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Grains | New World Seeds & Tubers

With thanks to Bill Waterson

According to Hobbes (the tiger in the cartoon “Calvin and Hobbes”), the cereal box states that chocolate frosted sugar bombs contain 100% of the daily recommended allowance of caffeine.

Chocolate frosted sugar-bombs make Calvin hyperactive.

Unfortunately it’s hard to get the point across through sheer exaggeration, because the truth sounds like an exaggeration. Several breakfast cereals marketed to children are in excess of HALF sugar. The sugar content is only part of the bad news; breakfast cereals tend to be fluffy and insubstantial; there’s practically nothing to buffer all that sugar before it hits your pancreas.

The bad news is that 23 of the top 27 cereals marketed to children rated only Good or Fair for nutrition. There is at least as much sugar in a serving of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and 10 other rated cereals as there is in a glazed doughnut from Dunkin’ Donuts. Two cereals, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp, are more than 50 percent sugar (by weight) and nine are at least 40 percent sugar. And that’s not the only issue. Although Kellogg’s Rice Krispies has only 4 grams of sugar per serving, it got only a Fair rating, largely because it is higher in sodium and has zero dietary fiber.
–Consumer Reports

Unfortunately some of the alternatives I have seen suggested are hardly better; they’re still a tad high in sugar, and if you add some fruit as recommended elsewhere to boost the fiber, then you’ve just added quite a bit more sugar too!

Hot oatmeal porridge is supposed to be wholesome, right? Unfortunately they’re problematic too; most of them now come in little packets embedded in bigger boxes–too much packaging!–and are now full of sugar and artificial flavors along with bits of dried fruit, some of it dyed and artificially flavored so that cheaper fruits (dried apples, typically) can pass for more expensive ones (strawberries, blueberries…).

When I go to Costco, I don’t see a single choice that looks appealing to me. Most of the cereals that seem to be marketed to “conscientious parents” simply SUGGEST wholesomeness, typically through the artwork on the box, and the mention of one token “healthy” ingredient–say a bit of flax seed–without disclosing the overall picture of imbalance.

It’s like my older daughter spotting the exact same product–a type of oily salted crisp snack–in a pretty white package with lots of depictions of green vegetables on it and fancy lettering at Trader Joe’s, as can be found at Safeway in a garish black-and-florescent-orange package with big bold cartoony-looking type.

One product that used to be marketed to the health-conscious was a type of vitamin-fortified rice cereal, originally modest in sugar but also rather modest in fiber or protein or anything else to slow down your digestion of all that starch. Nowadays, however, it’s even worse as it comes coated with sugar, with florescent (dyed? doesn’t look natural to me) bits of freeze-dried strawberries in it.

Here’s my choice of healthy, inexpensive breakfasts:

They’re rolled rye, not rolled oats, because I developed a sensitivity to the Avenin in oats. Long story… I’ve had a bad attitude towards oats ever since then, but for people who can eat them, they’re good too. Oats are high in protein. Problem is, as is true of most cereals (in the literal sense of “grain that comes from grasses”), the protein in oats is imbalanced; it doesn’t contain enough lysine. That’s why some folks mix an egg into their oatmeal before cooking it in the oven; that’s an old farmer’s trick for making a more substantial version of oatmeal porridge.

I added a pinch of salt, some cinnamon, raisins, lightly toasted walnuts, and soy-milk. The raisins add some sugar but with all the fiber and protein in this porridge, it doesn’t hit my bloodstream particularly fast, and the raisins and walnuts give it some varied taste and texture so that it’s not just “pasty porridge”. The walnuts add some protein and some essential fatty acids. And they taste good too.

This afternoon I talked to my buddy Tom Kleffman of Three Daughters Farm fame, who said that his preference for breakfast porridge is cooked ground flour corn.

He grows traditional Amerindian flour corns, coarsely grinds them, and cooks them into a porridge. One nice thing about corn is that it tends to be less allergenic than wheat or oats. Not surprising as I think its precisely the proteins in wheat and oats that tend to trigger allergic reactions; corn is lower in protein. Rice is probably even safer for folks with allergies, and some brown rice can be slow cooked with enough water to make a porridge out of it.

During our conversation about kids’ breakfast cereals, Tom mentioned “Cuckoo for cocoa puffs”, which was an actual slogan for a General Mills breakfast cereal. Sounds like an admission regarding what it does to your kids when that sugar, corn syrup, and cocoa hit their bloodstream.

