Crop Rotation

Landrace Grains and Heirloom Fruit — Palouse Colony Farm and DeLong Ranch

Even after great holiday sales, we remain well supplied with our Palouse Heritage Sonoran Gold pastry flour as well as our long awaited Crimson Turkey bread flour, known back in the day as “Turkey Red” though it ancestral homeland is actually south Russia and Ukraine. Until this flavorful grain was introduced to the United States in the 1870s, virtually all bread in the country was made from soft white wheats and other grains more suited for making biscuits, pancakes, and flatbreads. Our crop yielded well and is already being used by several Northwest bakeries including Damsel and Hopper Bakeshop in Seattle, Ethos Bakery in Richland, and Culture Breads in Spokane.

Palouse Colony Heritage Grain and Transfering from Wheat Truck to Totes

Palouse Colony Heritage Grain and Transfering from Wheat Truck to Totes

Two venerable elders now in their nineties and familiar with Crimson Turkey were raised on farms near our Palouse Country hometown of Endicott. Don Schmick and Don Reich now reside in neighboring Colfax, and I recently asked them about it. “That’s the grain we saved for our own use!” Don Reich recalled. “There’s nothing in the world that makes a bread so satisfying as flour from that wheat.” Don Schmick related a similar story and said that his immigrant farmer father made a annual trip every fall south of the Palouse River to the Pataha Flour Mill east of Pomeroy where the family’s precious Crimson Turkey wheat was ground into flour for the family’s needs throughout the year. Both men remembered that their mothers especially favored mixing about two-thirds of the wheat flour with one-third rye flour to make a delicious tawny-colored loaf that didn’t last long.

Joe navigating through a sea of Palouse Heritage wheat at DeLong Ranch (2017)

Joe navigating through a sea of Palouse Heritage wheat at DeLong Ranch (2017)

This past August we also returned to historic DeLong Ranch located several miles upstream from our Palouse Colony Farm and where we have worked for several years with neighbors Joe and Sarah DeLong to raise heritage grains. Joe’s ancestral connection to this scenic area is singular in significance to regional history as it is not only the oldest farm in the area, but also property that has been continuously farmed by the DeLong family since the late 1860s. Joe’s resourceful ancestor, also named Joseph DeLong, raised grain, extensive gardens, and livestock, and also planted an extensive orchard on fertile bottomland bordered by towering pines along the river. I have long been fascinated by the family’s remarkable saga and have written previously about it in previous blog posts and the book Palouse Country: A Land and Its People.

We’ve long been impressed by Joe and Sarah’s regard for the health of the soil and they have worked hard over the years to raise crops using natural rotation systems with minimum artificial inputs. The farm’s remote location also provides a rare glimpse into the “Palouse primeval.” Substantial virgin sod remains along both sides of the river that abounds with wildflowers in spring and summer and hosts deer, racoons, coyotes, eagles, and occasional meandering moose and elk. In addition to the landrace grains we raised this past year at Palouse Colony Farm, Joe and Sarah grew Red Walla Walla and Sonoran Gold wheats, and famed Purple Egyptian barley. Red Walla Walla is a rare soft red variety actually native to southern England that was traditionally used for biscuits, flatbreads, and for imparting a rich, tangy flavor to craft English wheat beers. 

An unexpected adventure during this summer’s DeLong harvest was a visit to his family’s ancient grove of plum trees that are clustered at the foot of a grassy bluff close to the river. I had noticed the ripe purplish red fruit while riding the combine with Joe near the fence-line that separates the trees from the field. He informed me that the trees likely harkened back to the senior Joe DeLong’s time and contained four distinct varieties faithfully recorded in old ranch records—Bulgarian, Hungarian, Egg, and Petite.

DeLong Heirloom Plum Trees

DeLong Heirloom Plum Trees

Grandma’s Plum Delight

Grandma’s Plum Delight

I mentioned seeing the trees at lunch time and Sara and Joe invited me to pick as many as I’d like since there were far more than their family could use. So armed with a large metal bucket from a nearby shed I ventured back to the spot in the hot afternoon and joined a herd of cows meandering through the plum trees. Indeed the trees were loaded with fruit and in no time my bucket was overflowing. I couldn’t tell a Bulgarian from a Petite but found that they all tasted wonderfully sweet. I had been staying in town with my sister and mother, and later that night when I reported on my discovery, Mom proceeded to tell me how to distinguish several kinds. The next day while I returned to the harvest field, she went to work making plum sauce as a topping for pancakes and breads, and also prepared “Plum Delight,” a crispy dessert with crumbly topping I remembered well from my youth. She agreed to provide me with her recipe which we share here with hopes it might grace your table sometime soon.


