Stephen Jones

Perennial Grains and "Centers of Origin"

“Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration,  The Atlantic

“Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration, The Atlantic

I read with special interest the article “How Will We Feed the New Global Middle Class” by Charles C. Mann in last month’s issue of The Atlantic (March 2018). It not only addressed this pressing question in terms amply supplied with meaningful examples and disturbing statistics, but referenced the important research long undertaken by a longtime friend and supporter of our work at Palouse Colony Farm, WSU plant scientist Dr. Stephen Jones. Mann’s article casts the controversy about supplying a growing world population’s food supply as a century-long contest between the “Wizards” and the “Prophets.” He characterizes the former as advocates of commodity production and scientific innovation exemplified by Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution,” and the “Prophets,” or proponents of natural ecosystem conservation like William Vogt. I commend the entire article for your review of this complex question, but thought Mann’s discussion of Stephen Jones’s research on perennial wheat to represent a rare convergence of Wizard-Prophet interests.

Perennial grains do not exist in nature so cereal crops must be planted year after year which necessitates field tillage and attendant labor and other inputs. Development of a crop like the Salish Blue wheat hybridized by Jones and his agronomist colleague Steve Lyon offers hope for a grain of sufficient milling quality that can produce from the same plant for two to three years. Jones and Lyon have told me that the pioneers of perennial grain research were a team of Russians headed by Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), a brilliant scientist who paid for his independent thinking by perishing in one of Stalin’s GULAG prisons. Vavilov formulated the “Centers of Origin” theory (a phrase first used by Darwin) for the geographic origins of the world’s cereal grains. Vavilov had been a protégé of Robert Regel, Russia’s preeminent pre-revolutionary era botanist. Regel had appointed the brilliant young Saratov University scientist head of all Russia’s agricultural experiment stations on the very day the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917. Vavilov became a prime-mover in the organization of the first All-Russian Conference of Plant Breeders in Saratov in 1920.

The group’s June 4 opening session marked a milestone for world science as Vavilov delivered his famous paper, “The Law of Homologous Series in Hereditary Variation,” in which he put forth the first hypothesis on plant mutation. For subsequent related research that led to the formulation of a law on the periodicity of heritable characteristics, Vavilov came to be known as the Mendeleyev of biology. Although Vavilov’s enthusiastic grasp of problem definition in crop breeding proved easier than problem solving, upon Regal’s death later in 1920 he was named director of the Agricultural Ministry’s Department of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, and went on to organize the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences.  

Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Vavilov derived many of his insights from extensive travels “across the whole of Scripture” in Transjordan (Israel) and Palestine. He traveled widely in the Middle East and pored over religious texts in order “to reconstruct a picture of agriculture in biblical times.” His ideas were significantly influenced by the field studies of German botanist Frederich Körnicke (1828-1908), curator of the Imperial Botanical Gardens in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, and Aaron Aaronsohn, Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Haifa, Palestine. In an article published in 1889 on the history of world grains, Körnicke had identified a specimen of wild emmer found in the collection of the National Museum of Vienna as the progenitor of all modern wheats. He urged botanists to conduct expeditions in the foothills of Mt. Hermon where it had been found in order to better document its origin and range.

Aaronsohn subsequently recorded his historic 1906 discovery of the grain: “When I began to extend my search to the cultivated lands [near Rosh Pinna], along the edges of roads and in the crevices of rocks, I found a few stools of the wild Triticum. Later I came across it in great abundance, and the most astonishing thing about it was the large number of forms it displayed.” Indefatigable Vavilov followed Aaronsohn’s itinerary to locate this relict stands of the famed “Mother of Grains” and found it growing nearly forty inches tall with stiff, six-inch long beards. His further research demonstrated that emmer’s ancestral range extended throughout northern Transjordan and into Turkey.

Vavilov met Washington State College agronomist Edwin Gaines and his celebrated botanist wife, Xerpha, at the 1932 Sixth International Genetics Congress at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This celebrated gathering was attended by some 550 of the world’s leading geneticists. The conclave’s highlight was the much-anticipated delivery of Valvilov’s presentation on geographic distribution of wild cultivar relatives. His paper focused on the importance of preserving threatened landraces and their progenitors for future breeding stock and pure research. He further postulated the origin of modern hard red wheats in the Fertile Crescent (“southwestern Asia”) and soft whites in northwestern Africa. Vavilov also described ancient selection methods by which early agriculturalists unconsciously conducted spontaneous variety selections.