I think one reason that parents buy their kids commercial breakfast cereals is “convenience”. You just buy them, and the kids serve themselves. It’s worth pointing out, though, that you can easily set up a slow-cooker to have hot porridge ready in the morning. Set out some items like dried fruit, coconut flakes, and toasted coarsely-chopped nuts to go with it.

For those who know what thermos-pots are, those would probably work too.

It’s not so much a matter of time-pressure, as it is planning.

I’ve written mostly about the nutrition aspect, but something else bothers me and I’ve got to get it off my chest: these commercial breakfast cereals are ridiculously expensive compared to value. Feel the box. Look at the net weight. Typically the product is so fluffy it is mostly air. Divide the price by the net weight. Think about it.

There’s a reason the manufacturers can spend so much money on advertising! For those who don’t know, children’s breakfast cereals are one of the most heavily advertised food items. They put commercials on children’s programming, with the intent of getting your kids to nag you to buy them the chocolate-frosted-sugar-bombs. Here’s another helpful hint: turn off the television. It’s a nuisance, especially to parents.

In comparison, rolled whole grains are dramatically cheaper, but you don’t have to feel guilty spending less money on your kids’ breakfast, because it’s so much healthier for them. It’s a win-win.

I have a feeling that all the breakfast cereals that deceptively look like they’re supposed to be healthy and wholesome are an indication that many parents really do care what their kids eat; they’ve just gotten into some bad habits for lack of knowing better and a need for a higher level of commitment to act on their good intentions.


Any kind of productive activity that’s a step up from hunting and gathering requires some division of labor.

It’s not just that individual people pursue different trades, it’s that fairly large groups of people pursue different steps in a complicated supply chain.

In the case of farming, one group of people growing the crops need to be able to buy tools, seeds, fertilizers, and possibly services from several people upstream in the system, and they need other people to sell their product to, who probably do some or all of the processing, possibly aggregating several crops from many different farms to supply the next product in the chain. For example, to make beer you probably need barley (or some other grains), hops, and yeast, probably coming from 3 different upstream sources. You’ll also need some tools and supplies (bottles, caps) that come from at least one seller and many different manufacturers.

American farming is generally geared towards huge scales of operation…so that when the cannery shut down in the valley where our farm is located, it bankrupted many of the farmers and effectively shut down most of the farming. It’s not like there were several buyers for the crop, but just one. American farming tends to be a “all our eggs in one basket” process.

Farming does not lend itself to long-distance collaboration. It’s not like you can deliver a ton of fertilizer over the internet, or for that matter, even by UPS.

It means that:

Isolated farms have difficulty buying fertilizer, seed, and tools locally.

They also have difficulty selling their crops.

One cog in the system shutting down can result in cogs upstream and downstream having to shut down as well. There’s not enough redundancy in the system to keep it running. Bear in mind that in the current economic crisis, cogs are going bankrupt.

Tom and I have thought for a long time that the trend towards consolidation has gone past the point of diminishing returns, and it’s time to restore some balance to the system, with more local production and more redundancy.

To make it happen, smaller operations need networks of buyers and sellers of products and services they need to complete the whole operation from start to finish.

Tom and I have discussed whether we need a small grain-growers’ guild to connect small-scale grain growers to operations that can supply them with tools and services to get a finished product to market.

As an example of one of the pieces of the puzzle that is missing, have you ever grown Spelt, Emmer, or Einkorn? They don’t free-thresh. This is both an asset and a liability; their hulls protect the sown seed which is one reason they are considered tougher crops than wheat. Problem is there’s no de-hulling equipment available on a small-scale to render the finished product usable to the retail customer.

Yes, I know, you can do it the same way the ancients did it (heat the grain to make the hulls more brittle), but that gets a bit too labor-intensive.

Then there’s the question of milling grain. There are no small-scale mills anymore in our part of the world. Now you can make good use of whole grains without milling them at all–you can even make bread without going through the flour stage. In that case, sharing information can help the process.

What do you think? Is there enough interest to create an association of small-scale grain growers? Let us know. If our inquiries get some responses, we’ll start collecting contact information for interested parties.


Kanskje vi kan hjelpe deg med å identifisere varianter som vil gi bedre resultater for klimaet enn de fleste av de tropiske varianter. Vi prøver tidlig varianter, hvorav noen er mer tolerant for regn enn de fleste quinoas.

