In December, I asked the folks at Lentz Spelt Farms to contribute an article to our newsletter. The article they sent is long, technical and beautiful - well worth your attention. Here it is:
You wouldn’t know that it’s a Farro crop, driving by the Lentz Farm on the Columbia Plateau at this time of year, snow on the furrows and only the green tips of the fall-seeded stand visible. The Inland Pacific Northwest raises altogether one million acres of wheat, so you’ll assume that the Lentz field is wheat as well. But come back in early summer, and this Farro calls out, standing much taller than wheat, the grain heads of different color, distinct, and when the field weaves with the winds a touch of plant wildness marks the wavy contours, dancing.
Farro is ancient. According to USDA researchers who analyzed the DNA, a million-plus years is the age of Einkorn (German for “one-kernel” in reference to its single-grain-per-spikelet trait); the second archetype Farro, Emmer, they date at 500,000 years; Spelt is the third Farro, it also predates wheat but occurred later, at the dawn of agriculture. The domesticated forms of the three Farro grains are Triticum monoccocum (“Farro Piccolo” Einkorn), Triticum diccocum (“Farro Medio” Emmer), and Triticum spelta (“Farro Grande” Spelt).
Einkorn and Emmer grain were eaten by pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers; originating in the Near East, they became the first cereal crops farmed in the Fertile Crescent, and to this day their wild forms continue to grow in that region. The spread of agriculture expanded the range of the Farro grains, resulting in thousands of land race varieties.
If Farro grains were an important part of a much-varied cereal fare for millennia, it’s no wonder that they disappeared almost entirely about a hundred years ago. In contrast to wheat which is free-threshing, Farro grains are tightly enclosed in a hull, and this hulled-grain aspect made them less efficient for industrialization. As a result, they were among the 75 percent of traditional food crops shunted aside for the sake of mass production. No longer was food local, nor plant genetics nature-bound: Industrial plant breeding benefitted first the machines, particularly the steel roller mills refining wheat to white flour, and after World War Two plant breeders bent wheat genetics to conform to chemical ag that brought us the cheap food system. Industry and universities even came up with a potent, albeit ironic, euphemism: “Green Revolution,” they touted it.
Consider the 1970s, by then the cheap food system was in full swing, fast food places popping up everywhere, and supermarkets booming although their actual offerings were rather meager, for apples they had but two, Red and Golden Delicious, and on the shelves stood two or three brands of coffee, canned stuff, jug wine from California. As for grain products, Wonderbread beckoned, and the home baker could reach for All Purpose White Flour whose functionality wondrously stayed exactly the same year after year. And of course there were the breakfast cereals that triumph of early-day branded advertising bringing your kids pennies’ worth of grain puffed up and sugared in a box colorful. If you knew back then what Farro was, you were one-in-a-million.
The Lentz family had come to homestead on the Columbia Plateau in the 1890s. Milk cows and hogs and chickens they raised, their gardens were large, they canned a lot and cured their own sauerkraut, and rumor has it they distilled their own Schnapps; small wheat fields produced their modest cash crop. Somehow they made it through the Dust Bowl drought years and the Great Depression when this wheat country depopulated. As the cheap food trend evolved, many surrounding farms yielded to pressures to expand acreage, again and again, to where today the average low-rainfall dry-land wheat farm measures around 3000 acres. In the late 1990s, Lena Lentz Hardt returned to the Plateau; having raised her children, divorced now, she longed for the small farm of her youth. But she didn’t want to be a price-taker that the commodity growers had become.
The day she stood fieldside considering Spelt for an alternative crop, the term “Farro” was but a small-print footnote on a research paper about hulled grains. She was more familiar with “Dinkel,” the main German word for Spelt; Dinkel had been southern Germany’s bread grain preferred by a factor of 17, right up to industrialization; the resurgence of Spelt as Saint Hildegard’s (1098-1179) “healing grain” had begun in 1970s Germany and Switzerland. In the United States, Purity Foods of Michigan was instrumental in introducing Spelt to the late-1980s health food market, primarily promoting Spelt as wheat alternative for folks with wheat allergies. A decade later it was clear that the fastest market growth for Spelt was on the West Coast, which made Lentz’s Eastern Washington location quite favorable. Also, the semi-arid climate and alkaline soils here, resembling as they do the growing conditions in the original region of Triticum cereals, make for superior quality grain. The gamble worked. Spelt grew great that first year. The crop sold to a West Coast mill at fair price, followed by a contract to raise more Spelt. Lentz’s direct-marketing to Portland and Seattle was timely, too, what with the upswing in artisan bakeries.