In spite of myriad challenges in hosting such a prestigious event in the midst of the Great Depression, the Gaineses invited Vavilov to Pullman while on his extended trip to several western states. Vavilov accepted the offer and spent several weeks in the late summer and fall of 1932 touring grain research stations in the Northwest clad in ever present tie and fedora. The time of year and fecund Columbia Plateau laden with grains spawned from his homeland may well have reminded Vavilov of lines from the celebrated Russian poet Pushkin extolling life on the steppe. He could quote verse at length in fluent English. The Gypsies imagines new life in fall-sown wheat even as hunters and their dogs trample fields underfoot. The image poignantly anticipates Vavilov’s own fate a decade later as a victim of Stalin’s purges: “…the winter wheat will suffer from their wild fun” while the stream ever “passes by the mill.”

Whites of Their Eyes, and White Lammas Wheat — The 2017 Northwest Colonial Festival and Early American Heritage Grains

With a state named for the first president, counties that honor Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, and towns like Mt. Vernon, perhaps it was only time before the Northwest should host a full-blown Northwest Colonial Festival complete with Concord Bridge battle reenactments and Early American grain demonstration plots courtesy of WSU/Mt. Vernon and Palouse Colony Farm. You may recall from blogs posted earlier this year that in partnership with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, founder of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, and Stephen Jones and Steve Lyon at WSU/MV, we embarked on a marvelous adventure to (1) document specific grain varieties raised by George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, and other “Founding Farmers,” (2) find any samples that had been kept vital in US and world germplasm collections, (3) begin propigating them, and (4) share samples with the dedicated heritage-minded folks at Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Vernon’s Living History Farm, and the National Arboretum in Washington, D. C.

Colonist Encampment, 2017 Northwest Colonial Festival;   George Washington Inn, Port Angeles, Washington

Colonist Encampment, 2017 Northwest Colonial Festival; George Washington Inn, Port Angeles, Washington

Among our most recent partners in this special endeavor has been Dan and Janet Abbott, proprietors of the George Washington Inn, a five-star B&B situated on fifteen acres overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Washington State’s coastal communities of Sequim and Port Angeles. The inn is an incredible full scale replica of President Washington’s Virginia estate mansion with exquisite period interiors, only with updated conveniences! Lois and I were guests of the Abbotts this past winter and marveled at the meticulous care taken to develop the building and grounds as a tribute to the democratic ideals and legendary hospitality of the Washingtons and other Founders. We were even joined for a breakfast by General (Vern Frykholm) Washington himself in full uniform and in keeping with the occasion we supplied the Colonial White Lammas wheat flour for the pancakes. The Father of our Nation said he hadn’t tasted anything so delicious in over 200 years.

Dan and Janet spearheaded the first Northwest Colonial Festival in August, 2016, and with such an overwhelming public response made plans far in advance of this month’s August 10-11 event that attracted reenactors throughout the country including regiments of British regulars and American colonist soldiers. Dan and friends had built a model of the famous Concord Bridge just east of the inn and I’m happy to report that once again the patriots managed to drive the Redcoats back and claim victory. A vast encampment is set up along the long driveway from the Finn Road entrance and organizers and participants go out of their way to make for a family-friendly experience where kids can experience how colonial families lived, worked, played, and ate. There are games, music, marching soldiers, demonstrations on Early American printing, spinning and weaving, cooking, and a host of other crafts so you might want to mark calendars for August, 2018, in case you missed it this time around.

Early American Heritage Grain Plots;   George Washington Inn, Port Angeles

Early American Heritage Grain Plots; George Washington Inn, Port Angeles

My special interest was in the grains of Early America and Dan invited Steve Lyon from WSU/Mt. Vernon and me to present on this topic at one of the afternoon sessions. We met folks who had come from as far away as Arizona and I especially enjoyed getting to know Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin (Mr. and Mrs. Gregg Hardy) Franklin from Utah who go to great length to fully dress and act the part. Dr. Franklin reminded me that his brother was a prominent New England farmer and that he had great interest in “agricultural improvement” by introducing new techniques to improve soil fertility and bringing new grain varieties to the colonies from Europe. I was heartened to hear that others who took part in the festival had heard of the work we had done this past year through Palouse Heritage to reintroduce Virginia White May wheat and Scots Bere barley to the National Arboretum and Colonial Williamsburg.  George Washington and Benjamin Franklin lauded the fertility of American soils in their correspondence, as did Thomas Jefferson when writing of the Piedmont region in his Notes on Virginia (1785). He also also famously proclaimed, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” and the haven of “substantial and genuine virtue.” Jefferson envisioned a vast network of yeoman farmers who would be rendered self-reliant and virtuous through possession of private property. Widespread appreciation for both commerce and cultural heritage grounded in religious values is evident in Early America’s many weekly and monthly newspapers and other popular publications.