Vi er for tiden høsting. Så langt, så bra.

For flere nyheter, meld deg på vårt nyhetsbrev eller “Like” oss på Facebook.


Peut-être nous pouvons vous aider à identifier les variétés qui seront plus performants pour vos climats que la plupart des variétés tropicales. Nous venons d’essayer variétés précoces, dont certains sont plus tolérants de la pluie que la plupart des quinoas.

Nous récoltons nos récoltes dès maintenant. Jusqu’ici, tout va bien.

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My mom loved the original “Star Trek” series, so back when I was a wee lad, we watched them. (I don’t watch television anymore. No time, no inclination).

There was one episode that was sufficiently memorable, that I can remember it all these years. It was called “The trouble with Tribbles”. Tribbles are imaginary animals. They look like an overgrown powder-puff, and make a cooing noise that humans find soothing, but Tribbles and Klingons don’t get on well.

They caused trouble by invading and gobbling up stores of a grain called “quadro-Triticale”. But it turned out that was actually a good thing, because when the tribbles who ate the grain turned out to be dead, the humans realized that the quadro-triticale had been poisoned.

They saved the day again by exposing the identity of the Klingon saboteur who was disguised as a human.

Back in the 1960s, when that series was made, was when the real breakthroughs in xTriticale-breeding were being made. xTriticale is a fairly old idea, which was to combine the productivity of wheat with the toughness of rye. The first few tries resulted in shrunken kernels with negligible endosperm (the white starchy part of the kernel). It wasn’t until the 1960s that xTriticales started showing up that were more like normal grains.

xTriticale is a complicated grain. It’s a type of hybrid between wheat and rye, but it’s not a matter of matching up their chromosomes like most hybrids; I don’t think they’re capable of matching up; there’s not a one-to-one correspondence of chromosomes.

It’s an “amphiploid”, which means that it has all of the chromosomes from wheat (paired up with each other, and not with rye chromosomes), AND all the chromosomes from rye. As an aside, our “perennial wheats” are amphiploids or partial amphiploids of wheat and wheatgrass (Thinopyrum).

My guess is that wheat was already a multi-way amphiploid hybrid. That’s probably part of the reason wheat already has a gigantic genome, one of the longest of any organism, though apparently beaten by Paris japonica.

Unfortunately that’s a poor picture up above that I took of it, but xTriticale looks as you would imagine sort of mid-way between wheat and rye. The heads tend to bend characteristically, the tips drooping slightly, when just about ripe.

In some respects, xTriticale seems too good to be true:

  • Protein levels rivaling hard wheat
  • More lysine than wheat, therefor a little better amino-acid balance
  • Yields exceeding the already high yields of wheat
  • Can grow in some climates marginal for wheat

No wonder the writers of Star-Trek decided it was a “food-of-the-future”.

xTriticale is rarely grown in the USA or Canada. The only state in the USA that has any significant production at all, to the best of my knowledge, is here in Washington, and that is relatively minor.

What happened?

Well, a few countries do produce significant amounts of xTriticale–especially in northeastern Europe where it is cold enough and wet enough that wheat is marginal. It’s a major crop in Poland, which is the world’s top producer.

Here in the USA, “there’s no market for it”. Meaning that nobody wants to grow it because they’re not sure how to sell it.

The gluten in xTriticale is somewhat defective. If you know how–and I do–you can make a crumbly bread out of it. A few xTriticales have been bred to improve their gluten structure.

It works better if you add a little wheat flour. You can go up to about half-and-half wheat-to-triticale and get a fairly good loaf.

One problem for marketing purposes is that while the gluten in xTriticale doesn’t work well for bread, it might still be a hazard for people with Celiac disease. Whereas the gluten in Spelt has a sufficiently different structure that many people who are sensitive to wheat gluten can eat it (ask your doctor before trying this! When in doubt, don’t risk it! Gluten intolerance can be deadly).

So, Spelt has largely replaced xTriticale as a consumer end-product human food.

There used to be porridges containing xTriticale but they seem to have disappeared since quite a while ago. Now it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t contain oats, and guess what, I have a sensitivity not to Gluten but to Avenin, a protein in oats!

But I did find some rolled xTriticale. Bob’s Red Mill has it. It makes a great porridge, with a little more “stick to your ribs” power than oats or for that matter, wheat.

