Words and photos by Matt Kelly
Earlier this summer, a small group of people gathered in a square, squat, nondescript building on the very edge of Cornell University. Researchers, growers, breeders, bakers and millers - and a writer or two - all came together to talk about wheat.
Specifically: locally grown, organic wheat.
We sat in a semi-circle of folding chairs, eager and attentive to multiple PowerPoint presentations with titles like “Northern New England Bread Wheat Project,” “Value Added Grains for Local and Regional Food Systems,” “Perennial Grains Update,” and “Hudson Valley Grain Research.” We scribbled notes as data and conclusions were reported from variety selection trials. We toured the tidy rows of tiny plots of wheat outside the warehouse; trials of both parent lines and various crosses. We carefully examined the grain heads as we were told about fusarium. We quickly sought out specific varieties - like Warthog and Red Fife - snapping photos and brushing up against them like celebrities.
“Sowing the Future of Organic Wheat Research” was the first workshop in NOFA-NY’s 2016 Field Days events, hosted in collaboration with the Small Grains Breeding Project at Cornell and GrowNYC’s Regional Grains Project. The Cornell breeding project has been around for more than 100 years, getting its start with oats and wheat. But as Lisa Kissing Kucek, a graduate student in the program and the driving force behind this get together, pointed out, “the needs of organic growers are very different from conventional growers and from the targets of the breeding program over that century.”
Which means the small grain varieties being released by a conventional breeding program may not work very well for organic farmers. Even though growing small grains can be incredibly beneficial.
“They provide an important rotation in our farming systems and great organic matter in the soil from their fibrous root systems,” Kucek said to a nodding audience. She also drew appreciative laughs when she referred to small grains as “a gateway drug” for getting nitrogen-adding legumes into a farmer’s rotations. “Because we can harvest small grains early in the season, some legumes can be planted in late summer and early fall to help drive nutrients for the next year,” she said.
There were smiles and agreement all around as we talked about wheat being a great facilitator of local economies and rural revitalization. “This big long processing chain from farmer to miller to baker to retailer provides jobs all along the process,” said Kucek. “Wheat, in particular, is a really valuable crop for keeping rural areas strong.”
Wheat is also a really valuable crop for making awesome bread and beer.
“We see things like artisanal bake-ability and flavor - the ability to make a great artisan loaf of bread and to make it taste really good - as traits important for wheat," said Kucek. "Something our program has never dealt with before. We’ve never been breeding for that.” (Truth: “artisanal bake-ability” is not a trait that comes to mind when talking about commodity wheat.) “There is a very refined science associated with breeding for baking quality in commodity wheat,” Kucek continued. “But it’s targeted at quick rise breads using baker’s yeast, not artisanal sourdough.”
Kucek’s focus at Cornell has been participatory breeding and variety testing of small grains for organic cropping systems and value-added markets. She has brought together farmers, millers, bakers and brewers to determine which parent lines and crosses perform best in both the fields and the ovens of the Northeast. That explains why there was also plenty of food and beverage at the event - not as a matter of catering, but as a catalyst for conversation. Discussing the research on wheat varieties is one thing; discussing the flavor and the texture with mouths full is something else.
The Brooklyn Bread Lab provided a tableful of bread, each loaf made from a different variety of locally grown wheat. GrowNYC provided coolers of Greenmarket Wheat Beer from Brooklyn Brewery, made primarily with grain sourced from Lakeview Organic Farms and Oeschner Farms in the Finger Lakes. Fresh oven-baked pizza was made and served by Rusty Oven out of Ithaca. All the dough was made from local grain.
And it was in that moment, with the rows of wheat glowing warmly in the late-day sun, with beer and pizza in hand, surrounded by conversations of data and diet, that I realized this was a gathering of wheat nerds.
nerd /nərd/ (n) a single-minded expert in a particular technical field.
Like small grain Trekkies at WheatCon 2016, we were all completely in our element. It was awesome. And then, in the exact same instant, I thought, “Who cares?”
This event had been open to the public but the public wasn’t there. The public never is. So what’s the point? What difference does it make if a bunch of really smart folks get together to figure out exactly which wheat varieties will work best in a foodie’s favorite loaf of handcrafted bread?
“It’s about survival,” said Lisa, her incredibly cheery voice filled with absolute certainty. “We are co-evolving with this wheat. For 10,000 years wheat has come along with us, constantly changing as we change, as our environment changes, as how we bake bread changes. We have to keep growing with wheat and adapting it to our climate. We have to continue adapting it to our new food system that’s changing so rapidly.”
Amy Halloran, author of The New Bread Basket and kindred storyteller of food and farms, agreed. “We need strong regional food systems so that we can keep farmland farming, especially as we face changes in climate and transportation," she said. "Identifying varieties that work here is going to support growers in a way that conventional farm marketing does not.”
So is the goal of this collaborative work to displace the current system of conventional wheat and flour?
“I don’t think the goal is to get rid of Wonder Bread, but rather to try and create as much of an alternative to that as we can,” said Kucek. “I think the last 100 years has helped us create Wonder Bread so that more people can have access to bread because it’s super cheap. And that’s a reasonable goal. I just think it got a little crazy in the process.”
The focus of growing wheat and producing flour for the masses became “cheap access at all costs.” And the cost was flavor and nutrition and, quite possibly, the ability of our food system to successfully weather change.
June Russell, a manager with GrowNYC and champion of the Greenmarket’s Regional Grain Project, thinks a lot about the food most widely available to - and willingly consumed by - the general public, including grains. “As a civilization world-wide, we produce a ton of really crappy stuff,” she said. “In the last few years of working on this project, I have felt a real sense of urgency to establish some solid footing for this work because the system that prioritizes and values the cheapness of food is falling apart as we speak.”
Don Lewis - miller, baker and founder of Wild Hive Farm and the Wild Hive Community Grain Project - said what’s happening in this collaboration is the creation of choice; of diversity in what we have available to eat. “The relationship between our government and our food system – food growers, processors, distributors, sellers – leaves much to be desired. By moving us to a global food economy, homogeneity is the only choice for many people. This sounds like something leaning towards fascism to me."
fascism /ˈfaSHˌizəm/ (n) a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government.
Aside from the actual historical connection between wheat and fascism (Mussolini, Strampelli, and Italy’s Battle for Wheat in the early 20th-century), Lewis isn't far off. By its own definition, “disagreement” is all about wanting to exercise a different choice.
But the task of creating a viable alternative to cheap commodity wheat is daunting, said Russell. “Frankly, the more successful you are, the more attention you get. The more the big players want to take over what you’re doing.”
“That’s exactly what will happen,” said Lewis. “But for me it’s about access. It’s about your right to have access.”
Is the goal, then, to prevent commodity control of these varieties?
“Control? Yes,” says Lewis. “Use? No.”
Everybody should have access to these varieties. But only if and when they want them.
“We don’t need everybody to buy local flour, to bake with local flour,” said Russell. “We don’t need to recreate the system that we’re trying to be an alternative to. We just need enough of a niche market to be on solid footing so that we have some kind of an alternative to the system that currently exists.”
And this - the collective answer to the question, “Who cares?” - might be the most interesting thing I took away from the event.
The public doesn’t need to understand and appreciate what’s happening here for this collaboration to make a real difference in the world. The wheat nerds care and that’s all that matters. The goal is not to replace one monolithic “everybody” system with another; it’s to create genuine choice. The goal is to facilitate diversity in genetics, in farm fields, in grocery store aisles, and in kitchens. This means – whether anyone realizes it or not – we always have a choice about the food we eat.
A daunting task for sure - something only a group of nerds would be able to accomplish.