Gardening Presentation by Rene Featherstone, 3/01/11
Last night Rene Featherstone of Lentz Spelt Farms gave a presentation at the Elk Plain Grange about the history of grains and also gave the audience some guidelines to help them select the appropriate grains to grow in their gardens. He also discussed with the audience of about 70, the conditions that gardeners can provide for the grains that will contribute to a successful harvest.
Rene started his presentation with an announcement of “bad news” that he had recently gotten from a meeting with the curator of the seed bank in Idaho. The curator explained to Rene that it was inevitable that the world would be seeing genetically modified wheat and other grains in the near future. This was horrible news to Rene who as a freelance journalist and active farmer has been following the GMO (genetically Modified Organism) alfalfa fiasco. Rene says that the release of GMO alfalfa into the environment means that all alfalfa will eventually be contaminated resulting in health problems for bees and other insects as well as the animals who eat the alfalfa. He noted that if you drive along any rural road in Eastern Washington you’ll see feral alfalfa which means that alfalfa spreads freely. Because of this, the GMO alfalfa will naturally spread into other fields and eventually be present in all alfalfa crops.
The oldest known grain to be cultivated by people is einkorn, a grain that still grows wild in the Middle East. Einkorn and another simple grain, emmer are genetically simple having only 28 chromosomes compared to modern grains that have 42. Modern wheat occured when the simpler einkorn and emmer crossed with goat grass and produced a grain that is called “free threshing” meaning that the hulls can be removed fairly easily. Rene told the audience that when an Ice Age man was found preserved in a glacier, it was found that his last meal was einkorn.<!–more–>
In recent times, grain researchers/breeders have worked to develop strains of wheat that are suitable for industrial farming, producing large yields of white flour. This means that the grain is developed to have relatively small outer casings (bran) that happen to provide the majority of minerals and vitamins. The bran, in modern wheat processing is a waste product and so unwanted. The wheat is also bred to be shorter to prevent lodging (falling down in the field). A smaller/shorter plant also has smaller roots, meaning that the plant is not able to absorb as many nutrients from the soil. As a result, it was found that modern grains have less than half the nutrients of grain grown just 100 years ago!
For gardeners, Rene suggested selecting free threshing grains such as wheat, rye, tritacale (a cross between wheat and rye) or hull-less oats that are more easily processed. He said that a mistake that many gardeners make is to over fertilize or water their grains. Interestingly grains produce the higher protein when they are stressed by having a lack of water. Grains, being a grass grow automatically. They tend to out-compete weeds, but the soil should be prepared in such a way to minimize invasive weeds by cultivating and then growing a cover crop that is tilled under in the spring. Some wheat is planted in the Fall (winter wheat). Winter wheat grows in the fall and goes dormant in the winter, flowering in the Spring for a Summer harvest. Spring wheat is planted in the early spring and harvested in the Summer. Rene said that the crop will mature when the weather conditions allow and the maturing is not tied to the planting time.
Gardeners might want to take advantage of growing several crops in their grain bed. A brassica, camelina produces seeds that make an oil that is very high in Omega-3 and keeps much better than flax oil. Growing some camelina with your grains also has the advantage of helping the grains stand up and resist lodging. You can also grow a legume such as beans or peas with your grains which have the advantage of adding nitrogen to the crop, resulting in better over all yields. You need to choose varieties that will mature all at the same time, however, because the entire crop will have to be harvested together and then separated using various sizes of mesh screen.
Grains are unusual in that they have a high sugar content while they are maturing and the sugar gradually converts to starch as they ripen. This is the opposite to fruits which start as starch and convert to sugar. Grains need to be stored with less than 12% moisture to prevent loss through heating and mold.
Many people in the audience were interested in growing barley, a grain that thrives in our maritime climate. There are varieties of barley that are considered “hull-less”, but these varieties are not actually free threshing like wheat and do require more processing. Rene’s advice is for gardeners to try a variety of grains and use a variety of methods to grow them, and to keep notes on what what you do so that you can find out what works and what doesn’t.