Places & People

Community in the Heartland

Pope John Paul II made explicit reference to farmers’ charitable obligations to the poor during an unprecedented papal visit to the American heartland in October 1979 hosted by the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. The pope celebrated an open air Mass where a vast crowd of some 300,000—the largest in Iowa history, had assembled on a broad hillside at Urbandale, Iowa’s Living History Farms. Local St. Mary’s parishioner Joseph Hays had sent a hand-written letter to the Pope inviting him to witness the church’s “Community in the Heartland” ministry of rural study and outreach. The pontiff’s decision to visit the Iowa countryside led to weeks of preparation by members who broke from customary harvest routines to host the special ecumenical event. Surrounded by area church and civic leaders, the pope led the service from a massive platform fashioned of white oak from a century-old corn crib. The temporary sanctuary was draped with an enormous quilted banner designed by Fr. John Buscemi of Madison, Wisconsin showing a cross with four colorful contoured field patterns symbolizing the seasons. From this peculiar setting, Pope John Paul II delivered a homily urging his hearers “in the middle of the bountiful fields at harvest time” to embrace “three attitudes… for rural life”—humble gratitude, land stewardship, and generosity toward the poor.

Jeff Whitton, Northwest Harvest Poster Art (2010), Columbia Heritage Collection

Jeff Whitton, Northwest Harvest Poster Art (2010), Columbia Heritage Collection

General Convention of The Episcopal Church Banner, Salt Lake City (2015), Elizabeth DeRuff

General Convention of The Episcopal Church Banner, Salt Lake City (2015), Elizabeth DeRuff

American farmers participated more directly in domestic gleaning programs in the 1980s as well as in similar global aid projects. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, a group of Pacific Northwest growers formed WestWind Ministries in 1991 in response to appeals from newly independent Russian leaders to provide food and medical assistance to schools and orphanages in the Russian Far East. A coordinated effort involving the National Association of Wheat Growers, Washington-Idaho Pea & Lentil Association, and The McGregor Company of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon led to delivery of over a thousand tons of aid to areas in greatest need. Farmers hauled truckloads of wheat for processing into flour while Northwest barley, lentils, and beans were combined into nutritious soup mixes.

When Russian President Boris Yeltsin made an unprecedented visit to Seattle in September, 1994 to report on newly normalized relations between the two countries, he cited “this help in our hour of need” in the context of the food campaign as a key factor in his historic decision. Yeltsin’s gala reception was hosted by Washington Governor Mike Lowry, himself a native of the Palouse Country hamlet of Endicott, Washington, where his father had managed the local grain growers cooperative in the 1950s. Lowry’s dedication to humanitarian causes and migrant farm worker causes was the subject of many tributes following his passing in 2017. Officiant Kacey Hahn of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton opened the late governor’s memorial with explicit reference to moral responsibility from Leviticus 23:22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”

Penry Williams, Mass for the Reapers (1858), National Museum of Wales

Penry Williams, Mass for the Reapers (1858), National Museum of Wales

Kansas farmer-philosopher Oren Long has contributed for decades to agrarian periodicals and his local paper, the Valley Falls Vindicator, to offer insight on topics ranging from food security and social unrest to seed rates and meaning in art. In a 1983 New Farm article, Long underscores the vital understanding that rural experience is at once terrestrial and transcendent. “My farm is my refuge from the deception and hopelessness that haunts this intrusive commercial world. …I am an inseparable part of a great biological scheme of things and the greater contribution toward the complexity and harmony of that scheme, the greater will be the beauty of my world and the greater my significance to it.” In this way rural experience is understood to impart beauty to life in ways long expressed by agrarian painters and writers who have shown the abiding value of sowing, reaping, and other “cooperative arts” practiced with attention to land care and the less fortunate.

21st Century Gleaning at Home and Abroad

French film-maker Agnès Varda’s documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, winner of the Mélès Prize for Best French Film of 2000, offers controversial interpretation of Millet’s iconic painting The Gleaners (1857). Distributed in the United States as The Gleaners and I, the movie shows how poverty need not deprive individuals in any age of dignity and humor. They may be compelled, however, to overcome significant social and economic obstacles to eke out an existence. The film has contributed to a broader, contemporary definition of gleaning to include the gathering of unwanted foods of all kinds—bread, fruit, vegetables, and fish, as well as other castaway resources. Varda’s sobering images of oppressed, vulnerable  and often young souls, illustrate the disturbing trend of income inequality in modern societies where “gleaning” remains a salient reality for many, and its potentially harsh consequences. Her work also suggests possible solutions in the food service sector through the stewardship of surplus distribution via urban pantries and community food banks.