Festival Celebrity Visitor Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia,   AKA Gregg Hardy of the Colonial Heritage Foundation

Festival Celebrity Visitor Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, AKA Gregg Hardy of the Colonial Heritage Foundation

Although a confirmed Philadelphia city-dweller, Franklin visited farms throughout the area and turned his scientific mind to experiments with grains and grasses and crop rotations. He famously proclaimed, “The great Business of the Continent is Agriculture,” carried on extensive correspondence with Scottish agricultural improver Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782) and through interest and influence circulated ideas as well as seeds to promote more productive farming. Franklin was also the prime mover in establishing The Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, predecessor of American public libraries, to promote members’ literary and political knowledge. Franklin served for a time as the organization’s librarian and gathered numerous agricultural titles that were widely circulated.

Agrarian allusions were common in the expressions of Franklin’s Poor Richard who observed that the divine call to “Places of Dignity and Honour” went forth to those who cared for land and livestock: “David keeping his Father’s Sheep,” “Shepherds feeding their Flocks,” and “Gideon from the Threshing Floor.” The same 1756 edition of the Almanack and Ephemeris offered verse that resonated with the prevailing Protestant work ethic of Franklin and his readers:

 

Learn of the Bees, see to their Toils they run

In clust’ring Swarms, and labour in the Sun:

…Unless you often plow the fruitful field,

 

No grain, but mix’d with Thistles it will yield.

…Plough deep, while Sluggards sleep;

And you shall have Corn, to sell and to keep.

 

The pithy sayings and light-hearted verse that made the Almanack a best-seller in colonial America reflect Franklin’s creed regarding liberty of persons as a “key freedom” so Americans could own property and enjoy the fruits of their labor in the philosophic tradition of John Locke and John Milton. But in Franklin’s view, such freedom should have reasonable limits since unrestrained personal liberty could transform into exploitation that threatened the public good through radically unequal distribution of wealth. While touring Scotland and Ireland in 1771, diplomat Franklin had seen firsthand the widespread abject poverty of the countryside which he attributed to absentee landlords and exploitive farming practices. He proposed an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 to limit the large concentrations of farmland and other property which he believed would be “destructive to the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

Franklin’s designs for paper currency in 1775 as an expression of growing spirit of American independence also incorporated familiar agrarian imagery. TRIBULATIO DITAT (Threshing Improves It) proclaimed the banner of a circular shield in the center his two-dollar bill that featured a flail above a sheaf of grain. Invoking the colorfully stirring rhetoric characteristic of Franklin, he described the image as symbolic of “enriching virtues” in an anonymous submission to the Pennsylvania Gazette: “…[T]ho at present we are under the flail, it blows, how hard soever, will be rather advantageous than hurtful to us: for they will bring forth every grain of genius in arts, manufactures, war and council, that are now concealed in the husk…. And threshing, in one of its senses, that of beating, often improves those that are threshed.”

Franklin United Colonies Flail and Sheaf Two-Dollar Bill (1775);   Private Collection

Franklin United Colonies Flail and Sheaf Two-Dollar Bill (1775); Private Collection

 

 

The Great American Grain Gathering 2017

Bread and Cracker Making in WSU/Mt. Vernon’s New Bread Lab

Bread and Cracker Making in WSU/Mt. Vernon’s New Bread Lab

The seventh annual July 27-29 “Grain Gathering” sponsored by Washington State University’s Bread Lab at Mt. Vernon/Burlington in northwestern Washington State once again brought together a vast throng of folks interested in farming, baking, nutrition, and heritage. Representing 23 states and 7 countries, some 350 attendees heard presentations on a variety of topics including whole grain baking, bagel rolling, and barley teas! Huge thanks to Stephen Jones, Steve Lyon, Wendy Hebb, Kim Binczewski, and army of Bread Lab volunteers. The three-day event is a remarkable opportunity to meet others who share interests in restoring healthy local grain cultures and rural economies, and also serves as a grain reunion with fun and fellowship shared around delicious breads, brews, and other regionally sourced products. Newly featured this year were German muesli with fresh milled oats supplied by Wolfgang Mock who came from Germany, San Francisco baker Josey Baker’s sprouted, flaked breads, and a range of satisfying barley teas shared by Dr. Andrew Ross of Oregon State University. Andrew comes his interest in barley tea naturally; seems that this flavorful restorative beverage is popular throughout his native Australia and that brands like Robinson’s are said to be the secret of Queen Elizabeth’s beautiful complexion.