Plum Delight

Topping

  • ½  cup Palouse Heritage Sonora flour
  • ½ cup oats
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup melted margarine

Filling

  • 3 cups sliced plums
  • 1 tablespoon Palouse Heritage Sonora flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine plums, flour, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon together in a bowl and put into ungreased 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Combine all topping ingredients in another bowl. Mix until crumbly and distribute over the plums. Bake in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until crispy and golden brown on top.

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 7)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


North African Threshers and Gallic-Roman Reapers

During the summer of 1914, a team of Italian archaeologists excavating near Tripoli near the ancient seaside village of Buc Ammera uncovered the substantial (19 x 13 feet) and well preserved mosaic floor of a Roman villa. Named for the area’s principal oasis, these and other smaller Zliten mosaics date to about 200 AD and include a colorful allegory of summer showing a winged, sickle bearing Ceres holding grain stalks, as well as depictions of everyday life that feature a remarkable threshing scene. Libyan coloni are shown beating pairs of horses and oxen to lead them around a wide pile of grain stalks. A large tree heavy with ripened olives shades an aristocratically clad woman who appears to supervise the operation as it takes place below a substantial Roman country villa. The artist’s depiction of the figures in action imparts a sense of their boisterous tasks that likely took place on the estate day after day beneath the hot North African sun.

Zliten Allegorical Summer Mosaic (c. 200 AD);   R. Bartoccini,  Guida del Museo di Tripoli  (1923)

Zliten Allegorical Summer Mosaic (c. 200 AD); R. Bartoccini, Guida del Museo di Tripoli (1923)

The shape of the one-handed sickle and mode of threshing in the Zliten mosaics suggest that the harvest methods known from ancient times had changed little by the third century AD’s cusp of Roman Empire expansion and continental influence. The era would witness displacement by the end of the first millennium AD of older unbalanced sickle forms long used as far away as Scandinavia and central Russia. The famous Maktar Harvester funerary stele inscription, discovered a century ago in central Tunisia, likely dates to the third century AD and relates a reaper’s prideful account of being “born into a poor dwelling and of a poor father” who nevertheless managed through years of hard work in the harvest fields and capable management of roving bands of itinerant harvesters (turmae mesorum) to become a Roman censor. Seasonal migrations of “sickle-bearing gangs of men” brought annual journeys to North Africa’s “Fields of Jupiter” and across the vast fertile plains of Numidia. The Harvester’s epitaph relates, “This effort and my frugal life brought success and made me master of a household and gained me a house, and my home lacks nothing.” Enduring rural values of hard work and honesty are implicit in the rather fulsome tribute, which the author concludes with counsel for his readers: “laedit atrox discite mortals… (Learn to pass your lives without giving reason for reproach).”

Pliny’s Natural History describes use of sledges, flails, and the hooves of horses to separate out the kernels on hardened threshing floors. He also notes the existence of a remarkable harvesting device he termed a vallus that he had seen in use during his time of Roman military service in Gaul. Pliny described it as, “a large hollow frame, armed with teeth and supported on two wheels, …driven through the standing grain, the beasts being yoked behind it. The result is that the ears are torn off and fall within the frame.” Twentieth century discoveries of limestone funerary bas-reliefs of this Gallic-Roman reaper, which functioned more like a stripper with stationary serrated teeth that collected ripened grain heads in the storage receptacle, have been discovered in Arlon, Reims, and Koblenz. The image of this remarkable device also appears on the decorative panels of Reims’ immense third century AD Porte de Mars. Standing nearly forty feet high, the city’s grand Mars Gate featured colorful calendar scenes, now substantially deteriorated, above the central vault that show rural labors associated with each month.

The appearance of an animal-powered reaper with adjustable height during this period and its depiction on such prominent objects suggest the machine’s significance to its owners for reduced labor. Flanking the Porte de Mars’ August picture of a worker tending this remarkable device are also the first known images of long-handled scythes, seen on the July panel both in use and being sharpened by Roman reapers. Archaeological evidence shows the advent of the scythe in Western Europe as early as the second century, though typically in the context of mowing hay. The earliest known picture of a scythe in a written work is from the Calendar of Salzburg (c. 820 AD) in which a barefoot worker is shown holding the tool across his shoulders. Archaeological remains of the heavy iron blades in the Rhine Valley, however, date to the late Roman period.