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018), Spokane, Washington

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018), Spokane, Washington

This more broadly defined concept of gleaning was described in The Other America (1962), Michael Harrington’s influential study of hunger and homelessness that shaped Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. In the wake of growing public awareness, social service and religious groups have formed new partnerships in recent decades to develop food security programs to distribute perishable produce and processed foods. At least one-third of food produced annually today in America—as much as 40 million tons valued at approximately $75 billion, is wasted due to spoilage and inefficient storage and distribution. Applying the idea of gleaning to such lost resources, a group of Phoenix activists organized the country’s first urban food bank, Second Harvest, in 1975 (known as Feeding America since 2008). Similar humanitarian efforts followed in Portland (Interagency Food Bank, 1975), Chicago (Food Depository, 1978), Seattle (Food Lifeline, 1979), New York City (City Harvest, 1982), and spread to many other large cities. Some of these endeavors are affiliated with denominational benevolent ministries including the Society of St. Andrew Gleaning Network (United Methodist Church), Evangelical Lutheran of America Church World Hunger, and Catholic Relief Services Hunger Campaign.

Palouse Heritage Landrace Sonora Wheat at Lenwood Farm, Connell, Washington, John Clement Photograph

Palouse Heritage Landrace Sonora Wheat at Lenwood Farm, Connell, Washington, John Clement Photograph

Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington, produces organic grain and vegetables, and regularly works with local churches and crews of Feeding America gleaners to supply 2nd Harvest and other regional food banks. He explains his and other farmer-contributors’ motivations in both practical and moral terms: “Sometimes growers have surpluses because commercial buyers have certain commodity specifications by size or weight. This can leave a considerable amount of quality produce in the field, and we don’t like seeing such waste. We also believe that the blessing of a bountiful harvest brings responsibility to share with others.” The opportunities and responsibilities that come with abundant harvests are also evident in revivals of the ancient Passover Festival among religious fellowships throughout the world. Israel’s celebrated and prolific composer, Matityahu Shalem (1904-1975), wrote numerous folks songs for contemporary Jewish worship including Passover celebrations when the first sheaves of barley are cut for presentation at the temple. His popular Shibbolet Basadeh (Ear of Grain in the Field) is sung and danced to traditional choreography shaped by Shalem’s experiences on a kibbutz in western Galilee where he tended flocks and fields after relocating to Palestine before World War II.

For religious thinkers like Shalem, meaning still retains a supernatural sanction derived from humanity’s simultaneous temporal and spiritual nature. Contemplation of the harvest labor and its bounty can be perceived in the particularities of agrarian experience whether along a Galilean shore or Dakota slope. 

Gleaning’s Early Modern Revival

Through arrangements with the US Department of Agriculture made possible by my friend and fellow historian Alex McGregor of Colfax’s The McGregor Company, I was recently able to visit Washington, D. C. and document works of agrarian art in our national collections. Among many highlights was seeing the gritty paintings of 1930’s New Deal artists like Ben Shahn as well as classical European works. Among the most beautiful were paintings on exhibit in the National Gallery by Jean-Antoine Watteau who turned to prevailing art academy representations that emphasized the human form of workers rather than the conditions of their lives. Rembrandt van Rinj, Nicholas Poussin, and Bernard Fabritius also rendered the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz in exotic settings and costume with a sacred gravity far removed from the period’s gritty realities in rural Europe. Not until Enlightenment attitudes supplanted aristocratic sentiment were peasants more fully reintegrated with aspirations of the rising middle class through art and literature consistent with era’s ideals of fraternity, progress, and rights of the common man. Enlightenment literary attention to gleaning is also notable for its association with feminine aspects of harvest and the state’s professed benevolent concern for the destitute.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

Studies of customs and laws on gleaning challenge conventional interpretations that conflict over the poor’s harvest share arose with the emerging market economies of early modern Europe. But very few and obscure references to gleaning are found the late Roman period with the term virtually unknown in documents from the sixth century AD for the next six hundred years. References to the practice that emerge again in twelfth century English and French village by-laws regulate compensation of workers, describe limits to gleaning in village commons typically reserved as pasture, and are not explicitly associated with the poor. The raking of stalks missed by wielders of sickle and scythe had likely become one of the several steps embedded in the typical harvest cycle in which all able-bodied workers participated. 