Speaking of beauty, you may recall from some past references in this forum how striking the view (and flavor) of the landrace soft red wheat English Squarehead, also known long ago here in the Northwest as Walla Walla Red. I still it’s pretty awesome and will include a view of it again here, but also compare it to a new contender recently raised in the Mt. Vernon heritage grain nursery—White Odessa, a soft white wheat from Ukraine. I took this photo during the conference and Steve Lyon reported it has been seeded late in the spring, so is still pretty green, but certainly a beautiful grain. Perhaps in a few weeks we’ll have some baked goods to sample!

White Odessa soft white wheat (2017)

White Odessa soft white wheat (2017)

English Squarehead soft red wheat, with Grandpa Scheuerman’s Palouse Colony helpers Zachary and Micah (2016)

English Squarehead soft red wheat, with Grandpa Scheuerman’s Palouse Colony helpers Zachary and Micah (2016)

“Food ethnographer” June Jo Lee opened this year’s Grain Gathering with an informative if sobering keynote regarding American dietary habits and related health issues. Among other points she made was that demographic data gathered for 2015 showed the first decline in US life expectancy since the Civil War! She noted heavy reliance on commodity foods like industrial flour that has been sifted and bleached in ways that remove nutritious germ and bran, as well as an increase in chemical additives to food and agricultural production methods. But she also noted reasons to hope for healthy alternatives: “Emerging regional food systems are critical expressions that bring together geographic, relational, and cultural dimensions. Change from dominant ‘big systems’ will be incremental but represent a viable alternative for those who care about their own health and that of the land.”  

The following day’s keynote speaker was Dr. James Scott, scholar of agrarian studies and peasant societies at Yale University, and author of The Moral Economy of the Peasant and numerous other books and articles. His presentation was titled “How Grain Made the Ancient State,” so as one ever interested in both history and politics I was pleased the conference featured information on a topic like this. I scribbled notes as fast as I could and most of what appears below is verbatim; should you find these matters of special interest I commend to you Dr. Scott’s many published works.

Wheat is the foundational grain of Western civilization, and my object is to offer some provocative reflection on that significant fact. It is extraordinary that in our day about half of human caloric intake is from cereal grains—wheat, rice, barley, maize, and others. Agriculture, therefore, has sustained world culture, and made possible for us to settle down in one place. But the traditional narrative may be misleading in some basic assumptions about how that all took place.

Cultivation of grains took place at least 4,000 years before any widespread settling down ten to twelve thousand years ago. It was resisted likely because it required considerably more work and planning than hunting and gathering. “Flood retreat” agriculture was likely the first approach to farming since annual flooding of the great rivers of Mesopotamia provided renewable soil for populations that lived along the wetlands. So why and how did the transition take place? It was by no means a rapid process as some have suggested. There are several theories to consider including the killing off of big game by hunters, or perhaps a cold snap in the weather that made life away from the wetlands more difficult. Whatever the reason, and there may have been several contributing influences, it appears we were forced into agriculture.

Hunting and gathering appears to have been widespread throughout the Middle East for several thousand years after the emergence of the “domos complex,” or Neolithic camps with houses, gardens, and domesticated animals. This was an entirely new phenomenon in human history, and the concentration of people, plants, and animals led to the first infectious diseases. These all came from animals as mutated forms of contagion came to infect humans living in close proximity to animals, a situation that continues to foster disease in many parts of the world today. The same is true of crops when plant populations of single varieties are crowded closely together.

The advent of agriculture also led to a narrowing of the diet, so we ask why every great civilization came to rest upon grain production—rice in southeast Asia, millet in China, wheat in Egypt, barley in Mesopotamia, and maize in the New World. So why not roots and tubers like potatoes, cassava, and sweet potatoes? Very possibly because (1) grains have the advantage of growing above the ground so are more easily found, (2) stands tend to ripen at about the same time, (3) can be easily dried and stored, and (4) have high unit nutritional value. So grain was the ideal commodity for government taxation and appropriation which formed the economic basis of statehood. Pastoralism keeps you out of state control. So grains came to mark superior cultures of specialized labor that formed cities. 