We suggest caution before growing xTriticale for sales until and unless you’re sure you have a buyer for it. Someone we knew grew a fine crop of it, then had a hard time finding a buyer for it.

For the small-scale grain grower who isn’t raising it for sales, its marketability is not an issue, while its benefits are still worthwhile.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that for a lot of uses of wheat, the gluten content is actually a drawback not a benefit. You wouldn’t like hard, leathery muffins, pancakes, or pie crusts! So the fact that most xTriticales don’t have useable gluten is not necessarily a problem.

Any xTriticale that is produced, especially where wheat is marginal or impractical, and marketed as human food, spares that much more precious wheat, supplies of which are already very tight.

We’ve got some very cool xTriticales in production. Tim Peters was singing the praises (OK, not literally) of several of them to me this summer, and Tom was recently lovingly cradling the “beautiful” grains of another in his hand after threshing them out. That particular one happened to be a relatively old and obscure one at that, but he thought it much finer-looking that a number of commercial xTriticales, rivaling a fine wheat.

They’re hard enough to find that we grabbed whatever ones we could find, and grew them. Now we’re sorting them out.

Some of our xTriticales, including and especially several of Tim Peters’, are perennial. So add all the benefits I’ve already mentioned, plus the potential for less plowing and replanting. Some of these have productivity rivaling annual grains. Tim’s perennial xTriticales have the interesting feature of having perenniality genes from both wheatgrass and perennial rye. No idea if it helps but probably doesn’t hurt.

Stay tuned for more developments.


Back from the farm, and in the week since the last time I had been there, the heads of one of the varieties of quinoa colored up.

I didn’t check the tag; but I think it’s a variety called “Cherry Vanilla”.

Some of the others might color up too. There is one mixture we’re not growing this year called “Brightest Brilliant Rainbow” selected for especially vivid head colors. I’ve grown it before, but the year I grew it for some reason the heads didn’t color particularly well.

We’ll keep our eyes open for interesting head colors, on the theory that crops that are beautiful as well as edible are all the more valuable.

Some quinoas have colored leaves. So far about half our quinoas have magenta leaves. This could turn into one of those “riot of colors” issues. Especially if the heads clash with the leaves.

Adam Peterson, our friend the graduate student doing research on quinoa, read my last article mentioning seed color, and he passed this back to me:

I just got an article the other day (in Spanish) about seed color genes in quinoa. They’re controlled by two genes with a couple alleles each. All in all, they characterized the genotypes of white, yellow, light brown, brown, and black seeds.

I suspect “white” is tan, which is the most common color. The brown is probably the reddish brown sold as “red”.

Most of ours is tan, but we think we have at least one “black”. Finding other colors is a problem because our highest priority has to be to find varieties compatible with our latitude and climate. The darker-colored grains are beautiful to cook with but probably not as widely-useful as the more common tan.


Quinoa is yet another crop that is more likely to be grown on a small scale than on big commercial farms.

There are some unusual rules governing where it is possible to grow and bring in a crop:

  • It can’t pollinate during sustained temperatures over 90F/32C.
  • The seed germinates within 24 hours of getting wet. Rain while it is ripening can wipe out a crop as the seeds swell up and cause the heads to topple over.
  • The tropical varieties tend to be sensitive to day-length. They may refuse to bloom on a timely basis in northern latitude.

There’s another issue involved with quinoa: the grain is naturally coated with bitter saponins. These reduce bird predation, so it’s not entirely a problem so much as a fact that needs to be dealt with.

There is some work being done on exceptions to these rules. Saponin-free quinoa was developed years ago, actually, but it flopped; birds ravaged it.

Quinoa seems to have been developed in the highland tropics, but it spread along trade-routes south of the tropics. It got as far south as Chiloë island off the cost of south-central Chile, well outside of the tropics. Interestingly and probably not coincidentally, that’s the same route and the same destination that potatoes took.

As they were cultivated further and further south, they became increasingly tolerant of higher latitudes and the possibility of some rain during the ripening season. Chile is mostly dry in summer but at the very southern end of quinoa’s range there, summer rain is infrequent but possible. The Chilean quinoas tolerate longer days and more rain than their tropical highland counterparts.

We’re growing quinoa further north than it occurs south. So far, no showstopping problems.

