wheat for Moisture and Protein; CHS Elevator; Pasco, Washington

Jose Correa-Moya Testing Turkey Red Wheat for Moisture and Protein; CHS Elevator; Pasco, Washington

 

 

A Heritage Grains Adventure Through Europe, Part 2

Part 1 of this blog post is available here.

 

Nordic Pancakes and Landscapes

Our Baltic adventure continued with visits to the capitals of Finland, Sweden, and Norway so at every stop we took advantage of tour options to area farms and locations related to rural life and agrarian arts. One gets thoroughly spoiled on cruise ships with food so nicely prepared and abundant along with all manner of entertainment. Our Regal Princess did not disappoint with wondrously rich and crusty European breads and flavorful entrees including buttermilk pancakes and sweet and savory crepes. I’ve come to have special interest in crepes since our Palouse Heritage team has been on the hunt for some time to determine the grain varieties traditionally grown for crepe flour. I’m happy to report that we finally have done so and that next season we will be harvesting our first (though small) crop of Yellow Breton wheat. We learned that buckwheat was customarily used for savory crepes.

Regal Princess Buttermilk Pancakes topped with Strawberries

Regal Princess Buttermilk Pancakes topped with Strawberries