Heirloom Grains

Palouse Heritage Featured at Spokane’s Farm & Food Expo


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


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!

The Latest Crop in the Local Food Movement? Wheat

Kristan Lawson from modernfarmer.com published a remarkably important article last summer discussing how wheat is experiencing a renaissance with small farmers revolutionizing the local food movement by growing heirloom and landrace grains with unique terroir. The article so effectively conveys the message we at Palouse Heritage champion that we wanted to feature it here in our blog. The author quotes our dear grains scientist from Washington State University, Steve Lyon and even mentions two landrace grain varieties we are growing, Red Fife and Sonoran Gold! Here are the highlights. You can read the full article on modernfarmer.com here.

Ripe wheat on Camas Country Mill in Central Oregon, Courtesy Tom Hunton and modernfarmer.com

Ripe wheat on Camas Country Mill in Central Oregon, Courtesy Tom Hunton and modernfarmer.com

Until very recently, small farms have tended to avoid planting wheat because it's not very profitable per acre. Commercially, wheat is grown in such vast quantities that it's usually sold not by the pound but by the ton. For centuries, society has considered wheat a faceless "commodity" like iron ore or cotton, every sack anonymous and interchangeable.

But that’s all about to change. Wheat is experiencing a renaissance as chefs, food writers, and savvy consumers discover that each kernel holds a universe of long-forgotten flavors, a terroir: Wheat from one area tastes different from the wheat in another, and each varietal has a different flavor profile from the one down the road.

And when wheat is no longer treated as a high-volume/low-price commodity, small farmers can start commanding top dollar for unique grain grown in a unique way on their unique land.


But is it really possible to tell the difference between heirloom wheat hand-tended in small plots and nameless factory wheat? When you come right down to it, it’s all just … wheat, a flavor that’s always in the background, never the star. In fact, in blind taste tests, even top wine experts can’t tell different wines apart. Aren’t wheat terroirs just as indistinguishable?

No, says Dr. Stephen Jones at the Washington State University Bread Lab. As a leading expert in wheat genetics, he’s proven that different wheat strains and growing conditions do produce unique flavor profiles. “We do taste tests all the time in our lab with bakers, chefs, students, and even random visitors. People notice big differences in wheat flavor based on where it’s grown—especially when it’s fresh-milled 100-percent whole wheat. That’s where the flavors are.”

Although wine connoisseurs have developed an entire vocabulary to describe the subtle aromas hidden in a glass of Zinfandel or Chardonnay, the specialty wheat dialect is still in its infancy. “Sadly, we don’t yet have terms for all the different flavors in wheat,” says Klein. “But we’re working on it.” Taste-testers at the Bread Lab have volunteered such expressions as “nutty,” “earthy,” “bright,” “chewy,” “warm,” and “gratifying.” It’s a start.

Modern American farmers did not invent the notion that specific varietals of wheat from various geographic regions have different flavors; you can trace the concept back to Italy centuries ago, where each Italian region championed the quality, texture, and taste of their own wheat pasta over all others. The recent rise of major nationally distributed pasta brands eroded the regionalism, but now Italian pasta terroir is making a comeback, too. Companies like Rustichella d’Abruzzo have begun to release pastas made exactly as they were in the 19th century, such as their “PrimoGrano” line which exclusively uses hyper-localized ancient wheat strains only discovered in the hills of the Abruzzo region; a handful of acres are harvested and processed using traditional methods to make a single batch of pasta once per year, released to connoisseurs like the rarest of wines.

Just as there is no “best” type of grape, there is no single all-purpose heritage wheat “better” than the others. Small farmers are re-discovering that ancient wheat strains, known as “landraces,” each excel in different culinary contexts: Red Fife, originally from prehistoric Anatolia but perfected in Canada, is unbeatable for bread flour, for example; Sonora Wheat, the first wheat brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors, makes the perfect tortilla; Mesopotamian Durum, the grand-daddy of them all, dating back 9,000 years, is the basis for impeccable pasta.

When applied to wheat, the term “landrace” refers to any ancient variety cultivated so far in the past and for so long that it evolved to thrive in a specific ecosystem; nowadays these primitive types are cherished as the source of wheat’s genetic diversity, which is otherwise being lost as modern high-yield strains dominate all others. The very word “landrace” is appropriate here as well, since “land-” in this context means both “regional area” and “the ground” (while in botany “-race” means “distinctive sub-variety”), so “landrace” is the native English word closest in meaning to the French terroir.

For American farmers, the difficult part about marketing these heirloom strains is convincing consumers to give wheat a second look. You can only charge a premium for specialty wheat if customers are willing to pay. Paul Muller, co-owner of Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California—who grows the heirloom Iraqi Durum used by Community Grains to make its fettuccine—is excited about the wheat renaissance.

“I’ve grown up around wheat all my life,” Muller says, “and until recently no one has really talked about flavor. But now food writers and chefs are saying, ‘Hey, we love this wheat.’ People are finally paying attention to it. We as wheat farmers are now growing a food, not a commodity.”


Klein is convinced that the flavors of these heirloom and landrace wheat varieties are only as good as the soil in which they’re sown. “Wheat like ours from small farms tastes superior because it’s grown in very good nutrient-rich soil,” he says. “Most generic wheat, conversely, comes from nutrient-depleted soil, because in the United States we usually grow wheat where the land is cheap, which is not great nutrient-wise. The better farmland is normally reserved for more profitable crops. But wheat from good soil gives a more ‘animated’ flavor, especially in fresh-baked bread.”

WSU’s Jones agrees that wheat grown in more desirable areas produces a vastly superior grain: “With grapes, the big flavors come from intentionally stressing the vines, but with wheat we have discovered it’s the opposite—the big flavors do not come from stress but from cool and moist conditions.”

Tom Hunton of Camas Country Mill in central Oregon is spearheading the wheat terroir movement in the Pacific Northwest, not only growing specialty wheats such as Edison Hard White (described as “buttery” and “golden”) but also inviting a growing community of local grain farmers to share his new state-of-the-art stone grist mill; without this access, they’d have to sell their high-end wheat at much lower prices on the commodity market, where its terroir would be lost.

From this small cooperative beginning, Hunton has big dreams: “We desire to bring taste and flavor to as large a population as possible, at an affordable price point,” he says.“We want to move beyond food for the elite and share these phenomenal flavorful varietals with a broader audience.”