Now for the good news: quinoa offers some amazing benefits:

  • It has a net protein utilization score somewhere between 68-76% (depends on who was testing it). rates it 106 for protein quality where 100 is considered more-or-less “complete”. You don’t need to complement it with other protein sources. The limiting amino acid is lysine but it is fairly rich in lysine as plant foods go.
  • Even though it is around 71% carbohydrate it scores a modest 18 on the glycemic load index. That’s probably because being a small seed it has a high ratio of fiber, which will slow down your digestion. Quinoa is the “slow carb” grain.
  • It’s not particularly rich in oils (14%) but what it does have are an excellent source of essential fatty acids.
  • It scores well for B vitamins and minerals.
  • It scores a little higher than whole-grain wheat–45 versus 42–for overall nutrient balance.
  • It provides all this nutrition without requiring a lot of inputs. It tolerates poor soil and doesn’t need irrigation in most climates
  • It is potentially high-yielding, especially when you consider that it can produce where other crops can’t.
  • It is extremely fast to grow out, unlike wheat. 4 healthy plants will replant an acre. In one or two generations you have enough plants to feed a small army.
  • It’s fairly attractive. Hard to tell in the photo but maybe half the plants have purple heads and some purple on the leaves. Other colors exist too but all ours are green or purple

Notice in the photo above that it’s greener than its neighbors. That’s not from being irrigated–because in fact it isn’t irrigated, despite the fact that the soil is roughly 8 inches deep and summers are dry here. It’s just naturally drought-tolerant. Probably has something to do with C4 carbon fixation; quinoa is one of those relatively few dicotyledonous plants that can do that trick. It requires less water than more common carbon fixation pathways, and in warm temperatures allows rapid growth.

That said, it’s not a cactus, and it’s starting to drop some leaves. I’ll give it a little water tomorrow when I’m down there. Another stand on deeper soil are doing fine without any watering at all, aside from what they got when I transplanted the seedlings, which is very typical of quinoa. It seems to need a little just to get established, then it’s usually good to go.

We’ve got about half a dozen or so varieties, most of them Chilean types, and we’ll add at least one more next year based on some recommendations by our friend Adam Peterson, who is doing research on quinoa production in both eastern and western Washington.

I suspect that subject to finding suitable varieties, it’s a good prospect for the Pacific coast to at least southern California (immediate coastal area only since it can’t take heat), north to southern British Columbia, a huge area of western Europe where it is already grown on a tiny but widespread basis, and some parts of inland mountain areas where nights are cool enough but not too frosty, and the growing season is long enough. Adam suspects that the day-length sensitivities are somewhat tied to temperature, so that along the cool Pacific coast it might be possible to grow even equatorial versions.

Not sure that is much improvement though, because the Chilean varieties are reputedly tastier. This is hearsay as I’ve not had enough spare to sample up to now. I probably could eat some this year, but I’d rather save it until I have plenty to spare.

What about the saponins? In case you’re wondering, quinoa sold in US and European grocery stores has had the saponins removed by abrasion using specialized equipment. Lacking that, you just do what the Amerindians for whom it is a traditional crop still do: you soak it and rinse it until it stops foaming (“saponins” = soapy chemicals). A little more work but probably worth it to discourage predation by pests.

For those who haven’t tried it, it’s a non-cereal grain you cook and eat like rice, but it cooks faster than rice and has a finer texture, being smaller-grained. The texture and mouth-feel remind some people of cous-cous. The flavor is rather mild, bordering on bland; in any case it’s easy for most people to accept. I like to add some cumin seed and broth to it.

It comes in 3 grades of color: tan, “red”, and “black”. The “black” isn’t uniformly black, but typically has quite a bit of variation in hue, giving it a peppery look. All 3 taste similar, but the red and the black have a slightly chewier texture and are probably most useful as an addition to salads.

It is sometimes available rolled like an oat, in which case it cooks in about 90 seconds–just add hot water. Aside from the anti-nutrient phytates (which bind up its mineral content), you could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I think it’s sufficiently valuable as a grain as to provide a counter-incentive for doing so, but if you had plenty to spare you can sacrifice the grain and eat the leaves of young quinoa as a leafy green. Like many other greens they turn bitter as they age.

Personally, I think quinoa and potatoes are a huge win for small private growers in western Washington and Oregon. The reason is that they produce relatively a lot of food value for the amount of land they require, which is important on our high-priced real estate, and they don’t too much mind the soils and the climate. They might be valuable in parts of Europe for the same considerations and even more so.