I took part in this year’s Grain Gathering event as part of the “Heritage Grain Production and Marketing” panel including Steve, acclaimed San Francisco baker Josey Baker, and Dan Abbott, proprietor of The George Washington Inn near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula. You may recall that landrace grains are pre-hybridized varieties of wheat, barley, oats, rye, and other cereal “races” that adapted over thousands to particular regional “land” environments. In this way they developed flavors, shapes, colors, and other characteristics that distinguished them from those that grew in other parts of the world. The terms “ancient,” “heritage,” and “heirloom” are a bit squishy, but relate to a few relevant considerations. Many experts consider “ancient” wheats to be plant species that are genetically different and more primitive than true wheats, so these would include grains like einkorn, emmer, and spelt that retain their indigestible hulls even when threshed, which requires a dehulling operation in order to process them for consumption.

Grain Gathering Reunionizing (l to r): Wolfgang Mock, German miller and entrepreneur; Elizabeth DeRuff, San Francisco area Episcopal Grain Chaplain and Bishop’s Ranch director; Steve Lyon, WSU/Mt. Vernon Senior Agronomist; Richard Scheuerman; Katherine Nelson, Washington, D. C. agarian artist; Andrew Ross, OSU cereal chemist, barley tea brewmaster, and Australian surfer!

Grain Gathering Reunionizing (l to r): Wolfgang Mock, German miller and entrepreneur; Elizabeth DeRuff, San Francisco area Episcopal Grain Chaplain and Bishop’s Ranch director; Steve Lyon, WSU/Mt. Vernon Senior Agronomist; Richard Scheuerman; Katherine Nelson, Washington, D. C. agarian artist; Andrew Ross, OSU cereal chemist, barley tea brewmaster, and Australian surfer!

“Landraces” are true threshable wheats many thousands of years old so are also considered “heirloom” and “heritage” varieties in the general sense of the term. However, USDA publications sometimes reference any grain over fifty years old as an “heirloom,” which I suppose is fine if you have in mind things like Grandma’s quilt and favorite cookie recipe. However, with the advent of plant hybridization in the 1890s, it became possible for grain breeders to combine the traits of landraces to create new varieties in order to boost production, even if flavor and nutrition were less of a consideration. (Many of our family elders, for example, told us that their parents held on to landrace grains like Turkey Red because they made breads and other baked goods that tasted so great, while marketing their modern hybrids.) So here at Palouse Colony Farm & Mercantile we typically use the term “heritage” to mean pre-hybridized landraces—“Grains the way God made them” so to speak, and while their cultural associations across North America and throughout the world are fascinating, we especially appreciate that numerous studies have shown why they are important for crop disease resistence and genetic diversity in our age of monocultures, and have healthy whole grain goodness with rich varietal flavors, rather like fine wines!     

Grain Gathering Landrace Grains Nursery Tour, Mt. Vernon

Grain Gathering Landrace Grains Nursery Tour, Mt. Vernon

As part of our Grain Gathering panel on heritage grains, Steve Lyon and I also led a tour of the experimental plots Steve has carefully tended on properties adjacent to the WSU/Mt. Vernon Extension & Research Center. Two busloads of participants joined us for the short drive from The Bread Lab where were dropped into a marvelous time machine that transported us back to ages past in one of the largest landrace grain nurseries anywhere in the country. We could actually see varieties raised in Early America by George and Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon, and others with colorful names that harken back to medieval times and beyond—Talavera Bellevue, Bordeaux Blue, Red Marvel, Afghan Black-Awned, Orange Devon, and one of the first raised in the Northwest, Pacific Bluestem.

The conference’s Friday afternoon keynote was presented by Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder with Bill Gates of Intellectual Ventures, a research and venture capital think tank headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, which is also home to world renown Modernist Cuisine. The many culinary projects championed by Myhrvold and his team at MC have included a best-selling multi-volume book series that describes with masterful illustrations how modern technologies can explain and enhance time-honored methods of food preparation. Myhrvold, who also served for many years as chief technology officer at Microsoft, has completed among his many other accomplishments post-doctoral studies in astrophysics at Cambridge (!), so we’re delighted he has turned his broad interests to grains and baking.

He found time to make a trip recently over to the Palouse Country with a team to take pictures of summer harvest and capture some beautiful images that will appear in the long-awaited MC sequel, five-volume Modernist Bread of 2,600 pages, scheduled for release this coming November. At $640 for the complete set, I probably won’t be sending out too many for Christmas presents. My modest contribution was cultural information on heritage grains and a summary of research on their nutritional benefits. Consistent with his passion for the subject, Nathan is a rather animated presenter who informed us that the series has a total of 2,642 pages, 5,689 illustrations, and over a million words!