Trier Gallic-Roman Reaper Bas-Relief Reconstruction (c. Third Century AD);   Trier Archaeological Museum, Trier, Germany;   Wikimedia Commons

Trier Gallic-Roman Reaper Bas-Relief Reconstruction (c. Third Century AD); Trier Archaeological Museum, Trier, Germany; Wikimedia Commons

This cluster of locations suggests a core heartland of agricultural innovation during the late Roman period on the fertile eastern plains of the empire’s Gallia Belgica province. A principal artery of the Roman Via Agrippa highway network led from its capital at Reims (Roman Durocotorum) to Trier (Augusta) where it divided into routes further eastward to Koblenz (Confluentes) and Mainz (Moguntiacum). This panoramic region between the Marne and Rhine rivers, where the boundaries of present Belgium, France, and Germany converge, became a strategic Roman “bread basket” much as Ukraine’s black earth steppes and America’s Midwest prairie lands would supply their peoples. Historians attribute the Gallic-Roman reaper-stripper’s disappearance by early medieval times to such factors as inefficient cutting design, especially in times of high humidity, and the collapse of Roman administration in the wake of fifth century invasions by the Franks. But dispersion outward of technological advancements is evident in the appearance of an array of distinct sickle and scythe designs adapted to local conditions in places surrounding the Reims-Trier corridor to Germany, France, the Low Countries, and in southern Britain.

Porte de Mars (Mars Gate), Reims (c. 3rd Century AD);   Albumen print, 8 ¼ x 10 ⅗ inches (c. 1880);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Porte de Mars (Mars Gate), Reims (c. 3rd Century AD); Albumen print, 8 ¼ x 10 ⅗ inches (c. 1880); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

European farmers developed a remarkable array of blade sizes and edges (smooth or serrated), curvature angles, and handle lengths associated with prevailing smithing conventions and local crop conditions. In areas susceptible to lodging, for example, where stalks fell over from wind and rain, farmers could salvage more flattened grain with sickles, weedy crops were also often cut with sickles to avoid gathering unwanted plants, and sickles preserved taller straw if needed for thatching. Great areas could be harvested with scythes, however, and important considerations in places with shorter growing seasons, and lighter grasses were more efficiently mowed with a scythe for hay. No clear linear progression of sickle and scythe development is indicated in the archaeological or artistic record since a range of styles emerged over time based on local conditions and cultural exchange. But Danish scholar Axel Steensberg (1906-1999), eminent historian of ancient and medieval harvesting implements, found physical evidence of general trends originating with the diffusion of at least three basic Middle East Late Bronze Age tool designs (c. 2000-1500 BC)—the bronze sickle, short-handled scythe, and hook sickle. With the advent of iron smithing relatively shortly afterward and expansion of the Roman Empire, the sickle expanded northward during the Early Iron Age to become (I) the angular iron La Tène (Swiss) and Viking sickles of the Roman era; the (II) short-handled bronze scythe evolved into the short Italian crescentic and northern European short scythes; while the bronze hook sickle became (III) medieval Europe’s familiar balanced sickle with broadly curved, longer blade, and (IV) long-handled scythe (from Transylvania to Germany and Central Europe).

Mediterranean landrace grains spread throughout western and central Europe along Roman military and trade routes, and often grew together in such field cultures “mixes” as maslin (winter wheat and rye—French metail, Dutch masteluin), beremancorn (winter barley and rye), and dredge (spring barley and oats). Many farmers of late Roman and early medieval times planted single grain crops in two-year rotations (winter- and spring-sown) along with soil-enriching legumes like peas, beans, and peas that improved soil fertility and also provided cheap sources of protein. Farmers periodically rested, or fallowed, lands to conserve moisture, and these were kept as weed-free as possible by livestock, and periodic tilling. Depending on the area, rotations generally divided grains into higher valued bread cereals wheat and rye which were cut with the sickle for the most efficient harvesting, while the “lesser cereals” (French menus grains, Italian minuti) like barley, oats, and buckwheat that were sometimes harvested with a long-handled scythe. These latter grains could be used for food and fodder and while scything risked some loss from the shattering of stalks, use this larger tool made harvesting faster and easier.