Jean-Antoine Watteau,  Ceres  (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Ceres (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The dominant narrative has held that as private ownership of land and the enclosure movement weakened villagers’ traditional communal rights and the aristocratic great estates, capitalistic demands for productivity eroded moral commitments to the impoverished. But gleaning had become conventional harvest practice and had long since lost its distinct association with the indigent. Population increase since the seventeenth century and the growth of Europe’s cities created substantial numbers of landless poor. Rather than addressing the new realities with comprehensive interventions for public welfare, state officials variously enacted archaic gleaning laws that fomented conflict in the countryside instead of ameliorating needs of the dispossessed. Church leaders often invoked religious rhetoric to justify such government efforts by attempting to apply ancient Levitical imperatives and the story of Ruth to distinctly new economic realities emerging in Western Europe.

Agrarianism as Essential Discipline

Many folks will recognize the colorful flowing Great Depression farm art of Thomas Hart Benton. American regionalist painters like Benton and Marion Greenwood sought to portray the tensions of rural social and economic change wrought by the Great Depression and global farm commodity markets. Their British contemporaries included writers George Ewart Evans and Lady Francis Donaldson, and renowned artist-author Claire Leighton. Themes of sustaining values amidst economic dislocation were also subjects of the stirring 1930s harvest photography of Federal Security Administration photographers Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein.

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field  (c. 1958), From  Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher  (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field (c. 1958), From Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Rural change in the wake of world wars, the rise of consumerism, and environmental challenges have been explored more recently in essays and stories of conservationists like Russell Lord and Wallace Stegner. As founder of Stanford University’s Writer’s Workshop, Stegner mentored a new generation of influential regionalist authors including Edward Abbey, Scott Momeday, and Wendell Berry. Traditional themes of deliverance drawn from the Bible have been expressed anew in such modern art as Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning the Grain (1960), Ben Shahn’s Wheatfield—Ecclesiastes (1967), and recent operatic works by Lennox Berkeley and James Niblock. One of the founding “mystic artists” of the abstract Northwest School, Mark Tobey (1890-1975) painted After the Harvest (1970) and The Harvest’s Gleanings (1975) with the small, overlapping brush strokes that suggest the Oriental influence of his spiritual beliefs.

The reciprocating influences of agrarian art and literature offer important understandings to this contrasting complex of cultural ideas involving fulfillment and struggles with rural labor, individual and cooperative endeavors, and the facts and fictions of life on the land and impacts of technology. Progressive change to promote well-being of the countryside and future generations can be unwisely limited by amnesia as well as nostalgia. Amnesia is forgetting about cultural legacies bequeathed by ancestors and society, while nostalgia appeals to life in some halcyon past often overlook very real challenges of such times. We remember places, mark lines and verses, and appropriate elders’ counsel for synergy and solidarity to foster human flourishing and to safeguard natural resources for future generations. For these reasons aesthetic understanding through agrarian art and literature remains an essential discipline. 

Most Flavorful Breads, Very Beautiful Implements

I was not surprised when famed culinary host Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s hit TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” selected Richland’s Ethos Bakery to feature for an upcoming episode. Ethos founders Angela Kora and Scott Newell manage one of our areas most popular eateries and one trip inside their attractive space offers proof through aroma and flavor of some of the finest breads, soups, and pastries available anywhere in the region. Small wonder Angela and Scott and their talented team were accorded such an accolade. We at Palouse Heritage were especially pleased because we have long been supplying Ethos with heritage grains like Crimson Turkey wheat and Purple Egyptian barley which they mill on site for the freshest baked products possible.

