It’s amazing that wheat has been a part of our society for over nine thousand years. Recognition of its presence and its first use were seen in the fertile crescent, throughout Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf. As our world moved towards becoming more globalized, societies across the world began to recognize the blessing that wheat was, adopting and adapting its cultivation. Traditional methods of growing and harvesting wheat have been lost through this process.
At what cost?
Let us look at some facts that expose the harsh reality of wheat production post industrial revolution compared to wheat grown and harvested prior to the industrial period.
Before industrialization, farmers selected their wheat for hardiness and flavor. Crop yield and durability in milling and storage ranked low among priorities because, at that time, all quality wheat milling and flour distribution was local.
Whereas the modern baking industry’s descriptors for wheat flavor come to a screeching halt with a single adjective and a three-word phrase—“nutty” and “rich whole grain”—in early 19th century America, “nutty” was but one adjective associated with wheat, and “rich whole grain” flavor embodied a spectrum as diverse as vanilla-cream, honeysuckle, and faint black pepper, all against the backdrop of minerality and the distinct earthiness of terroir.
Pre-industrial wheat was very tall, its straw as valuable as the grain it produced for fodder, thatch, bio matter for healthy fields, fuel, bedding, tea, medicine, and dozens of other uses. The Brewsters selected entire wheat populations—not just varieties—for individual and combined taste, with special characteristics for brewing and bread baking, and for survivability. *Brewsters method known as landrace farming
Roller milling– The process punishes grains to such a degree that thin-branned kernels of traditional landrace wheats are destroyed by roller mills; only wheat varieties with extraordinarily thick bran layers—many of which are the product of scientific development—can survive the operation. Produces ultraprocessed, refined flour, drop-dead consistent for baking and totally stable for distribution and storage.
Low tannin concentrations and lack of bitterness.
The red landrace varieties used to develop modern wheats derive their color from highly tannic pigment that resides in the bran; thick-branned modern wheats, then, contain large amounts of tannins. Large amounts of tannins result in residual bitterness.
Deep roots extract a wider array of micronutrients from the earth—micronutrients that carry remarkable flavor to baking—and can withstand drought. The deep roots of ancient wheat also produce wheat kernels with high micronutrient and mineral content, and without irrigation, the plants produce smaller kernels, so the micronutrients are concentrated, resulting in outstanding flavor.
With short stalks and roots, modern wheat throws maximum energy into producing big kernels that can be easily harvested by machine and accommodates a higher density of plants within limited acreage, a density in which plant and soil disease flourish. Need for extreme amounts of water and depletes non-replenishing aquifers. Residual minerals in the irrigation water concentrate and salinate, resulting in lands becoming toxic to horticulture.Need for chemical fertilizers to produce minerals and nutrients needed to flourish.
Anson Mills Website, Brief History of Wheat
As we prepare for our April 11th Day Prayer for Peace, let us reflect on the history of our wheat and the story and origins of our food. Let us remember the gifts of mother earth and our responsibility to care for her the way she continues for us.
Jackie Salas, SJW Justice Office Program Assistant