Food & Farm Expo

Comparing Old and New Grain Varieties

This post will highlight some of the points I have presented at recent gatherings like the Spokane Farm & Food Expo and the WSU Grain Gathering at The Bread Lab in Mt. Vernon.

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

This past June my wife, Lois, and I led a tour of the Baltic countries which provided an opportunity to see first-hand American and European farming systems and to meet agronomists from abroad. Of course agriculture in any single nation is an exceedingly diverse enterprise, so meaningful comparisons invariably require considerable explanation and generalization. At the same time, trends in nutrition and crop production are evident in important studies conducted in places like the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alarp. 

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm Porvoo, Finland (2017)

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm
Porvoo, Finland (2017)

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Cereal researchers there conducted chemical analysis using plasma spectrometry on several hundred spring and winter wheats. In order to determine nutritional variations among the genotypes, these were divided into groups including primitive “pre-wheats” like emmer, landrace “heritage” grains like we raise at Palouse Colony Farm, old cultivars (1900-1960s releases/hybrids), and new cultivars (varieties released since 1970). The grains were grown at several locations in Sweden and under organic conditions in order to provide comparative results without influence of synthetic soil amendments, herbicides, or other chemical inputs. Results of the study were published in “Mineral Composition of Organically Grown Wheat Genotypes” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (September 2010) and indicate substantial variation among the various groups. 

Primitive and landrace grains were found to have the highest concentrations of the most minerals with selections highest in manganese, phosphorus, and selenium. Landrace wheats showed the highest concentration of calcium and high levels of boron and iron. Spelts were highest in sulfur and high in copper. The Alnarp researchers suggest that the negative correlation between recent cultivars and mineral density indicated in their study and similar investigations elsewhere is likely due to a dilution effect given the increased yield of most modern varieties. In other words, available minerals are dispersed more widely so require higher amounts of food to receive similar amounts. Another factor may be the deeper root systems of pre-wheats and landrace grains which enable the plant to tap minerals available at greater depth. 

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These studies indicate that mineral levels in whole grain kernels depend on absorption in the soil by the plant’s roots and subsequent redistribution to the kernels through vegetative tissues that are also influenced by photosynthesis. Higher chlorophyll content, for example, is positively correlated to iron concentration, as is availability of nitrogen which facilitates photosynthesis. The Alnarp study also indicates that grain type is more influential than location for mineral content in primitive grains. Finally, growing environments significantly contribute to variations for others, and high organic matter and increased soil pH also favor mineral concentration. 

Research by cereal chemists and soil scientists are contributing to new understandings of the complex biological systems that contribute to healthy crops and people. We at Palouse Heritage look forward to sharing news with you about this vital work and doing our part to promote health, heritage, and rural renewal.  

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

Palouse Heritage Featured at Spokane’s Farm & Food Expo

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Spokane’s second Farm & Food Expo was held November 3-4, 2017, at Spokane Community College where we had gathered last year for what we hope will become an annual affair. Exhibitor booths filled the main hall and sponsors shared a wealth of information on topics ranging from bee culture and wool production to irrigation systems. Having done my stint in the Air Force back in the 1970s and with son Karl a major in the Air National Guard, I couldn’t help but notice the “Vets on the Farm” booth and learned about the Spokane organization’s good work transitioning returning members of the armed forces back into civilian life through opportunities in farming and ranching. And since a discount was available to vets for their bright red flag-embossed hats, I just had to pick one up.

Brother Don Scheuerman and I had been invited to participate on Saturday by book-ending the day’s activities with a morning session devoted to “Growing Heritage and Landrace Grains,” and closing out the program with a final session titled “Soil Biome and Gut Biome: The Restorative Powers of Heritage Grains.” Because it was snowing to beat the band by 4:00 p.m. and getting dark, I wasn’t expecting much of a crowd so was pleased to find standing-room only. Our morning session covered basic information on terminology, agronomy, and marketing of specialty grains. We pointed out that “heritage” and “heirloom” have become a kind of catch-all word for “old,” but that the USDA uses the term to mean any variety that was raised before the 1950s. Since grain hybridization was introduced in the late 1800s, that means many hybridized varieties would be considered heritage by that definition. (In the book Harvest Heritage: Agricultural Origins and Heirloom Crops of the Pacific Northwest [WSU Press, 2013] I coauthored with Alex McGregor, we describe the contributions of legendary plant geneticist William Spillman who essentially founded the science of plant hybridization at WSC/WSU in the 1890s.) 

Landrace varieties, however, are what I sometimes call “Grain as God Intended,” since they are pre-hybridized plants that adapted to particular locales by the thousands throughout most of Eurasia before coming to the New World in the 16th century Age of Discovery. Our work these past several years with Palouse Heritage Mercantile & Grain Mill involves the cultivation, milling, and marketing exclusively of landrace grains like Sonoran Gold, Crimson Turkey, Purple Egyptian, and Yellow Breton.

Legendary Spokane Baker-Chef Shaun Thompson-Duffy and his Culture Bread Treasures

Legendary Spokane Baker-Chef Shaun Thompson-Duffy and his Culture Bread Treasures

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The Farm & Food Expo program included presentations by a host of other folks dedicated to local and sustainable food production including our good Spokane friends Joel Williamson, maltster at Palouse Pint (“Rebirth of the Local Malthouse”); Teddy Benson of Palouse Heritage / Grain Shed Brewing (“Brewing with Heritage Grains”); and Shaun Thompson-Duffy of Culture Breads (Old World Breads: From Millstone to Hearth”). Don and I attended all three of these sessions and were reminded why we have long been so impressed by these fellows. The very names of their topics indicate the stirring sea change that is underway in culinary circles across the country, and Joel, Teddy, and Shaun have joined with other prime movers in the region to establish viable connections with local growers of grains and other crops who are interested in stewardship of the land, rural economic renewal, and human health and heritage. 

In our closing session on restorative biomes to improve health and soil, we shared information gleaned from studies in the United States and Europe on heritage grain nutrition. Worth noting are summaries comparing primitive “pre-wheats” like emmer and spelt, landrace varieties like we grow at Palouse Heritage, and modern hybrids. This is a big topic, so stay tuned for the next post!