Try them on an experimental basis first, and get to know their quirks, before committing to them on a larger scale. I suggest NOT trying to grow imported commercial quinoa bought in a store as food; it’s highland tropical in origin and is likely to have problems growing in temperate latitudes. Wait until seed from varieties known to thrive in higher latitudes become available. We’ll probably have small trial packets available next year and quite a lot the year after that.


Here are some heads of “perennial wheat”. As you can see, they don’t look like typical heads of wheat; they’re more elongated. That’s because “perennial wheat” has entire chromosomes from Thinopyrum intermedium, aka “intermediate wheatgrass”. One of the chromosomes from Thinopyrum contains the instructions for being perennial.

These hybrids have existed for a long time. Some of the oldest date back to circa the 1920s in the Soviet Union. The goal was actually more along the lines of producing a wheat-like grain with much higher protein content. Since Thinopyrum (formerly “Agropyrum”–you can find older hybrids listed as “xAgrotriticum”) is perennial, some, but not all, of the hybrids end up perennial.

Have you ever wondered why the vast majority of human cereals are annuals, not perennials? Even the ones with some propensity to be perennial (eg Rice and Sorghum) are grown exclusively as annuals on a commercial basis.

There are probably several reasons. Tom pointed out to me that annuals force the issue of raising a new generation every year. That speeds up breeding and selection versus perennials that would not be replaced every year. Of course that benefit would occur to a plant-breeder.

Annuals also tend to have more total seed, as they must produce seed or die out. Perennials have less at stake, plus they have to save some energy for their persistent crowns. So, humans got more food from annuals.

Herbaceous perennial food crops are surprisingly rare, but it turns out that for their own part they have some advantages of their own:

  • They tend to have much deeper roots. They can pull water and minerals up from greater depths, thereby requiring less fertilization and irrigation. Well, they have to be good at finding minerals, because they sit in place for years on end.
  • They tend to be more disease-resistant. Have to; disease builds up from growing in the same spot year after year.
  • They tend to be more reliable, because they don’t undergo the vulnerable seedling stage every year. Conceivably you could have a system where only a fraction of them are being replanted from seed every year. Weather or predatory disasters that tend to kill seedlings are less likely to totally destroy well-established plants.

Here is a summary of the benefits and drawbacks of perennial cereals:


  • More reliable
  • Deeper roots
  • More resistant to disease
  • Spares fuel and equipment needed for plowing
  • Live plants are a backup to seed in storage.


  • Lower yields
  • At least current versions of perennial wheat probably too soft for bread
  • Still experimental…no proven track record…management of perennial grains not a well-defined art

For better or worse, it doesn’t work in annual rotation schemes, but I couldn’t figure out if that was a benefit or a drawback. Probably both.

My idea is to use it on a small scale on odd scraps of land as a back-up food source. You don’t get as much food per unit land, but neither do you have to invest as much effort maintaining it. Let’s say one year you have heavy rains during planting season. That would sabotage your annual grain production but the perennials would shrug it off. Or, what if a mold got into your carefully-stored seed? Or maybe it’s just getting old, because you haven’t been able to plant it. Perennial crops give you a back-up in the field.

At least for now, it probably works better on a small scale than a large scale. That way if unforeseen challenges turn it into a fiasco, it’s a small problem not a big one. This is one situation where small-scale grain production makes more sense than large-scale.

That’s probably the reason that perennial grain projects get funded for a while and then run out of money. There does not seem to be a lot of commercial interest in perennial grains. The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, seems to be one of the few institutions working on perennial grains long-term. We’ll continue working on them too, on a small scale.

We’ve got a small production going of perennial grains. This autumn we have plans to expand it to at least a few acres. There’s still a lot of work to do to make that happen, and that’s just the planting. The grains themselves will need more breeding and selection.

In addition to wheat, we’ve got perennial versions of rye and sorghum. Rye and sorghum are relatively easier to perennialize than wheat, because they’ve got perennial relations in the same genus. They need some work too, but they’re already useable. The rye could be porridge or rye flour for bread, and the sorghum is probably chicken-food, or if you’re ambitious you can make sorghum beer out of it. Eventually we might have a grain sorghum (“milo”) that is palatable to humans and perennial too.