 

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 8)

This blog post is part of a series I (Richard) am writing about my past life experiences that helped develop a love and appreciation for agricultural heritage in general and landrace grains in particular. The series is called "Sickles and Sheaves - Farming, Faith, and the Frye" and you can view the other parts of this blog series here.


Some of our local church traditions that were observed seasonally contrasted with some enduring aspects of agrarian folklore. We gleaned some of this from Norwegian farmer elders on Mother’s Sunwold side of the family who lived in the Palouse “upper country” environs of Fairfield, Waverly, and Oakesdale. I could grasp the significance of planting field potatoes on Good Friday, but among many members our grandparents’ generation the seeding of grain crops took place during a waxing moon, harvesting commenced when it waned, and in some cases women were not allowed out-of-doors during the combine’s first pass around a field of grain. Still in my day harvest concluded with spirited shouting and the ceremonial threshing of the straw fedoras worn by many of our fathers. Delving into the medieval European folk traditions occasioned by this study provides some explanation for why such traditions persisted through the years of my 1960s youth amidst harvest truck radios blaring rock music and news of Vietnam and moon landings.

Through verse by an accomplished local poet, Harry Helm (1906-1987), claimed as kin through some vague ancestral connection, we also knew poetic expressions about the beauty of area landscapes. Harry’s grandparents, John and Mary (Kleweno) Helm, had been among the first group of Volga German immigrants to settle in the 1880s in Palouse Hills not far from our country home. In a bucolic setting along the Palouse River, some half-dozen immigrant families established an Old World peasant commune using methods suggesting medieval origins—long, narrow Langstreifen fields (akin to English furlongs) in three-crop rotations (Dreifelderwirtschaft), Almenden commons for grazing and gardens, grain harvest with sickle and scythe, and “hoof-tread” threshing using horses led around a circle of piled stalks. Harry had grown up hearing stories about these ancient ways, and his reflective eye wove heritage and horizon into such poems as “Endicott Wheat Field” (1962):

Grandpa said:

The grass was like Europe’s grass,

Soft and waving like a sea.

It hissed and whispered like a friend

In well-known German words to me.

The hills were like German hills,

Green plumed against a feckless sky.

And I went riding bunchgrass trails,

Where the prairie chicken fly.

Clear waters tumbled through the trees

In every golden, sun-swept vale.

While flowers tipped their hats to me,

As they touched my prancing pinto’s tail.       

 

The Helm family’s aesthetic influence was prominently evident in the life and art of Robert R. Helm (1943-2008), great-grandson of John and Mary Helm. His mysterious, exquisite painted and collaged arrangements of landscape, rocks, and architectural fragments meticulously crafted oil on cherry, birch, and pine masterpieces reflected his relationship with heritage, terrain, and imagination. Though Helm’s style is sometimes associated with Surrealism and Luminism, its distinct physicality makes it more akin to that of a medieval artisan using unique combinations of format, composition, and color that explore meaning, reality and memory. Characterized variously as “icons of stillness” and “neo-trecento renditions of rural America,” Helm’s dreamy, rustic creations led to global recognition with his works exhibited in Paris and Berlin, and in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Louvre Gallery in Venice, California.

Although works by Helm evoke timeless themes of natural beauty and isolation, he drew inspiration from frequent travels along the Washington-Idaho rural borderlands between the Coeur d’Alene Valley and Palouse Hills where stories of his pathfinder ancestors were often retold in my visits with community elders. Oil on panel works like Spring Thaw (1985) and September Burn (1991) are notable for the placid depictions of hills, as well as for the artist’s meticulously crafted hardwood frames. “The Palouse has nurtured and reinforced his formal, psychological and metaphysical vision of life and its meaning;” writes Marti Mayo, director of the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery, which hosted a one-man exhibition of Helm’s art in 1994. Northwest author William Kittredge offers further commentary on how place shaped Helm’s art, just as it has power to influence others who take time to know a landscape relationally:

Go back to a place, Helm knows, and purely physical memories of who you were when you were there before may begin to echo in your body. You may remember exactly how things first felt and something of how it felt to be the person you used to be.

Go back enough times and your sense of yourself in that place may begin to stack up before you in layers. It’s a way to recall your story of yourself through the years of change and to relearn the reasons for your work and the consequences. It is a way to keep reinventing your knowledge of who you are and how you are trying to make your work matter in the world.