“To go against the grain is the secret of bravery.”
This week was all about grains. Sort of. It was about a lot of things, actually.
To be fair… it was like the last few weeks were all about grains, because I know I’m running late again. I actually started out thinking a lot more about trees, because it’s loquat season here; but I’d also written down “Grains” on my topic scheduler, and I’m practicing sticking to it. So here we are.
And. We had a death in the family. Laine fasted for 21 days after expecting to be only 3 days. A week tops.
We’re deep into exploring out relationship with grains right now as he’s long felt that they don’t work well with his system, and I’m happy to ditch the carb-load sluggishness they induce. [ETA: he just showed up at my desk with his Here, try this face and handed me the most delicious, chewy, crispy-soft tortilla I’ve ever tasted. And it’s grain-, dairy-, sugar- and nut-free. The secret ingredient? Opuntia cactus. The man is a wizard. More on that tortilla to come, but it does look like we’ll be having muscovy duck tacos this weekend for Mother’s Day brunch.]
Anyway, to get to a point, grains are staples around the world. They’re major storage crops and elemental to our food system and culture. They’ve become a major component of how we raise livestock (much to our, and their, detriment). So while there are a number of half-decent to maybe-even-good grain alternatives (cassava/tapioca, potato, taro, coconut, nut flours), there doesn’t seem to be an End of Grains in our future any time soon.
Let us commence.
Pretty much all of Harold McGree’s On Food and Cooking’s commentary on grains is worth quoting. He does a very thorough breakdown of the history and rise of the American breakfast cereal. Suffice to say: stay away if you value your health. I just didn’t get to reading as much of it as I wanted to, so here’s yet another book to go back to and read in entirety in my spare time. Highly recommended, though.
“. . . By this time, you can appreciate why I so enjoy the cereal aisle. I like reading the health claims on the processed cereals and wondering what marketers will dream up next. The packages are, in their weird way, fun to look at. They represent the best thinking of marketers about how to get you to eat processed cereals, to believe that they are good for you, and to insist that nothing else will do for breakfast.”
— Marion Nestle, p. 349, What to Eat
“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry which pays no attention to food.”
Note that this is gradually changing. If you want to learn more, check out this Understanding Ag webinar coming up on May 12th with nutritionist Sara Keough.
“Not long after roller mills became widespread in the 1880’s, alarming rates of nutritional deficiency and chronic disease began cropping up in populations that relied on the new white flour. Around the turn of the century, a group of French and British doctors and medical experts… many of them posted to Britain’s colonies in Asia and Africa, had observed that, soon after white flour and sugar arrived in places where previously what one of them (Robert McCarrison) called ‘the unsophisticated foods of nature’ had been the norm, the Western diseases would predictably appear.”
—Michael Pollan, Cooked (quoted here)
Fred Provenza’s Nourishment is a treasure trove of detailed research into the ability of animals, and ourselves, to discern the nutrition we need based on our ability to sense and process information from the food we eat. In particular, this means being able to physically interpret the array of phytochemicals that we ingest. One problem, however, is that the richness, diversity and quantity of these compounds, as well as the varieties and even species of foods we eat, has declined significantly over the last fifty years. Some key points he makes:
- A major reason for declines in phytochemical richness has been breeders favouring quantity over quality, inadvertently selecting for fewer compounds, and lower nutritional value and flavour. While this seems it would be true only for plants, it applies to meats, dairy and eggs as well since the diversity and quality of plants ingested by an animal directly impact the quality and flavour of these products.
- Irrigating and fertilizing increase growth at expense of phytochemical richness. These are primary practices of industrial global agriculture (organic included).
- As atmospheric CO2 increases, nitrogen (protein) concentration declines, as has been shown for a wide range of plant species; lower levels of protein observed in leaves, stems, roots, tubers, seeds and grains and correlate worldwide with reduced human nutrition
- Higher CO2 is also associated with decreased zinc and iron in grasses and legumes
“. . . [H]igh yields came at the expense of phytochemical richness, which has declined 5 to 40 percent in forty-three fruits, vegetables and grains in the past forty years.”
