Red Fife Wheat

Hands to Harvest! “Bringing in the Sheaves” in 2018

Few words conjure up richer connotations of summertime, country life, and abundance than harvest. During the past three weeks we have commenced harvesting our Palouse Heritage grains and are pleased to report excellent quality and yield. Ever being interested in matters of origin, I decided to investigate the derivation of the word “harvest,” and learned that it is derived from German Herbst (autumn). That word in turn descends from a root shared by Latin carp- (“to gather”) and Greek karpos (“fruit”). “Harvest” in the sense of reaping grain and other crops came into vernacular use during the medieval era of Middle English.

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Palouse Heritage Yellow Breton Wheat Harvest near Connell, Washington (July, 2018)

Palouse Heritage Yellow Breton Wheat Harvest near Connell, Washington (July, 2018)

Likely due to the light color of a wheat kernel’s interior endosperm, the word “wheat” in many European languages meant “white,” as with Old English whete, Welsh gwenith, and German weizzi. The Latin term “gladiators,” hordearii, literally means “barley eaters” since they subsisted on high energy foods like barley, oatmeal, and legumes. Roman legionaries were routinely outfitted with sickles in order to procure their livelihood throughout the far flung empire, and probably used them more often that their weapons. The helical frieze on Trajan’s Column in Rome (c. 110 AD) features a dynamic group scene of soldiers in full uniform harvesting waist-high grain with prodigious heads.

These days we don’t need to rely on sickles and legionnaires to bring in the crop. Good friends like Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington, raise bountiful crops of organic Palouse Heritage varieties like Crimson Turkey and Yellow Breton. The latter is a soft red variety native to the northern France where for generations it was used for the prized flour essential for flavorful crepes. Farther to the northeast in the vicinity of Endicott, Washington, our longtime friends Joe DeLong and Chuck Jordan are harvestings stands of Palouse Heritage Red Fife, a famous bread grain originally from Eastern Europe, Sonoran Gold wheat, and Scots Bere barley that has become one of the most sought-after craft brewing malt grains.

Although there are some variations in climate and soil across the inland Pacific Northwest, this fertile region lies within the great arc of the Columbia River’s “Big Bend” easily identified on any map. While reading through some old newspapers recently I encountered the following poem titled “The Big Bend” by Louis Todd that was published in 1900. Little else is known about Todd’s life, but his literary expressions here make it clear he greatly appreciated this land of harvest time “golden splendor.”

 

No other river to the ocean

   Will a tale like thine unfold,

Of the wealth seen in thy travels;

   Of the wealth thy borders hold;

For thy thoughts the grandeur bear,

   And thy breath the sweetness breathes,

Of the boundless fields and forests,

   Of the richly laden trees.

 

And there grows within thy roaring

   All the fairest of the vine;

Luscious fruits in clusters hanging

   From the north and southern clime.

Great fields of wheat in golden splendor,

   Waving like a mighty sea,

Holding safe their precious treasure

   ’Till the grain shall ripened be.

 

Where nature works with freest hand,

   Builds her greatest work of art,

Will the feeble life of man

   There most smoothly play its part.

Oh, leave the dreary course you travel,

   Spurn the rocky path you go,

Join again your life with Nature,

   Where the fragrant flowers grow.

 

Palouse Heritage Red Fife Wheat Harvest (July, 2018)

Palouse Heritage Red Fife Wheat Harvest (July, 2018)

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Turkey Red Wheat Harvest 2017

This past week marked the beginning of our Palouse Heritage harvest as our first crop of organic Turkey Red bread wheat was cut at our partner Brad Bailie’s Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington. We have been raising this legendary hard red bread grain for the past two years in order to carefully increase our seed stock, and finally this year we had enough for several acres of organic production at Brad’s farm since we needed space at our Palouse Colony Farm for the flavorful soft red variety English Squarehead, also known as Red Walla Walla, which historically was used for pastries, biscuits, and other flatbreads as well as for crafting nutritious Old World Hefeweizen cloudy brews.

Harvesting Organic Turkey Red Wheat;   Scene of the Great Yellow Jacket Harvest Battle

Harvesting Organic Turkey Red Wheat; Scene of the Great Yellow Jacket Harvest Battle

Turkey Red is the legendary grain long raised by our German ancestors in Eastern Europe where bread wheats had grown since time immemorial from the Great Hungarian Plain to the steppes of Russia and Ukraine. Prior to the introduction of Turkey Red to the Midwest in the 1870s, a winter variety sown in the fall, and its genetic spring-seeded cousin, Red Fife, an Eastern European relative that came to North American via Scotland, all wheat breads in early America and Canada were made from soft white flour sometimes mixture with low gluten milled rye, barley, or oats, or “thirded” combinations of these grains. The resulting baked goods were rather dense but still flavorful and served as the “staff of life” for countless families in eastern American and on the western frontier. Our elders here in the Northwest told us that their crops of Turkey Red as recent as the 1950s were too precious to sell like modern hybridized grains for national and world markets. Instead they held back sufficient quantities of Turkey Red to be milled at area flour mills in Colfax, St. John, and at tiny Pataha south of the Snake River near Pomeroy where historic Houser Mill has been substantially restored by the Van Vogt family with a portion of the main floor refurbished as a restaurant and museum.


"Our elders here in the Northwest told us that their crops of Turkey Red as recent as the 1950s were too precious to sell like modern hybridized grains for national and world markets."


Unexpected happenings often occur when commencing harvest and this year’s first round provided a couple interesting moments. After going a few dozen yards on our first round in Brad’s combine, I stepped behind the machine to blow on the ground and see if too much grain was being blown behind. Even the most advanced combine in this day of high tech threshing and electronic monitoring betrays some grain loss, but Brad’s John Deere was running very clean. I jumped back on and paused when entering the cab so we could check for any cracked grain going into the bulk tank where the grain is stored before unloading into a truck or in our case, large fabric totes capable of holding a ton. We had no sooner reached our arms back to retrieve a handful of grain that a wild onslaught of very angry yellow-jackets burst forth swirling around our heads! In an instant we received their stinging message of most likely disturbing a nest in the process of putting running augers and dumping grain into the bin, so we retreated back into the safety of the cab.

Marsh Hawk Stubble Nest

Marsh Hawk Stubble Nest

On the next pass around the field I noticed an enormous bird fly from the uncut grain we were approaching as the combine reel flailed along like a rapidly moving ferris-wheel. Brad immediately stopped the machine and said he it was one of several marsh hawks with whom he had shared his property. Brad is an advocate of natural growing systems and seeks to preserve native species, so was concerned that the hawk’s next was likely in the path of the combine’s next round. We descended the ladder and slowly approached the area in the uncut wheat from which the bird had taken flight. Sure enough there we found a trampled area about two feet in diameter with two white eggs resting in the center. Late July seems somewhat late for a hatch, but not being experts on marsh hawk habits we thought the eggs were likely still vital or they would not still be tended. So we returned to the machine and cut in a wide circle all around the next to keep it protected, and hoped no coyotes would find their way to the small golden sanctuary.