Wheat is going back to its roots.
For the past half century, farmers and bakers have been shortchanged as the gene pool of available wheat varieties has systematically narrowed. Many varieties have gone by the wayside as seed breeders and farmers propagate only those grains that produce top yields and are easily harvested by large machines.
But the limitations of these intensive monoculture practices have become increasingly evident in the fields and on store shelves. Bugs that find the predominant variety of wheat tasty multiply rapidly when there is a virtual smorgasbord available from horizon to horizon. Weeds, too, love fields planted with identical crops year after year.
Scientists and seed companies are constantly working to tweak wheat genetics to be more resistant to insects and weeds, but that research further threatens diversity as farmers rush to plant the next variety they hope will be the silver bullet of pest resistance.
Today’s commercial wheat varieties bear little resemblance to the grains first cultivated thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Luckily, a growing number of millers and bakers are going back to those heritage varieties to address the pitfalls of our current grains.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst is working with the Heritage Wheat Conservancy to restore traditional varieties that have nearly disappeared. Canadian growers are working with the Heritage Wheat Project in Alberta to bring back wheat grown prior to 1960, which doesn’t require as much fertilizer or insecticide as today’s crops.
And Bob Quinn, founder and president of Big Sandy, Mont.-based Kamut International, was honored with the Organic Trade Association’s organic leadership award for his work over the past decade in establishing a market for khorasan wheat, an ancient variety of durum wheat from Egypt.
These rediscovered wheat varieties offer more than just unique tastes and textures. Wheat breeding practices that rewarded high yields often did so at the expense of the nutritional characteristics of traditional varieties. Conventional milling practices that produce refined, bleached flour compound that problem.
Quinn and other farmers are doing their part in the fields. And a growing network of smaller mills that use “short flow” and stone-ground processing techniques are creating flour blends that accentuate the characteristics of these heritage wheat varieties.
Retailers are a critical link in connecting these farmers and millers with customers seeking an alternative to highly processed, conventional-wheat food products.
The marketplace will ultimately determine the future of these initiatives. Artisan bakers and food manufacturers are introducing customers to the great flavor, texture and natural nutritional qualities of products produced with heritage varieties of wheat flour. Educating customers and encouraging sales growth in these categories will provide the incentive necessary for more wheat farmers to embark on a path to reclaim greater genetic diversity in agriculture and in the food business.