It’s worth mentioning that rice could be bred for perenniality, by selecting occasional perennial plants. I don’t know what the consequences of perennial rice would be for disease and pest issues. Probably another crop for small-scale production only. We’re unlikely to be the ones to help develop it, because we’re too far north for rice to thrive.

What do you think about perennial grains? How would you use them?


I just got off the phone with Tom.

He pointed out a few things to me about small-scale grain production that had not occurred to me earlier.

One is that wheat especially is a disease-prone crop. Add highly-inbred “monoculture” to concentrated production in huge fields, and that makes it even more so.

If production is more local, scattered, rotated with other crops, and the varieties variable and kept blended, that cuts down on the spread of catastrophic diseases like the U99.

Another is that difficult threshing is not a problem so much as a mixed-blessing. The inverse of difficult threshing is “shattering”. That’s when a seed-crop drops its seeds in the field instead of holding onto them for harvest.

Finding a way to efficiently thresh grain on a small scale would remove the only real bottleneck for small-scale production (aside from marketing, which is more conceptual than intrinsic). In Asia there exist small-scale rice dehullers; maybe an analogous device could be designed for small-scale threshing.


One of the quintessential jabs that the relatively self-sufficient hear from friends and family goes something like

“And when they want to eat bread, first they plant their own wheat…(SNARK)”

Modern people tend to think it is ridiculous to grow wheat. It’s OK to grow tomatoes, or even corn, but wheat is ridiculous.

Why is that?

My own guess is simply that people haven’t done it for a while. The idea is novel because it’s been forgotten about. But chances are their ancestors grew wheat! Ordinary people in the Old World with access to even fairly small plots of land used to grow their own wheat. They threshed it themselves and bagged it for storage. When they needed flour, they took bags of grain to the miller, and brought home bags of flour.

When they needed bread, they took some of their flour, made it into a dough, shaped it into loaves, and sent it to the bakers to bake it. Often they wrote their initials or a family symbol on top of the loaf, to make it distinguishable from other people’s loaves.

The general principle is “division of labor”. The idea is that it’s more efficient if the farmer owns the plow and the reaping equipment, the miller owns the grinding equipment, and the baker owns the ovens. That way

  • You eliminate redundant investment in equipment.
  • Each producer keeps the equipment busy full time.
  • Production is assigned to a specialist who develops expertise

Globalization is the process of extending the division of labor on a global scale past the point of diminishing returns. It’s turned into an end in itself. It starts getting expensive to grow soybeans in Argentina, ship them to China to make into soy sauce, which is then shipped to New York City. Most of the assumed savings have more to do with creative manipulation of currency exchange rates than with efficiency.

Even to the extend that division of labor creates efficiencies of scale, there is a tradeoff for reliability. Some redundancy of productive capacity is desirable so that if some production is eliminated for whatever reason–war, natural disasters, strikes, financial crises, and so on–then you still have production going on somewhere else that isn’t impacted.

Instead what you’ve got is extreme concentration of production on a global scale, so that earthquakes or fires have taken out single factories in Taiwan and Japan that produce all or most of specific critical electronic chips.

Similarly, wheat production is relatively concentrated, generally in parts of the world that have climates too harsh and too unstable for most other crops. Now wheat is tough, but having been pushed to the margins, it doesn’t take much in the way of weather extremes to push it over the edge. Cold, wet springs in recent years have hampered planting on the Canadian high plains and in North Dakota, which usually grows a high fraction of Durum wheat (read that: stuff you make pasta out of). Meanwhile, much of the winter wheat in northern China and the southern wheat belt of the USA was lost to either cold and drought in the winter, or heat and drought in the summer. Heat, drought, and resulting fires also destroyed a great deal of wheat in southern Russia and the Ukraine. Flooding recently destroyed much of the Pakistani crop.

The U99 fungus has wiped out a lot of African production and is making it’s way to the Middle East. From there, it could threaten Pakistan and India’s massive crop.

At this point, shortages are so severe that many countries that were buying cheap wheat on the international market are now seeing food riots. Arguably the UK is one of them whereas the riots in North London have been perceived by some informants as being exacerbated by soaring grocery bills.

I don’t know what portion of our diet wheat is anymore; it used to be about a quarter, and back at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, it was fully HALF. It’s still a major food item. It would make sense to disperse some of the production, and have some of it in relatively more stable climates than where it is now. People tell us we’re crazy to grow wheat here, but we still have our crop after farmers in “conventional” growing areas lost theirs to weather disasters.

