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Wheat | New World Seeds & Tubers

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:

Benefits

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

Drawbacks

  • 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?

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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.

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Last week Tom and I visited Corvallis Oregon.

While there we stopped in Albany, to visit the headquarters and retail shop of Nichols Garden Nursery.

One of the owners, Rose Marie, called while we were there, and when advised that Tom was at the shop, had a long chat with him. While they talked, I went out to the back to have a look at the gardens.

There are both herbs and vegetables back there.

The herbs are arranged into landscaping, while the vegetables are in beds. However I have seen elsewhere some very attractive landscapes done using artistically-arranged vegetables.

The strappy-leaved plant in the foreground is Zingiber myoga. I recognize it because I have some too. A hardy, vigorous relation of culinary Ginger, from Japan. The skeletal figure behind it belongs to a spent Angelica herb.

Speaking of which, while there I bought some seeds for Angelica archangelica, which I haven’t grown for years. My interest in it was rekindled by someone reminding me that in the old days, its cut petioles were often mixed with rhubarb pie at a ratio of 4 parts rhubarb to 1 part Angelica, to cut the amount of sugar needed. Angelica is naturally sweet, with a mild anise-like scent with musky overtones.

I also recall that the Scandinavian side of my ancestry used (candied?) Angelica in sweet breads. Apparently the leaves and roots are useful too. The leaves can be dried and brewed as a tisane (“herbal tea”), or used young and fresh in salads.

The seeds can be used as a spice, but Fennel which is a little stronger might work better for that purpose. I use Fennel seed and a little pearl sugar to make slightly sweet rolls. Fennel seed tastes quite sweet without containing any actual sugar; it’s a good way to cut down on the use of sugar.

I also bought some seeds for growing Agastache foeniculum, and Chenopodium nuttalliae, known by its Aztec name Huazontl.

Agastache foeniculum is probably the most modest of the Agastaches, but it’s still fairly attractive. It is probably one of the finest tisane herbs you could grow, with an enticing fragrance somewhere between mint and anise.

Huazontl is a member of Chenopodaceae, which has given us so many other fine vegetables such as beets and spinach. Huazontl is used for making vegetarian dishes during Lent.

I also bought a couple of plants: Yacon, also known as “Bolivian Sunroot”, and an herb I have wanted for a long time now, Vietnamese Mint, not to be confused with unrelated Persicaria odorata, which is not a mint and smells more like Coriander leaf. Yacon is a big leafy Dahlia-like plant, a member of the same family, Compositae, whose Dahila-like tuberous roots are naturally sweet. Vietnamese Mint’s claim to fame is its tender leaves which unlike the leaves of most mints are tender enough to eat as a salad-like fresh herb.

Next stop was Stalford Seed farm, where we met the owners, the Stalfords, and the manager, Gian Mercurio. Stalford Seed farm grows wheat, oats, beans, flax-seed, and a few other crops.

Before the tour, the Stalfords treated us to a supper whose key ingredients were grown on the farm. I liked the shortbread, which was made from whole soft white wheat. We also had a dish I’ve had on a number of farms, wheat-berry salad.

Cooked soft wheat-berries also work well wherever you want to give something a little character and chewiness. I’ve had them in yoghurt. I think they would also work in soup much as pearl barley is used.

Wheat is not as hard to grow and harvest as most people seem to imagine. It used to be grown on a more widespread basis than it is now, and families would take some of their grain to the miller to grind it, bring back the flour to home, then take their unbaked loaves to the baker. Now none of that local shared infrastructure exists anymore, though I suspect that if average homesteaders and farmers knew what to do with it, they could still make effective use of home-grown grains.

While we were eating, I met David, born in Buenos Aires and currently living in Eugene. He’s a vegan. There were plenty of hearty vegan dishes thanks to the wheat and the beans.

Before the tour, we listened to a little talk about the farm and some food security issues. Gian got my attention telling us that Portland has a 3-day food supply. Although some food is still grown in the Willamette Valley, as a case of globalization, most of it gets shipped out of the country, while Portland’s food gets shipped in.

Much of the Willamette Valley doesn’t grow food anymore; it grows lawn-grass. The farmers couldn’t make a decent living growing food, so they just gave up. There are a few food crops still grown, and Tom treated us to a pint of large, fairly good local blueberries we bought at a roadside stand.