Why not take the next step and also grow Emmer, of which a spring type was available as Foundation seed? On one hand, Emmer products were non-existent except for high-priced Italian Farro identified on the packages as Triticum diccocum. On the other hand, Emmer falls into the same culinary category as Spelt, an ancestral grain of high nutrition with a delightful flavor spectrum. In the end it was the wine industry that helped Emmer markets grow, by promoting the Tuscany ambience of high cuisine culture. Yes, as the backlash against industrialized foods took many forms across the world, the cachet of Italy’s Slow Food movement stands out, reaches out. As they love fine wine, they do love their Farro.
How do food crops return from a century of obscurity? In some cases, village farmers had kept on raising Farro grains, especially in areas where growing conditions are too marginal for wheat production. Mostly, though, it’s germ plasm banks where rare seed can be sourced, albeit in very small quantities. The USDA small grains germ plasm depository in Aberdeen, Idaho will send you but 1 gram per variety, up to 12 varieties. The Lentz Einkorn seed increase started like that, plot work year after year until there was enough seed to plant a field large enough for harvest by combine. Altogether five ancestral crops have been introduced to Washington State by Lentz Farms Ð plot work an essential part of that effort.
After 2000, the resurgence of Farro and other archetype grains was gaining enough momentum for the scientific community to pay heed to the trend: In 2005 the American Association of Cereal Chemists published “Specialty Grains for Food and Feed” which cites extensive research from Canada, Europe, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. “The increasing attention being paid to relationships between diets and health prompted us to plan this book,” the preface states, and the last chapter describes the “psychological response” to Farro fare as “a feeling of well-being.” Environmentally, agricultural diversity is an obvious benefit of ancient grains’ return.
In Central Europe, the philosophical tack of organic farmers was a driver for planting “Urgetreide” (that’s the German word for Farro); why go to the trouble of farming organically, only to grow cultivars developed for chemical systems?, they asked. By 2008, German organic bread grain production had shifted to a whopping 40 percent Spelt Farro. Marketing-wise, the growing buy-local trend is quite the boon for those farmers.
They also looked to improve their organic systems further by reinstating mixed-crop systems, after a traditional omega-3 oil seed, Camelina, made a comeback in Europe. Camelina (a brassica like kale, broccoli, mustard), is well-suited to mixed cultivation, they found; their intercropping improved soil vibrancy and enhanced weed control. And, it turned out that the mixed cultivation method could be designed in such a way that oil seed production is possible with no deficit in food production, an aspect much celebrated by biofuel proponents.
Mixed cultivation intercrops became part of the Lentz Farro portfolio in 2009. Chefs love to cook Lentz Emmer grain for a Tabouleh salad, incorporating the Lena Camelina oil as highlight flavor of the dressing Ð the smile of their palate remembering the Lentz Field Day they attended, when we walked through a stand of Farro and Camelina, both ancestral crops with a pure line back to nature where, after all, good food has its origin.
When farmed with good organic soil fertility, Farro grains surpass wheats in protein, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. Note that Lentz Farro is a whole grain product, unlike most Italian imports which consist of Emmer first parboiled and then semi-pearled.
Chefs mostly cook the Farro grains, particularly the Emmer, when preparing risotto (“Emmersotto”), pilaf, Tabouleh, polenta. What do these dishes have in common? They’re not exactly mainstream American fare. For the gourmet cook at home, an adventurous culinary path to the Mediterranean is prescribed when using your ancestors’ grains. It’s a cuisine well worth exploring. Bakers tend to develop a higher degree of skill when working with Farro whole grain flours. Aside from more sensitive gluten and thicker bran in comparison to wheats, Farro flour has variability because its characteristics are a little different from one harvest to the next. Blending grain as ADM does across the country is not an option for small specialty grain producers. Adjusting baking formulas according to last summer’s weather is part of eating local foods.
Any small-scale production costs more than commodities do; in the case of Farro grains, yields are much lighter than those of industrially bred wheats, and, there is that extra pre-processing step of dehulling the grain. But if you figure the true cost of the cheap food system in terms of human, environmental, and social health (not to mention tax moneys used for chemical ag and GMO subsidies), Farro pricing is well within the bounds of reclaiming food democracy.
© 2010 Lentz Spelt Farms
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