Heritage Grains Make Comeback on PA Farms

The sustainable food movement has filled our plates with grass-fed meats, artisan cheeses and organic produce.  But what about grains?

Some chefs and farmers are working to plug the gap in the sustainable food scene by bringing back locally-grown, high-quality grains. 

Across the street from a steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Rick Easton peers into an outdoor, wood-fired brick oven. The lanky baker’s black overcoat is dusty with the specially blended flour Easton uses to give the pizza crust its characteristic chew.

As a professional baker, Easton has the time--and desire--to seek the perfect flour for whatever he’s baking. The rest of us don’t often have that luxury: the vast majority of flour sold in the United States is generic, “All Purpose.”

“All of it, it’s bred to work on an industrial scale...and none of it is actually being bred for flavor,” Says Easton.

But that’s beginning to change. An increasing number of farmers are beginning to raise heritage grains—older varieties of wheat that were popular before agriculture took off on an industrial scale…Easton now buys some of his bread flour locally, with grains grown by Nigel Tudor--one of several Western Pennsylvania farmers experimenting with raising commercial quantities of heritage grains.

“We grow hard red winter wheat, soft white winter wheat, rye, spelt, emmer, hulless oats, open pollinated corn, hard spring wheat, and buckwheat,” says Tudor.

Nigel Tudor’s einkorn crop isn’t large enough for commercial sale. But, he’s planted several grains that have historically thrived on land like his Washington County farm. Some of his organic rye and wheat is distilled into whiskey, and another is growing in popularity.

“This is a type of emmer that was brought by German immigrants to North Dakota. But, see, emmer is real trendy—except people know it as a different name—faro. You can make great pasta out of it,” says Tudor.

Tudor and his parents started farming this 100 acre plot of land he calls Weatherbury Farm in 1986. Today, he strolls its rolling hills and points to a small plot of land where there’s a plant that can trace its roots back over 10,000 years to Mesopotamia.

“This is einkorn, this is the oldest grain that humans grew. This is where civilization started,” says Tudor.

Most of civilization grains were grown locally, but improvements in transportation led to regional specialization; today most grains in the United States are grown in the northern and central Great Plains.

Following WWII a shift in agricultural production, characterized by hybridizing plants and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, led to the selection of just a few favored varieties of high-yield grain.

The heavy reliance on chemicals would prove to have long-term environmental consequences, but there were also positive outcomes of this industrialization. For instance, resistance to a debilitating fungus called stem rust was developed, which dramatically increased the reliability of the wheat crop.

So, why aren’t more farmers growing heritage grains?

Penn State Agricultural Economics professor Jim Dunn says that while heritage wheats might be tasty they have a significantly lower yield--and can be harder to process--than modern, industrial wheat. So it’ll take some effort for farmers like Tudor to achieve economic sustainability.

“In general the cost of producing a bushel of an obscure variety of wheat is going to be a little higher than the more typical varieties, and the number of customers for that are going to be more dispersed,” says Dunn.

Despite the higher costs, the benefits of heritage grains could extend well beyond the pleasures of the breadbasket. Like other local foods, shorter shipping distances will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And Dunn points out that wheat’s number one fungal enemy--stem rust--has been slowly spreading internationally again. This potential calamity is an argument for a diverse gene pool of heritage grains.

“We’re going to have to come up with some type of wheat that is resistant to it. Or we’re going to have a lot different wheat cultivation yields than we have now,” says Dunn.

Still, for some chefs, and bakers like Rick Easton, the heritage grains renaissance is a welcome development and a gift to the senses.

“The flavor is the key for me, over anything else. We don’t even have the language to discuss the flavor of wheat,” says Easton.