I suspect Seattle has even more tenuous connections to its food supply: more people and fewer surrounding farms. Ours some distance southwest is one of the relatively few. Most of the farms in Western Washington are dairy-farms, which don’t produce as much food for a given amount of land as say grain and bean farms. Ours is a rare exception for growing crops not cows.

For some reason I forgot to shoot pictures of the wheat fields. They looked pretty good. The wheat was getting very dry and the heads were starting to curl as they are apt to when they’ve been dry for a while.

Yesterday, closer to home, we harvested our own wheat on a smaller scale. I’m going to be threshing my share for a while so I might not be posting as often as usual. Considering that our planting was experimental as we didn’t know what would work here, it was fairly successful. Most of our cereals survived and a few actually thrived, despite challenging growing conditions. Wheat is rare in Western Washington but it does occur. It’s mostly soft white winter wheat, but it’s possible to grow red and white hard wheats too, and it’s possible to get the protein levels to respectable levels if you fertilize them in the boot stage.

More about our wheat project soon.

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Tom Kleffman of Darwin’s Lair, 3 Daughter’s Farm fame really enjoys his food. Whenever he calls me to tell me what he made for supper, my reaction is always the same:

We should have met 25 years ago and opened up a bed and breakfast. Back when there was still money to be made.

Come to think of it, Tom Kleffman’s parents DO happen to run a B&B. But for Tom and I maybe a hunting lodge would be a better match–circa late 19th century, aristocratic patrons–because Tom’s specialty is using wild game, not to mention produce fresh out of his multiple gardens.

Whereas Rob still uses store-bought ingredients, but wishes he didn’t. Some day some of the fancier ingredients I use won’t be available in the future.

This recipe isn’t too bad, aside from sugar and vanilla. Vanilla has the interesting effect of complementing a wide variety of other flavors. I only use real vanilla, because I figure the orchids need the work.

I use fresh or frozen (uh oh, another unsustainable practice) black currants from my back yard. Black currants are tolerably easy to grow, especially in my climate where a lot of other fruits are hard to grow, but if you don’t happen to have any of your own, you can use store-bought dried black currants. I would dry my own currants for use when fresh is not available–most of the time–if I had a food drier (climate here does not lend itself to natural sun drying) and if I were not so spoiled by modern luxuries.

In some parts of the world, many people refer to Zante raisins as “black currants”. They’re not the same thing; Zante raisins are dried Black Corinth grapes; black currants are the fruit of Ribes nigrum. Black currants have a strong, unusual, distinctive flavor (except for the ones bred not to, which seems to defeat the purpose). They’re rare in the USA except as a home-grown fruit. More common in Canada, Scotland, Central Europe, and Scandinavia. People usually love them or hate them.

I should probably work out if there are any differences if using whole wheat pastry flour. I’ll have a supply of home-grown wholegrain pastry flour from our own cereal-producing ventures by next year. If you’re growing your own wheat, leave it whole and mill it on demand as needed; that will help prevent rancidity. If you THINK you don’t like whole wheat, you might be surprised to discover that fresh soft white whole wheat has a rather pleasant flavor; what most people don’t like about “whole wheat” is the slightly bitter (but to some tastes, not unpleasantly so) tannin in the bran of whole red wheat, and, much worse, the rancidity of whole wheat flour that has been sitting too long unprotected from oxygen.

Shopping list follows the recipe. I write recipes so that ingredients are organized in groups according to what you do with them.


Black Current Muffins

Makes 6. Double for a dozen.

1. Preheat oven to 400F / 200C

2. Stir together with a fork or small whisk:

  • 3/4 cup unbleached pastry flour
  • 1 TBSP soy powder (defatted soy flour)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 TBSP raw sugar
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt

3. Mix together with a whisk:

  • Contents of one 4-oz serving of unflavored, unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup cold-pressed canola oil
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

4. Pour wet ingredients from step 3 into dry ingredients from step 2, and barely mix with a spoon.

5. Add 1/4 cup black currents, and stir until just mixed.

6. Evenly fill the cells of a 6 muffin stainless steel muffin-tin, that has been sprayed with non-stick spray, with the batter.

7. Sprinkle a bit of granulated WHITE sugar on top of the muffins, approximately 2 tsp total (NOT each).

8. Shake the muffin tin just a bit to even out the batter.

9. Bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven.

Serve with dried-blackberry-leaf tisane flavored with a drop of vanilla. This morning I fried some nitrate-free bacon for my kids. Sometimes I serve with some yoghurt:

Shopping list:

I did my best to find sources for everything you’ll need, if you don’t already have it. I’m not familiar with the brand of pastry flour, but one reviewer liked it. Seems I should have been able to find more choices; to me pastry flour is an everyday ingredient.

