Friday, August 6, 2010

The Revolution is in the Backyard: the Importance of History and Small Scale Gardeners in the Present and Future Wheat Movement

The revolution is in the backyard. Knocking on the door, interrogating us with questions about our daily sustenance. Hidden beneath years of green lawn are the deep roots of heritage grains. The new revolutionaries are gardeners and farmers, planting the seeds of the future. Lock them up and take them to jail for violating intellectual property rights but in 20 years they will have the knowledge of how to turn seed, independent of oil, into food on the table. Into salad, into stir-fry, into bread. You name it. The Kneading Conference touched on every step of wheat and bread production specifically, bringing together like minds to facilitate in radicalizing the food system our generation has always known.
The Kneading Conference was the perfect kick-off to this class. From the very beginning Dr. Fred Kirschenmann put this movement of growing grain in Maine into perspective. His distinction between industrial eating and ecological eating really hit home as I began to think about how ludicrous some of our basic staples in our eating habits are in relation to our environment. Bread is our sustenance, yet we don’t grow the wheat- oil does. Through workshops on the techniques of growing ones own wheat and the logistics in the wheat market, we learned the foundation to ecological eating in respects to this food staple in the US. The many workshops on artisanal bread making, highlights being Jonathan Stevens with crackers/ flatbreads and Dusty Dowse demonstrating sourdough, furthered these concepts to a point of accessibility for the home baker with no land. More importantly, they made me question bread on a level above a “staple” and instead as a luxury. One of the speakers asked, why can’t we think of bread as we think of wine? Different regions of local grain each with a different smell, taste- how do winos say it- Bouquet? Also, so much work for one loaf of bread! Every speaker at the Kneading Conference emphasized the communication between the farmer-miller-baker-consumer connection. In class thus far (Dear Parents, I am learning something…) we have recontextualized idealism to question infrastructure and how to realistically go about creating a new food system valuing each step of the bread chain.
So to build a new infrastructure we must fully understand the infrastructure as it currently stands, and its historical significance. The history of wheat in Maine is one of loss. The state used to be considered the “Breadbasket of New England”. In 1825 there were more than 15,000 small mills in ME, VT, NH, and NY powered by the rivers and tides. In the 1860s and 70s the local grain economy supplied all the flour for the bread consumed in Maine. In fact, in the Civil War, Maine provided much of the bread for the Union soldiers. World War I was the last time (before recently) Maine grew wheat on a large scale, and even then it was exported to European countries. Intense wheat farming quickly picked up in the Midwest, in places such as Kansas and Missouri wheat, due to longer season and better soil condition. Wheat is now traded on the stock market just like any other commodity. Maine gave up entirely. There has been no official recorded tally in federal records of wheat grown in the whole of New England since 1946. Up until recently, the small amounts grown in Maine have been for animal feed. Now, thanks to efforts of a Jim Amaral at Borealis Breads, Aurora Mills in Aroostook county, and Matt Williams, just one grower who took the plunge, there are 240 acres of organic wheat out of 600 acres total in the state of Maine. New mills are popping up, like right in Skowhegan, where the Kneading Conference was held, to meet the increasing demand for locally grown wheat. There is hope for the future although the local wheat movement is still small.
This new localized, radicalized approach, as can be expected with anything outside of current day happenings even if it is touching on history, comes with its fair bits of politics. Wheat growing has become a political statement. With a change in mindset comes the set of knowledge to refill that impressionable mind. If we let go of fear of change, and instead embrace innovation, we can and will eat bread that once again is a form of nourishment. Health that extends from the body to economy. Here is where the Will Bonzall’s and John Letts’ of the world come in. Fighting the government while growing one to replace it, based on soil.
Will Bonzall talked about the actual techniques of growing ones own wheat in the backyard. As his gray blue eyes drew me in, I saw the pastoral dream through his eyes and it became my own. He provided listeners with in depth details on how to grow all ones grains needed within a year so one doesn’t need to rely on an outside source, an outside economy which supports the dealing of crop as a commodity. His main message for Mainers was to be flexible and innovative. He showed us how to flail, bending his older body over a pair of converted broom stick handles. He showed us his grain sickle. These were the tools of a hundred years ago. No tractors, no gasoline. His discarding oil dependent technique makes him a fighter. An advocate for the simple life. Or as Helen and Scott Nearing put it, “The Good Life”.
John Letts is one of the characters we have met in our short time (so far) overseas. Beginning as an archeology based botanist, he is studying the simultaneous harvest of thatching wheat for roofs in the UK and that of heritage grains for human consumption. Thatching practices and the wheat seeds he plants, a mix of many varieties, attempts to meet both of these present day needs. However, these varieties are not on the National Seed List, a list approved by the government based on DUS standards (Distinct, Uniform and Stable). Instead his active seed bank supports genetic diversity, naturally prepared for changing climates and whatever disease will strike. What he is doing is technically against the law, and he wants you to know that. More than that. In fact, it seems as if his real purpose is to laugh in the governments face while eating really really good bread. Through breading seeds of the past Letts has found a way to rebuke the present, and support a sustainable future.
In order to solve our present problems, we must return to the past. As current infrastructure stands we water our plants with oil, we eat oil, we live by oil. In order to heal ourselves of bread kneaded with oil, we must knead in the strains of our past, heritage wheats. At the Kneading Conference we learned about and tasted wheats such as Einkorn, with such a hardy taste of years and years of existence. Its strong persistent aftertaste also said something like “Don’t forget me. Plant me again. Carry me through the generations.” Ohhh talking wheat berries. When it comes to learning issues surrounding the food system I like to concentrate on the proactive rather than the solely negative perspective of where our world currently stands. I believe the technical blended with the critiques and future theory will lead to actualization of these goals. In my mind the backyard, both as a reflection on history as well as a space to grow wheat, is the way out the front door.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful essay full of great observations. I am sending it to our kneading conference steering committee to remind them why we spend so much time raising funds to create work/study opportunities. You reinforce our hope and re-fuel (no pun intended) our energy. Have a terrific trip. I look forward to reading the comments as they flow in.

    all best,