Ethos Bakery & Café Culinary Treasures; Richland, Washington

Ethos Bakery & Café Culinary Treasures; Richland, Washington

I first learned about Ethos after meeting Angela at one of the annual “Grain Gatherings” sponsored by Washington State University at their Mt. Vernon Research Center north of Seattle. These convocations draw participants from across the country while others hail from Europe and Australia. It used to be that use of agrarian folksayings, recounting tales of Old and New World seasonal farm labors, and harvest work songs were the obscure domain of cultural historians and ethnologists, but burgeoning interest in such topics is evident in sustainability and food sovereignty movements here and throughout the world. At a recent Grain Gathering session, groups toured test plots of heritage White and Red Lammas wheats, Scots Bere barley, and Lincoln oats, and learned about methods and marketability of artisan breads, craft brews, and other specialty food and beverage products. Even names of event sponsors suggest Old World associations—the Bread Baking Guild, King Arthur Flour, and Wood Stone, a custom builder of stone hearth ovens.

Conference presenters shared lines by the sixteenth century agrarian poet Thomas Tusser, and showcased a “Harvest Heritage” exhibit of art based on rural themes by plein air French Impressionists, American Realists, the Russian Itinerants. American folk art was represented in the once familiar Harvest Star quilt design and nineteenth century steel engravings of field workers wielding sickles. A notable modern depiction of this ancient tool is the sculpted stone bas-relief roundel carved by an unidentified New Deal era sculptor in 1941 for the Adams County Courthouse in Ritzville, Washington. Agricultural folklorist and artist Eric Sloan considered the crescent-shaped sickle in all its variations over time to be the most beautiful implement ever crafted.

Grain Sheaf Bas-relief (1941), Adams County Courthouse; Ritzville, Washington

Grain Sheaf Bas-relief (1941), Adams County Courthouse; Ritzville, Washington

Simple ancient depictions of sickle-bearing field workers gave way in a blended gradualism to medieval and early modern images of scythe-swinging harvesters. The social contract that had long governed and guided enduring social systems changed little until the nineteenth century. Inventions sparked by the Industrial Revolution led to the gradual replacement of sickles and scythes with mechanical reapers. This advancement in agricultural technology greatly relieved the arduous labor of harvest fields, but also compounded pressures of urban growth throughout the great grain growing nations of Europe and the America.

The horse-powered reaper developed by American Cyrus McCormick in the 1830s featured a moveable bar of small sickle sections that effectively cut grain stalks which fell onto a platform for binding and threshing. Just like anyone can enjoy today at Ethos Bakery & Café, exceptionally flavored heritage grains like Crimson Turkey were routinely held back by families to mill at home for delicious breads and other baked goods. Community elder Donald Reich of Colfax, Washington, recently told me that he remembered his immigrant father driving all the way to the Pataha Mill near Pomeroy to get their wheat ground into flour. How convenient we can go to places like Ethos and experience what they knew to be a treasure. 

“Give Us This Day”: Daily Bread and A Home for Every Orphan

This past week brought another opportunity to travel west of the Cascades to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula as Sequim was the site of an amazing organization’s annual meeting. A Family for Every Orphan (AFFEO) has long been endorsed by our families and Palouse Heritage as one of the most consequential non-profit groups focused on strategic solutions for the global orphan crisis. AFFEO is a leader in the concept of “indigenous adoption” through which caring families in other countries are challenged and equipped to promote domestic adoption in places where orphans have traditionally been institutionalized and shunned by mainstream culture. With the cost of Americans adopting children from abroad routinely ranging from $15,000 to $25,000, the expense of indigenous adoption is often less than $1,000 with funds needed for home repair and orientation seminars. In this way, AFFEO has facilitated the placement of thousands of children since it was founded ten years ago by a dedicated group of young people, many of whom have served in America’s armed forces.

German Decorative Plate (c. 1965), Palouse Heritage Collection

German Decorative Plate (c. 1965), Palouse Heritage Collection

AFFEO executive director Micala Siler, a graduate of West Point, is passionate about strategic interventions to place orphans in caring homes in countries where they presently reside. With approximately 10,000,000 orphans presently available for adoption worldwide, she described important AFFEO initiatives underway in eight target countries—Ukraine, Romania, Kyrgystan, Russia, Ghana, Uganda, Bangladesh, and India. As I listened to the various presentations made by Micala and other team members who had come at their own expense from various parts of the country and world, I marveled at how such a group of successful young people could gather with such a spirit of determination to make a positive difference in the lives of children they would never know.  