–p. 31, Fred Provenza, Nourishment
He also spends a great deal of ink and page space breaking down the pitfalls of grain-feeding ruminants in particular and livestock in general. Points highlighted from areas of the book that refer to grains (indicated in the index):
- Grain feeding selects for gut bacteria that digest starch, while grass- and forage-feeding selects for bacteria that degrade cellulose; and diets rich in secondary compounds (e.g. from a variety of actively growing forages) select for microbes that can digest compounds in many potentially toxic plants, thereby allowing herbivores to safely digest them, e.g. halogeton [ More Than a Matter of Taste, Nourishment, 62]
- Positive feedback loops mean that gut bacteria may ultimately drive food preferences based on what an individual consumes, through a mix of hormones, neurotransmitters and peptides.
- Due to their high and rapidly fermentable carbohydrate content, grains lead to acidosis (low rumen pH) in ruminants – that is, nausea and food aversion. When they have no option, eating bentonite and sodium bicarbonate alleviate symptoms; but given alternatives, livestock (sheep, goats, cattle) consistently have been shown in studies to choose a diet with less grain. In fact, when given choices of multiple forages, even just additional hay and grain options, animals will consume less overall feed and convert that feed more efficiently to “more animal” than those on manufactured rations that are nutritionally balanced for the “average” animal. In some cases this resulted in a feed cost reduction of as much as 23%!
From the Scientific Literature Database
Perennial crops, practicalities and ecosystem benefits:
Basche, A. D., & Edelson, O. F. (2017). Improving water resilience with more perennially based agriculture. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 41(7), 799–824. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2017.1330795
Glover, Jerry D., Culman, S. W., DuPont, S. T., Broussard, W., Young, L., Mangan, M. E., Mai, J. G., Crews, T. E., DeHaan, L. R., & Buckley, D. H. (2010). Harvested perennial grasslands provide ecological benchmarks for agricultural sustainability. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 137(1–2), 3–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2009.11.001
Picasso Risso, V. D. (2008). Diversity, productivity, and stability in perennial polycultures used for grain, forage, and biomass production (p. 7051166) [Doctor of Philosophy, Iowa State University, Digital Repository]. https://doi.org/10.31274/rtd-180813-7199
Pimentel, D., Cerasale, D., Stanley, R. C., Perlman, R., Newman, E. M., Brent, L. C., Mullan, A., & Chang, D. T.-I. (2012). Annual vs. Perennial grain production. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 161, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2012.05.025
Ryan, M. R., Crews, T. E., Culman, S. W., DeHaan, L. R., Hayes, R. C., Jungers, J. M., & Bakker, M. G. (2018). Managing for Multifunctionality in Perennial Grain Crops. BioScience, 68(4), 294–304. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy014
And highlighting the role of perennial grains in providing global food security:
Glover, J. D., Reganold, J. P., Bell, L. W., Borevitz, J., Brummer, E. C., Buckler, E. S., Cox, C. M., Cox, T. S., Crews, T. E., Culman, S. W., DeHaan, L. R., Eriksson, D., Gill, B. S., Holland, J., Hu, F., Hulke, B. S., Ibrahim, A. M. H., Jackson, W., Jones, S. S., … Xu, Y. (2010). Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains. Science, 328(5986), 1638–1639. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1188761
Peter, B. G., Mungai, L. M., Messina, J. P., & Snapp, S. S. (2017). Nature-based agricultural solutions: Scaling perennial grains across Africa. Environmental Research, 159, 283–290. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2017.08.011
Cover crops (including, often primarily, annuals) and ecosystem benefits:
Blanco-Canqui, H., Shaver, T. M., Lindquist, J. L., Shapiro, C. A., Elmore, R. W., Francis, C. A., & Hergert, G. W. (2015). Cover Crops and Ecosystem Services: Insights from Studies in Temperate Soils. Agronomy Journal, 107(6), 2449. https://doi.org/10.2134/agronj15.0086
