A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

The Heritage Wheat Revival

Stone ground ancient grains are packed with nutrients

by Anne Pyburn Craig

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Wheat has been grown and domesticated ever since our species has been growing and domesticating. It’s such an ancient and ubiquitous staple that it’s mentioned 39 times in the Old Testament of the Bible. And in the early 20th century, wheat was still being grown and milled in the Northeast.
“There used to be mills all around the Hudson Valley region,” says Community Grain Project founder Don Lewis of Dutchess County. “But that part of the food system collapsed long ago, before big growers started modifying wheat strains for higher yield and longer shelf life. This is an extreme climate for cereal grains, and when the Erie Canal opened, farmers began moving to the Ohio Valley, where there was better soil. Mills went with them, and the ones around here were abandoned.” Later in the 20th century, selective breeding by farmers produced wheat designed to maximize profit.
When Lewis began working with wheat over a dozen years ago at Wild Hive Farms in Clinton Corners, he very nearly had to reinvent the process. “There were no resources and there was no one to teach me; I made a lot of poor flour in the beginning,” he recalls. “And there was no consumer base. Local grain was basically a lost part of the food system.”
The wheat produced by agribusiness doesn’t just lack food value—an issue the industry attempts to remedy by “enriching” flours, breads and pasta with chemical vitamins—it can actually do harm. The 2011 book Wheat Belly by cardiologist William Davis implicates wheat gluten in a host of ills: obesity, arthritis, asthma, and even mental and emotional issues.
But while Davis advocates complete “wheatlessness”, even he admits that modern wheat is the biggest offender. “It’s the product of 40 years of genetics research aimed at increasing yield-per-acre,” he notes on the Wheat Belly website. “The genetic distance modern wheat has drifted exceeds the difference between chimpanzees and humans.”
The 1% of people who suffer from celiac disease must indeed avoid anything wheat-related. But many others who experience lesser ill effects from eating standard wheat may find that the kind of strains Lewis is working with—ancient cultivars such as spelt, emmer, barley and rye, stone ground to retain the germ and bran—produce products they are able to enjoy without ill effects. “I have customers who are gluten-intolerant who can eat my products,” Lewis says. “Especially fresh. All protein gets rancid as it gets old—fresh-milled flour causes many people fewer issues.”
The milling process is an extremely important part of creating healthy grain products. “Mechanized roller mills are much faster than milling with stones,” says Lewis, who nevertheless manages to mill 120 tons of grain a year these days. “But when you roller mill you completely lose both the germ and the bran, which contain the amino acids and minerals. Supermarket bread that’s advertised as ‘stone ground’ comes from running flour that has already been roller milled through stone mills—you still end up with something with no nutrient density and no flavor.”
In restoring density and flavor to the local diet, Lewis found an ally in Eli Rogosa, the woman behind the Heritage Grain Conservancy (growseed.org). For the past two decades, Rogosa has been journeying to the Middle East and Europe, gathering up ancient strains to protect them from extinction. “I maintain hundreds and hundreds of samples from all over the world, and the ones I sell are chosen as the healthiest grains and most likely to thrive,” she says. “I started doing this first because I am originally from the Fertile Crescent and I got fascinated. I am as much an anthropologist of wheat as anything, although I also have a bakery.” The varieties Rogosa collects are the landrace cultivars—strains that have evolved to suit various growing conditions spontaneously, rather than being selectively bred by humans to suit our purposes.
Rogosa’s work is supported by the European Union, Israel, and the USDA; collaborating with the University of Massachusetts Research Farm, she’s been able to experiment with a range of heritage grains. “Modern wheat contributes to the increase in gluten sensitivity. Einkorn is actually not genetically related to [modern] wheat; it doesn’t cause gluten allergic reactions. It’s safe, ancient gluten. I have a problem eating gluten, but I can eat ancient wheat just fine.”
“Since I began, there has been an enormous increase in interest,” Rogosa observes with satisfaction. Lewis agrees: “Demand is tremendous—the main thing is to get growers to start growing again, and there are hundreds of acres potentially being added this year,” he says. “Consumer awareness is at a completely different level than it was fifteen years ago. I started the Wild Hive Bakery knowing that I had to get this wheat into people’s stomachs. I closed it because my energy needs to be going into the Community Grain Project. It’s really coming to fruition, but it needs to keep getting bigger and wider, with more outlets.”
Interest is spreading: on the website of the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s New York website are announcements of upcoming workshops entitled “Producing Heirloom Wheat for the Personal Homestead” and “Diversifying Your Farm with Value-Added Grains.” Rogosa says that growers in Vermont and Massachusetts and at Cornell University have begun working with heritage wheat. But it’s not quite as simple as growing your own tomatoes: the hand-harvesting process involves stages like threshing that are labor-intensive and no longer a part of common knowledge, and then there’s the necessity of having a nearby mill that will grind your crop into flour.
Thanks to Lewis and his Community Grain Project, the growers of the Hudson Valley have the milling piece of the puzzle in place. And food-aware chefs and consumers have taken notice. Celebrity chef Mario Batali uses Wild Hive products extensively at his Eataly NYC artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace, and at Bread Alone in Boiceville, Sharon Burns-Leader uses Wild Hive flour to create a spelt bread described as “sweet, earthy and good for customers with digestive issues.” Hudson Valley outlets for Wild Hive’s flours include Mother Earth’s Storehouse in Saugerties; Woodstock Meats and Sunfrost Farms in Woodstock; Adams Fairacre Farms in Lake Katrine and Poughkeepsie; New Paltz Health and Nutrition Center and Taliaferro Farms in New Paltz; Red Hook Natural Foods; Rhinebeck Health Foods; the Beacon Natural Market; and Nature’s Pantry in Fishkill.
It bears repeating: Celiac sufferers must avoid all gluten. But for people who experience milder gluten reactions, ancient grains may offer a way to enjoy and obtain the health benefits of baked goods without unpleasant effects. Researchers, including Rogosa, are investigating the effects of ancient grains on those who suffer from non-celiac gluten allergies and sensitivities.
For the rest of us, the growing availability of heritage grains is great news; the difference in nutrient density is undeniable. But most of all, there’s the taste—a sensory experience that neither mass-produced breads nor gluten-free substitutes can equal. “You can almost smell and taste the field,” says Lewis of breaking open a fresh loaf of for-real stone ground. “The future of bread is awesome.”