A Home for Every Orphan Board Meeting Table Spread (October, 2018)

A Home for Every Orphan Board Meeting Table Spread (October, 2018)

In recent years I have traveled to Kiev, Moscow, Singapore, and other places in order to better understand the global orphan crisis and promote adoption. When the AFFEO board first gathered together from their far flung travels in Sequim this past week, I was pleased to see a flavorful spread of artisan breads at their host’s welcoming table. Through mutual friends many on the AFFEO team know about our work with heritage grains, and in this day of war refugees on the Horn of Africa, Mediterranean boat people, Central American immigrant caravans, and other turmoil, I sometimes wonder how children and parents in these circumstances manage to survive. Of course some don’t. While attending the subsequent AFFEO presentations, I found myself drawn to the Fourth Petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). I recall reading some time ago that the last five words of that verse are a translation of a Greek term unique not only to the Bible, but in all of ancient literature. That we might be part of others’ “day-by-day” provisioning through whatever means available to us seems to be a task of utmost nobility. For these reasons, we are honored to donate a portion of all Palouse Heritage proceeds to AFFEO’s work.

Northwest Colonial Festival — Heritage Grains under the Big Top

The Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula is famous for hosting continental America’s only rain forest which averages about 150 inches of annual precipitation. That fact might make ocean-side grain culture there a hopeless prospect, but far from it on the dry and sunny north side of the Olympic Mountains. To the contrary, the imposing mountains shelter the vicinity of Sequim, Washington, from the region’s prevailing southwesterly winds to create a rain shadow effect causing only about fifteen inches of rain to fall in that area. The peculiar semi-arid climate combined with fertile landscape create ideal conditions for raising wheat, barley, and oats. Match the geography with the patriotic dream of Dan and Jan Abbot to build a full-scale replica of Mt. Vernon as a five star bed and breakfast and you get… the spectacular George Washington Inn.

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

The Abbots have been friends of Palouse Heritage since we first met several years ago at one of the WSU Grain Gathering conferences. Dan shares our interest in health and history and wanted to learn about the crops of America’s Colonial Era in order to provide a “living history” experience to visitors to the Inn. He might not have expected them to harvest the crop, but thought that establishing test plots with actual varieties that once grew at places like Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello would be a fascinating project. And so was launched a partnership between Dan, the WSU Bread Lab in nearby Burlington, and Palouse Heritage.

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

The third annual Northwest Colonial Festival was held at the Inn this past August with hundreds of visitors attending a series of special events and reenactor encampments of British regulars and American patriots. Along with demonstrations of tool making, cooking, printing, weaving, and other traditional crafts, the August sunshine brought the landrace grain plots to maturity. Many of the guests gathered under an enormous tent where longtime WSU senior agronomist Steve Lyon and I teamed up to tell about the various varieties and discuss the challenges and benefits of heritage grain production. Several once prominent early American grains like Virginia White and Red May also made their way to the Pacific Northwest by the late 1800s, and seeing bountiful stands again wave in the seaside breeze presents scenes worthy of a painting.

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

One of the winter wheats planted last fall, Mediterranean Red, yielded terrifically and represents a remarkable chapter in the history of American agriculture. Most folks are familiar with the story of Hessian troops from Germany being used as mercenaries to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War. Many agricultural historians believe that these soldiers brought more with them to the Colonies that love of schnapps and sauerkraut. It seems that a tiny pernicious pest that came to be known as the Hessian fly likely arrived with the hay and grain brought over to provision the soldiers livestock. This insect wrought enormous havoc on cereal grains that had long been raised in North America, and local news and correspondence of George Washington and other farmers from the era is full of news about the calamity that ensured which threatened the food supply. Fortunately for the new nation, enterprising “farmer improvers” introduced Mediterranean Red which seemed to have a natural resistance to infestation. Scientists today study the remarkable genetic diversity of landrace grains that developed in locales throughout the world for millennia and continue to exhibit valued traits for hardiness, yield, and flavor.

Bridget Baker,  Olympic Gold  (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection

Bridget Baker, Olympic Gold (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection