We grow heritage and ancient grains -- varieties that unlock forgotten tastes, carry important nutrition and hold valuable genetics.
What Is "Ancient" Grain?
"Ancient" means the first domesticated wheat and barley varieties, whose genetics stretch back over 10,000 years ago to the Fertile Crescent, when humans were just figuring out how to plant, cultivate, and harvest their food from one spot, and not have to move around all the time.
What Is A "Heritage" Grain?
"Heritage" generally means varieties that were bred prior to the mid-20th century and oftentimes are genetically diverse across a population of plants.
Why Do We Grow Ancient & Heritage Grains?
Our first year of farming, we trialed over 200 varieties of ancient and heritage wheat. The next year we grew out the best 30 varieties. The following year we'd whittled it down to 8 good wheat varieties. Finally, we chose 2 of the best. Rusak, a Persian wheat that was collected by the great Russian botanist Vavilov from the Republic of Georgia in 1924. And, Ethiopian Blue Tinge, an older wheat collected in Ethiopia with a blue hue to the plant and kernel.
At the same time we were trialing, we were fortunate to find a larger quantity of a couple of varieties of wheat that we grew on a larger scale. We grew an ancient wheat known in Germany as Emmer, or in Italy as Farro. Farro is an ancient wheat from the Fertile Crescent that dates back to nearly 10,000 years ago. The grain has been discovered in archeological digs and in ancient tombs and is believed to have developed from crosses between wild grasses. It was likely harvested in the wild before people began to select the best plants for cultivation.
We also grew a heritage wheat variety called Sonora Wheat, whose genetics trace back to the 1700s on the mountain plains of Sonora, Mexico. It moved up into California and was grown extensively until higher yielding dwarf varieties took over the landscape and it fell out of favor.
Our intention has been to trial older grains because of their valuable genetics and their ability to adapt over time. At the same time we have begun to think about the flavor of these grains and their culinary characteristics.
As we trialed these numerous varieties and discovered which ones thrived and which ones did not, I began to wonder what they may taste like when used in the kitchen. We don't yet have enough Rusak or Ethiopian Blue Tinge seed to eat, but questions loom. Will the Blue Tinge wheat make a good loaf of sourdough bread? Will the Rusak wheat make tasty, hearty pancakes or be better for a pastry? The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was asking the question of terroir, the elegant French word for "taste of place". When I began baking a 100% whole wheat sourdough loaf of bread from our Sonora Heritage wheat, I realized each year's crop will have different characteristics. So, one year, the Sonora may be great for quick-rise bread, but the next year, because it was a dry year and the gluten protein is stronger, it will be better suited for a sourdough bread. Or perhaps it will be more nuanced than that. One year the Sonora sourdough bread may taste nuttier than the previous year.
So this leads to the next question: What if we all thought about grains like wine drinkers think about grapes: a particular piece of land from year to year is going to impart certain characteristics on a crop and knowledge of those characteristics is going to create a better loaf of bread?
What if we embraced the different characteristics of different crops from different places grown at different times? What if a baker baked a Sonora Heritage wheat bread from the 2012 harvest and discovered it had a pleasant nutty flavor? But perhaps the 2013 crop didn't rise as quickly and had earthy undertones? This is challenging for bakers used to consistency, but it would be part of the story: it's about terroir or taste of place. This would require a fundamental shift in the way we think about food and our expectation of consistency at the expense of anonymity.
We certainly aren't the first to be thinking about this. There are farmers and bakers in Vermont and in Washington who are talking about the terroir of wheat and even have bakers on board to experiment with the local flour from year to year.
The author Rowan Jacobsen wrote a whole book on it, called American Terroir. There is a reason why Walla Walla onions are so sweet when grown in Walla Walla county in Washington. There are certain climate conditions and certain soils that impart that characteristic on the onion. We can grow onions just fine here on our farm, but our Walla Walla onions are very potent, spicy, and not sweet at all. And that's the point: that's the taste of our place.
What if we all worked with all of our food like this? How might that influence our thinking outside of our kitchens?
Beneath the taste of that farm and that farm's food, is culture and community.
What if we could take this idea of terroir and expand it beyond our food and into our communities. Don't just taste your place through the food you eat, but taste it in the businesses you support, the churches you frequent, the organizations you volunteer for. Isn't buying local experiencing a taste of place? When we sit down at our local cafe, no matter where the food comes from, we are tasting the place: knowing the waitress, visiting with the owner, asking about her kids, sitting in your same booth, facing the same way, with the window at your back. When we stand at the counter of our local parts store and explain what we're hearing in our broken-down tractor, that clerk that stands across from us, telling us what he thinks the problem might be, that's a taste of place. You know that person and trust their knowledge.
If we choose to taste our place in all its forms, don't we conduct the deliberate act to eat from our landscape, and to not only taste its flavors, but to support a community? Ultimately, we believe terroir is about building a culture and maintenance of that culture.
What if people chose to taste their place? What if what their wheat tasted like mattered to them? What if the flavor of their local businesses mattered to them? What if we all became connoisseurs of our place's grain, our place's family-owned shops? Your bread, your community, doesn't just taste better, but is far more nourishing for ourselves and our communities.
Our (Main) Grains
Farro (also known as emmer), is an ancient wheat from the Fertile Crescent that dates back to nearly 10,000 years ago. The grain has been discovered in archeological digs and in ancient tombs and is believed to have developed from crosses between wild grasses. It was likely harvested in the wild before people began to select the best plants for cultivation.
Farro is often sold pearled, so it has less bran on the kernel. Our Prairie Farro is completely intact, so nothing has been removed from the kernel that would compromise any of the nutrients the grain has to offer. Its nutritional profile is similar to modern wheat except it is higher in protein, iron, phosphorus, zinc, and copper. It is a versatile grain that can be used in breads, crackers, and salads.
Sonora Heritage Wheat
Sonora white wheat is a heritage spring wheat. The earliest records of Sonora wheat come from the mountain plains of Sonora, Mexico in the 1700s, but likely predates that. Sonora wheat was among the most disease and drought resistant varieties in the new world. In our changing climate, a wheat with those characteristics is most welcome.
Sonora can be used in any recipe that calls for wheat berries or whole wheat flour. It is the main ingredient in Prairie Heritage Farm's whole wheat sourdough Farmer Bread.
Slow Food USA has put Sonora wheat on its Ark of Taste, a catalog of food threatened by industrial standardization. More information can be found here.
Barley is an underrated grain, in my opinion, and is often classified as a lesser grain. In this country, the majority of barley grown is used for malt and animal feed. While there is nothing wrong with beer and fat animals, less barley in the human food supply means less opportunities for people to take advantage of this healthy grain.
Barley is a very old grain, thought to be the first domesticated grain in the Near East. Along with farro, it was a staple in ancient Egypt.
Lentils are thought to be the oldest cultivated legume. The plant is native to Southwest Asia.
Lentils are one of the most nutritious legumes. They are high in phosphorus, calcium, potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamin B. They are high in protein and contain lysine, an essential amino acid. While lentils do not provide all the essential amino acids, combining them with cereals completes the amino acid requirements.
This year, we're focusing on growing more Prairie Farro, Bronze Barley and Sonora Heritage Wheat but we're also experimenting with Einkorn, Japanese Hulless Popcorn (Popcorn!) and Early Riser corn (For cornmeal! Tortillas! Polenta!). We will continue to offer our grains whole but also hope to have our big mill up and running this summer to be able to start offering fresh flour as well. And soon, we'll start selling some of these grains as seed to other farmers interested in these unique, important varieties.