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Stuck on Grains in a Veggie World

Virality is the word on everyone’s lips lately, and in the abundance of time I have now that my coursework had moved online I’ve been thinking about the virality of ideas and we pick them up.

Food trends are big in the vegetable world. Maybe you’re purchased some kale chips or cauliflower rice products? Back in the big era of stuffing bell peppers, the trend was so big that plant breeders specifically bred peppers with thick walls and stable bases for stuffing and roasting. Generally when a food trend starts the farmers, wholesalers, and seed companies respond with a flood of products in the following years, and then slowly the trend dies off. This is all common practice, but sometimes an idea will stick with an individual or the culture at large.

Any guesses on what this breathtaking grain is?

Around 5-10 years ago, there was an uptick in the concept of “backyard grains.” Lots of gardeners are drawn by the self-sustaining nature of growing your own food and chipping away at the reliance on industrial grains offers, at first glance, even more self-reliance than what a vegetable garden or orchard can provide. Garden seed sales increased for traditional and newly popularized grains, and the trend proliferated. The movement co-evolved with a growing popularity of alternative small grains like barley, quinoa, and millet. By the time the bubble popped on the grain garden trend, some of these alternative grains had become a household name. (Quinoa pasta anyone?)

Although the trend passed for the general culture, it stuck to me and I think about backyard/small-scale grain production often. In part I think this is because grains are beautiful plants, and when I left my job working for wheat breeders in Colorado and moved to Oregon I deeply missed the expansive fields of green wheat with delicate seed heads swaying in the wind. Since that move I have grown just a little bit (for a farm scale) of wheat every summer, less than 300 sq. ft. It only took one year for me to grasp the impracticality of this: my annual yield was translating to roughly 2 loaves of bread, with an extra batch of cookies on the side.

Knowing that, you might think I would change my growing plants to include something more productive, but year after year I plant the same French heirloom bread wheat. I harvest and thresh it by hand, mill it in our countertop grain mill, and bake a few special loaves and treats. I’ve sketched, photographed, and written about the variety I grow, and I would be lost without at least a few bed feet growing each summer.

Japhet wheat, in the field in 2019.

Small-scale grain growing stuck with me not because it is practical, or even a trend at this point. It gives me a sense of deeper connection to the food web that I eat from, and an understanding of why our food system has developed in the way that it has. And when I get to share those few loaves of bread and cookies and tell people I grew them, it’s all worth it.

Some things spread fast, and burn out at the same speed. Finding connection to the things that grow slow and teach you more each subsequent year is invaluable in our fast and frenzied times.

I hope you all are and continue to be healthy in body and mind. If you need to plant a little hope for the future, let me know and I’ll get some seeds into your hands.

Interested in learning more about the lovely wheat variety I mentioned in this post? Check out Japhet wheat on our Varieties page!

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