Cordeau, S., Guillemin, J.-P., Reibel, C., & Chauvel, B. (2015). Weed species differ in their ability to emerge in no-till systems that include cover crops. Annals of Applied Biology, 166(3), 444–455. https://doi.org/10.1111/aab.12195
Dorn, B., Jossi, W., & van der Heijden, M. G. A. (2015). Weed suppression by cover crops: Comparative on-farm experiments under integrated and organic conservation tillage. Weed Research, 55(6), 586–597. https://doi.org/10.1111/wre.12175
Ramírez-García, J., Carrillo, J. M., Ruiz, M., Alonso-Ayuso, M., & Quemada, M. (2015). Multicriteria decision analysis applied to cover crop species and cultivars selection. Field Crops Research, 175, 106–115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fcr.2015.02.008
Rühlemann, L., & Schmidtke, K. (2015). Evaluation of monocropped and intercropped grain legumes for cover cropping in no-tillage and reduced tillage organic agriculture. European Journal of Agronomy, 65, 83–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eja.2015.01.006
Vukicevich, E., Lowery, T., Bowen, P., Úrbez-Torres, J. R., & Hart, M. (2016). Cover crops to increase soil microbial diversity and mitigate decline in perennial agriculture. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 36(3), 48. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13593-016-0385-7
In The Public Space
Heirloom Organics provides individual guides on growing amaranth, buckwheat, corn, flax, kamut, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, spelt, and wheat.
Other more general overview articles on growing grains at small (homestead) scales:
- A detailed article on Mother Earth News
- Another at Modern Farmer; less useful but step-by-step instructions for small-scale harvest and cleaning
- Farm and Dairy How To Grow Grains In The Home Garden
- Organic Consumers Home Grown Grains is a decent enough article but what I found really enjoyable was the excerpt from Gene Logsdon’s book Small Scale Grain Raising
- A rather wordy blog post on Permaculture News by Jonathan Engels on his foray in growing grains for his family, including reasons for putting it off and why he finally started
The Land Institute, founded by Wes Jackson, has become and now long been the leader in development of perennial grain crops, including kernza, a perennial wheat (and finally, commercially available). More recently (2018), a perennialised rice (developed through a wide hybrid cross between an annual, cultivated rice, Oryza sativa, and a perennial cousin of rice from Africa, Oryza longistaminata) was released to farmers in China. See more at Daniel Lukes’ series of articles on FoodResilience.uk.
The folks that make up Understanding Ag put out a great e-newsletter and often host very knowledgeable speakers at low cost (usually $25) on their webinars. Next up, in fact, is eco-nutritionist Sara Keough MS, CNS, LDN and webinar titled Regenerating Human Health: Why Nutrient Density Matters. She’ll speak on the importance of nutrient density and the roles of health practitioners, consumers, and farmers in prioritizing food quality over quantity. Check out their webinar listings here.
No particular requests related to grains; although I would like to come back to this section to add pieces on water use and regeneratively-grown grain options. Kernza is now commercially available in limited quantities. With global wheat markets facing a looming crisis, it’s a good time to start considering “alternative” and heirloom grains including kamut, teff, spelt, triticale, and others.
- Relay Cropping Grain with Jason Mauck on the Regenerative Agriculture podcast
- Pivot and Grow is an entire podcast devoted to small-scale grain farming and transitioning to organic grains
- Andrea Hazzard on the Farmer-to-Farmer podcast on growing small-scale grains at Hazzard Free Farm (since 1847!) in Vermont
- Gene Logsdon’s Small Scale Grain Raising
- Jack Lazor’s The Organic Grain Grower
- Michael Pollan, Cooked for wider exploration of traditional cooking methods
- Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. I listened to this book on Audible based on recommendation from grazier Ariel Greenwood. (In fact, I’m currently starting another book she recently recommended, Billionaire Wilderness by Justin Farrell).
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