Across the northern Heartland, thanks to local organic farmers, small producers, and community gardeners, a renaissance of place-based culinary traditions are redefining the way we eat and think about our food. The smallest element in this is the most important—our seeds. Of the millions of seed varieties once available to our grandparents, 97 percent have been lost forever. Yet, thanks to the work currently being done seemingly underground, heirloom seed banks, universities, and ordinary folks are seeking heritage seeds. They are the key to our health, food security and sovereignty. Seeds are our past and our future. Seeds are life.
Our region’s history was shaped by wheat. In the mid-1800s, German Mennonite immigrants brought the best varieties of wheat with them when they settled in the Midwest to farm. Most notably, Turkey Red—a high-gluten grain that makes beautiful flour and wonderful bread. Within about 50 years Turkey Red was so well suited to its new home that it displaced corn as the Midwest’s primary crop and changed the region’s farm economy and landscape. Planted in the fall and dormant through the winters, Turkey Red was disease and fungus resistant, and an ideal crop for Minnesota’s harsh climate.
Soon wheat would grow a small river town into the state’s largest city, Minneapolis, and put Minnesota on the national map for wheat and flour production. In 1866, Cadwallader Washburn built his mill on the banks of the Mississippi, founding what is today, General Mills. Up until WWII, the biggest changes in grocery store flour had to do with how it was milled. But then the grain itself was changed.
Charged with ending world hunger by increasing the yields of agricultural staples, Dr. Norman Borlaug, a University of Minnesota geneticist, created a new variety of wheat that produced huge quantities of large kernels when heavily fertilized. Because this wheat grows low to the ground, it doesn’t topple under its seed head’s increased weight and is far easier to harvest by machine. This is the wheat that is commercially milled into 98 percent of U.S. flour today.
With the creation of our modern wheat, scientists avoided one disaster—they fed the world and made a product that could continue to do so for generations to come—but they did it by tricking nature. According to Dr. Abdullah Jaradat, Soil Management Research Agronomy in Morris, Minnesota, the work was unnecessary and harmful. “Wheat can evolve without the use of chemicals and adjust naturally to the soil conditions, withstand pests and diseases, in a variety of locations throughout the world. Today’s wheat is lazy. It’s spoiled. We feed it everything it needs. By tampering with genetics, we’ve created a food that provides farmers and manufacturers with maximum yield at the lowest cost,” he said.
“But more dangerous than anything else, modern wheat is unsustainable. We are witnessing the near elimination of diverse strains of wheat, vital to human and environmental health and to food security. The genetic management of this crop has shifted into to the hands of industrial breeders but with hidden costs. It’s dependent on chemicals to survive; is harvested and replanted each year, which adds to erosion of our topsoil, the source of our fertility. And, though it’s been disputed, the jury is out as to whether or not this wheat contains excess gluten responsible for a variety of health issues.”
In contrast, the older varieties of wheat, such as Turkey Red, are genetically diverse, and thus better adapted to organic systems. “Diversity is essential to our food security, especially as the climate becomes unstable and as pests and weeds evolve to withstand the chemicals to control them,” Jaradat said. Thanks to the work of seed-saving organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Dream of Wild Health, Honor the Earth, White Earth Reservation, Wozupi Tribal Gardens, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, as well as the Heritage Wheat Conservatory, heritage seeds and biodiversity* are coming back.
In the Twin Cities, two new mills are once again grinding heritage wheat and thus generating interest in this heirloom grain. Turkey Red wheat is ground by Sunrise Flour Mill, in North Branch, Minnesota, and sold at the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis.
When I first met its founder Darrold Glanville, he opened a sack and spilled a few Turkey Red kernels into my palm. Shiny, rich mahogany brown, they squirmed through my fingers and skittered to the floor as though alive. “When wheat is ground fresh, there’s a different quality to the flour,” he said. “It has a distinct flavor and makes a very responsive dough. You’ll see when you make bread, the dough springs up when it hits the oven’s heat. Bakers call that ‘bounce’; they develop beautiful firm crusts.” This is evidenced in the sourdough breads Jonathan Kaye of Heritage Bread bakes using Sunrise Flour Mill’s flours and sells at Mill City Farmers Market, too.
This year, grindstone milling returned to Minneapolis, with Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in the Food Building. It’s the brainchild of Steve Horton, who founded Rustica Bakery. Recognizing the importance of good tasting, heritage wheat, Steve began his search for farmers willing to try the different varieties of older grains that once grew in our region. In doing so, Baker’s Field supports farmers willing to experiment and find the types wheat that have great flavor and baking profiles and that are also resilient and regenerative for our soil.
Wheat isn’t the only food being revived by our region’s slightly obsessive gardeners, passionate cooks, environmentalists, and food activists. Heritage varieties of corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, hogs, chickens, ducks, turkeys are all being cultivated as part of the effort to defend agricultural diversity, one that balances heirloom varieties and a healthy food system, matching plant and animal biodiversity with the demands of the land and the climate.
As a home cook, I’m now realizing that flour, which I thought was a cheap commodity, is a nutritious, seasonal food, like blueberries. The variety of wheat, the area it’s grown in, the growing conditions, as well as its freshness all affect its flavor and performance. So, just like my favorite apples, or the spring’s first peas, the taste of wheat will vary throughout the year.
When I kneaded Sunrise Flour Mill’s heritage flour into dough to bake beautiful bread, and I sliced into Baker’s Field’s tangy sourdough baguette—in fact, whenever I make a pie with keepsake apples, a soup with Jacob’s Cattle beans, or roast up Gete-Okosomin, an ancient Native American squash—I taste both our past and our future.
Wheat, for example, is grown on more acreage than any other commercial crop in the world and continues to be the most important grain source for humans. Its production leads all crops, including rice, maize, and potatoes. Given its role in our diets and its place in our history, isn’t heritage wheat worth our attention, time, technology, and resources to grow it well? We have the intelligence, if not the wisdom, to grow beautiful heirloom staples. How do we teach everyone the value of all this? Make great bread.
*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the operation of the seed-saving groups. Many of the Native-owned organizations mentioned, while raising awareness and support for heritage seeds in general, often curate indigenous seeds in specific, and not wheat, which is native to the Middle East.