Click here to be taken to the complete shopping list (minus eggs) on Amazon.com. Look for the category “Black current muffin recipe shopping list”

Here are the separate items:

Unbleached white pastry flour

Soy powder (not the same brand or type that I use; this one is toasted and contains the soy oil–use it promptly to prevent rancidity)

Aluminum-free baking powder

Baking soda

Organic evaporated cane sugar

Fine grind natural sea salt

Natural applesauce in 3.9 oz individual containers Applesauce contains pectin, which is a useful ingredient for baking. I use it all the time and buy it in 4 oz packs which are typically about the amount you would use in a recipe.

Large eggs. You’d better buy those fresh and local.

Expeller Pressed Canola Oil (GMO Free)

Vanilla extract

I don’t like non-stick muffin “tins”; the non-stick coating is not durable. Not only does it come off (presumably in our food!), but the muffins stick all the worse once it is so much as scratched!

Lacking rigidity, silicone bake-ware is a hazard for spills. Also, it is hard to clean 100%, and a grimy buildup causes its non-stick properties to backfire badly.

The smart way to make muffin tins would be to mould a non-stick texture on the surface. Certain textures have the odd property of resisting sticking–like the bumpy-textured rice paddles do in Japan. Since such a thing seemingly does not exist for muffin tins, I suggest using stainless steel baking tins, with non-stick cooking spray.

These are the only stainless steel muffin tins I’ve ever been able to find:

Fox Run 6 cell Stainless Steel Muffin Pan

Fox Run 12-cell Stainless Steel Muffin Pan

You might think they’re a little more expensive than other tins–actually, they’re a screaming bargain, because their longevity is so much greater than either aluminum or non-stick. Before I bought these I was wasting time and money constantly replacing poor-quality pans. They’re a tad thin, and they’re the cheaper grade of stainless steel (a magnet will stick to them), but even so they seem surprisingly resistant to warping (steel is just a lot stronger than aluminum), and if treated respectfully they don’t scratch particularly easily.

Non-stick spray

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Some of you might know about Peters Seed and Research. It was a small cropseed company run by Tim Peters and eventually his associate, Dave Woods.

It sold a variety of fruits and vegetables, but its primary claim to fame were a few of its specialties. It was probably the most accessible source of perennial grains in the USA if not the world. Perennial grains (typically, wheat) also show up from time to time in government crop-breeding programs, but Tim was one of the few crop variety breeders who really took them seriously and tried to develop practical crops out of them.

What we have found is that perennial grains are useful in situations where you can just let them grow, and harvest them opportunistically. They tend to perform better than annual grains in harsh-weather years like this one for us.

Tim also specialized in Cucurbits and leafy greens, and he had several early-ripening tomatoes suitable for the Pacific Northwest, where tomatoes can be a challenge to ripen especially in La NiƱa years.

He also had a few odds and ends worthy of Luther Burbank, but without the controversial hype. For example, “Garden Huckleberries”–that is, edible Nightshades used as substitutes for blueberries–that are bigger and sweeter than normal.

That was what was available to the public. What was still in development was tantalizing in a weirdly wonderful way. Imagine for example Hibiscus bred to combine cold-hardiness, palatable leaves, EDIBLE PODS (like Okra or “tropical cranberries”), PLUS showy, edible flowers that can be used to make smoothies.

The trick of course would be to combine traits of already-existing species of Hibiscus and related genera. That was one of Tim’s specialties, including seemingly-impossible wide crosses.

He also did work on perennial eggplants and cucurbits, and took an interest in Passionfruit.

Tim was motivated to eventually bring this stuff to market.

Eric Toensmeyer’s book Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles (one of those “fun” books that keeps you up at night thinking of possibilities)
resulted in a sudden awareness of Tim Peter’s work. Unfortunately, it was too late; the company was already on its last legs. Now if you look up Peters Seed and Research on the internet, all you’ll find is a lot of inquiries regarding where to find this or that variety, or what happened to the company and would it be possible to buy his varieties from another source.

Tom and I rescued several of them. They were exceedingly hard to find. A few may have gone extinct. Too bad.

What if a small miracle happened, and some of his best varieties were suddenly available again?

It could happen. Stay tuned. Smiley

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