Grain Gathering

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. 

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