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Ancient and Heirloom Grains in the New Food System

Join leading thinkers, farmers, millers, and bakers as the Good Food Festival & Conference delves into the future of Ancient and Heirloom grains! Fred Kirschenmann and Stephen Jones will join miller Gilbert Williams, farmers Andrea Hazzard, Molly Breslin, and Terra Brockman, and heirloom gardener and advocate Vicki Nowicki for a series of workshops following Ancient and Heirloom grains from seed to table!

Ancient and heirloom grains might sound like cute, trendy fads for urban foodies, gardeners, and gluten-free zealots to latch onto, but they’re really much more than that. An unlikely group of bakers, seed breeders, farmers, and researchers, are coming together to see if these grains, and the biologically diverse agricultural systems that they are a part of, could form part of a new, more sustainable, resilient food system.

The first thing that Fred Kirschenmann says when I ask him about ancient and heirloom grains in the new Good Food system is, “Well, first you have to look at the history.” Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and somehow still finds time to manage his family’s 2600 acre certified organic farm in North Dakota.

When Kirschenmann says you have to know the history, he really means history. In order to understand the growing interest in local grain production, he first takes me back to the 1700’s, and the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

Kirschenmann’s sketch of history hits on some points that might be familiar to you if you were paying attention in high school. During the industrial revolution, large numbers of people moved into cities, leaving fewer people farming the fields. This, among other factors, drove fears about the scarcity of food, and ultimately the beginnings of the transition to industrial agriculture.

After World War II, when synthetic fertilizers and pesticides became widely available and urbanization accelerated, industrial agriculture became fully entrenched. Then, during the Green Revolution of the ‘40’s – ‘70’s, new varieties of grain, along with pesticides and fertilizers, were promoted across India and Central America. “It was that success, understood in terms of increased yields, that drove us away from heritage grains,” Kirschenmann says. “That’s why heritage varieties of grains were taken off the table entirely.”

Today however, “we’re recognizing some of the deficits of that direction,” he says. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other methods that strip soil of its long-term fertility, says Kirschenmann. And not only that, these newer varieties of grains have been bred to be uniform and high yielding: not necessarily a boon for the taste or nutritional profile of our food.

Stephen Jones, Director of the Bread Lab at the University of Washington, a laboratory-cum-craft bakery, adds another perspective. “It’s not so much the wheat, but what we’ve been doing with the flour,” he says. “The inside of a wheat kernel looks like a cotton ball. It’s just this white fluffy stuff, and that’s your white flour.” Most of the flavor and the nutrients in wheat are in the bran and the germ, the parts removed during processing.

At Bread Lab, Jones says, “We work with craft bakers to discover how to make something like 100% whole wheat taste good, and also to discover how to make the nutritional value of it available.” Not only that, their lab is surrounded by test plots of wheat, where they’re working on breeding grains that serve those purposes. “We do the science, and we do the art, too,” he says.

This past fall, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York State brought together a cast of the world’s foremost chefs with bakers and seed breeders like Jones, who make their work possible. “Chefs, breeders began to have conversations and discover that they had skills from each discipline to share with one another,” says Kirschenmann. “I almost instinctively knew that the chefs and the plant breeders were going to learn from one another,” he says, but “I didn’t anticipate that the discussions would be as dynamic as they were.”

Fred Kirschenmann

Fred Kirschenmann

Many of these conversations are still continuing, and Kirschenmann says he’s encouraged by this intermingling of different disciplines. “If we’re going to solve the problem of hunger, we’re going to have to solve it as a pattern of problems,” he says. “We want to put together a planning committee here at Stone Barns that brings not only plant breeders and chefs but also healthcare professionals, people from the general food and agriculture discipline, and also architects and designers.”

Kirschenmann wants us to think not only in terms of reorganizing our food system, but about redesigning our larger economic system. “The people that are suffering most from the current cheap food system are those living in poverty or on the edge of poverty. Food must be as cheap as possible so that we have money to consume other things,” he says. “And then labor must be as cheap as possible, which keeps people in poverty.”

“We’ve gone through major shifts in food systems ever since we humans have been on the planet.” Kirschenmann says. “As humans we rose to the challenge, we made the changes, and we put together a food system that worked.” Right now, though, our current food system is based on nonrenewable, fossil fuel energy – what Kirschenmann and others call the “Neo-Caloric Period.” Sooner rather than later, he stresses, our reserves of fossil energy and soil fertility will run out, which will mean the end of our current food system.

“To me the big limiting factor is not our ability to make changes…the limiting factor now is climate change,” Kirschenmann says, referencing a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that gives us a mere 15 years to keep climate change in check.

For him, ancient grains are just one piece of the puzzle. Kirschenmann sees these new collaborations between chefs, farmers, and seed breeders as the beginnings of wider interdisciplinary collaborations that will allow us to rise to the challenges we’ll face over the next decade or two.

“Maybe we can still do it within the next 15 years,” he says. “We have enormous capacity to remain in denial, but we also have enormous capacity to rise up and make changes in a short amount of time.” And maybe the movement toward rediscovering ancient and heirloom grains across the US is part of that change!

Join us at the Good Food Festival & Conference March 13th-15th as we delve further into these issues, and how you can apply them to your own involvement in the food system! Learn about how farmers and chefs are working to preserve biodiversity, and how you can support this growing movement to reclaim the staples of our food system. See the whole workshop series here. Or check out an interview on the Mike Nowak show with Stephen Jones of Bread Lab and Gilbert Williams of Lonesome Stone Milling about ancient and heirloom grains!

grains