It would also make sense to grow other grains that can grow where wheat is too marginal, that can substitute for wheat for some purposes.

Contrary to common misconception, grains are fairly productive. It doesn’t take huge amounts of land to grow useful quantities of grain.

Although not suitable for every climate, hardy grains are not particularly hard to grow. Some potential obstacles include drought while they’re trying to get established, excessive humidity while they’re growing (breeds disease), or excessive precipitation (including hail) while trying to ripen or harvest.

One obstacle I do perceive is the need to thresh the grain–meaning, knock the seed loose from the heads. That’s even assuming the grain in question is free-threshing, which some, such as Spelt, are not. Threshing without machinery is hard work–ask me, I’ve been doing it for several days now! Once threshing is done, winnowing (separating the seed from the chaff) is relatively easy using a fan.

Once the seed is clean, whole grains tend to be relatively easy and inexpensive to store for up to a few years. That’s why they became the staples of ancient civilizations in the first place, and why they remain very popular with modern survivalists.

Whole grains store well because the seed is protected from oxidation by the seed coat–that is, the bran. Whole-grain flour does NOT store; it goes rancid quickly. That’s one reasn a lot of people THINK they don’t like whole grains: they were fed rancid grain.

Duo -Steinmühle + Flocker mit Stahlwalzen

A gizmo like the one on the left, from hawos, will grind it into flour or flatten it into flakes–like oatmeal–on demand just before you use it. That way it’s always fresh. These types of mills tend to come almost exclusively from Germany, where whole-grains are generally preferred and considered healthier than white flour. They grind or flake it only just before use, to keep it fresh. It’s a fairly quick an simple process, and the mills are not prohibitively expensive.

What might make the most sense is to start growing grains on small farms to sell locally. That’s already happening on a small scale that we’re aware of, in several places.

Something that would help is to get people used to using grains per se, instead of just buying flour. I’ve discovered that cooked whole grains and flaked whole grains are easy to use in large amounts. Baking with whole-grain flour of variable gluten content will take some getting used to but I understand what the issues are and know how to work around some of them. I think part of the issue is not just accepting but actually making the best use of the differences, and adjusting the concept of “bread” accordingly.

Mostly because the bran slows down the digestion of the carbohydrates, thereby reducing their negative impact on the body, whole grains could have some significant health benefits including:

  • stroke risk reduced 30-36%
  • type 2 diabetes risk reduced 21-30%
  • heart disease risk reduced 25-28%
  • better weight maintenance

The germ also happens to be rich in essential fatty acids, protein, and vitamins, thereby improving overall nutrition.

If you’re interested in small-scale grain production, here is the reference I’ve been using, which was recommended by my friend Chris Homanics. It’s one of the few references on the subject that was written by someone who was serious about grain production on a small farm. Most of the few other books on the topic are missing too many details to be useful, because the authors were only growing very small amounts of grain as a hobby not as a serious pursuit.

Speaking of hobbies, Tom thinks that people should grow cereals as ornamentals. Many hardy cereals have rather handsome seedheads that look good in dried arrangements. Sorghum’s seedhead is dowdy-looking, but the plant as a whole has a luxuriant tropical look, as does corn. That’s because they’re tropical in origin. I’ve known a few people who’ve planted them in tropicalismo-themed landscapes.

I have a feeling that one of the most common uses for some of the grain we’re going to sell will be chicken-food. Chicken-feed is soaring in price, and I’ve gotten a few inquiries about Sorghum and xTriticale for that purpose. Tim Peters’ fast-growing Sorghums would make good chicken food. The interest in using xTriticale as chicken-food is because it’s highly productive, high in total protein, and a little better protein-balanced than wheat, so that it takes less soy to balance out the amino acids.

What do you think? What kind of scale do you think would work to grow and process grains? Would you be willing to try them? Maybe on a small scale first to see how it goes?

Tom wants to grow wheat so bad it hurts. It’s in his blood. I just want it because I know too much of the bad news about commercial production. Until I actually started trying to buy it, I did not realize that most wheat is controlled by monopoly licensing in the USA, and in Europe by a registration requirement ostensibly for preventing monopolies! Either way, it is difficult to legally own seed for one of humanity’s most basic foodstuffs.

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