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Amber Waves of Grain - Article

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Amber Waves of Grain
In Search of Ancient Einkorn

by Sara Finkelstein

Getting up at 3:45 AM is definitely painful. But when you are visiting a farm, you keep farmers’ hours. And with a 5:11 AM sunrise mid-summer, we planned for an early departure!

I am traveling with Tim, President of ChefShop.com, who has invited me to visit his Emmer grower, Lena Lentz Hart, and two other farmers in Eastern Washington. Tim and I met last March when I called ChefShop.com about sponsoring Backyard Bounty, the garden-to-table documentary series I have been developing for the past year. Being a food person and a film person, Tim was eager to get involved.

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been taking his fancy new digital SLR camera out for a spin, test-filming teaser episodes of Backyard Bounty, around Seattle. We filmed chard, we filmed a newly constructed vegetable garden, and lately, we’ve been talking berries….

Two weeks ago, when the Rainier Cherries were almost ready for harvest, Tim created a short vignette about the farmers who supply his business. I LOVED it! What a great way to connect with the farmer whose hands picked your fruit. It felt so direct, so intimate. And such an antidote to the nameless, faceless big agricultural giants that grow and process so much of our food.

So when Tim heard that the fields that supply his specialty, heirloom grains were burgeoning, green, and healthy, he scheduled a trip and invited me to come along. We wanted to film the fields when they were lush and green, before being mowed down by combines. And we wanted to film some interviews with the farmers in the fields.

We're Off To See The Grain Wizard

Driving east from Seattle, the urban architecture gives way to great swaths of ochre-colored land, dusty and dry from the heat. The ragged edges of deep canyons betray ancient flooding that sent millions of gallons of glacial melt-water tearing across the state. We try to remember the names of the geologic eras, but can’t….Jurassic, Cretaceous, Cambrian?.....We’ll have to consult with our 7-year old sons.

At sunset we crest a hill, passing a field of giant windmills, impossibly huge, like metallic redwoods, looming over the landscape, dyed purple in the final rays of the setting sun. We think about filming but miss the exit.

We pull into our Best Western Hotel in Othello, Washington at 9:45 PM. The air smells sweet - a grassy, wheaty scent punctuated with a slight whiff of barnyard from the horse trailer in the parking lot. I refuse a wake-up call, imagining that the fright of a sharply ringing phone at 3:45 in the morning would leave me shaking with adrenaline-laced panic for hours into the day.

By 10 PM, we can tell that we are in fast food hell for dinner options. Kind of ironic for two slow food lovers, and for an area surrounded by farms. Tim tells me to choose my poison. I’m not sure what I would have done had I not spied a small brightly painted Mexican taqueria two doors down from the hotel. Funny that the attendants at the front desk suggested Wal-Mart, when this was a two-minute walk. Tim takes a photo of our chicken sopes, which we eat in the hotel because really the restaurant was closed, but the owner stayed open to serve us, her children waiting patiently with groceries at one of the tables in the front.

Rene Featherstone - Grain Historian

I feel like I have just closed my eyes when the gently ascending ringtone on my iPhone alarm startles me awake, leaving my heart racing as I jump into the shower. (Alarm repeat: never!) We are meeting farmer/consultant/grain expert, Rene Featherstone, just before dawn at a truck stop off the highway. Rene will lead us to the fields. Rene looks like a grizzled mountain man, deeply tanned, with a full white mustache and beard, his long white hair tied into a ponytail behind his head. He smokes unfiltered, hand-rolled cigarettes. And his Germanic heritage is evident in his clipped accent and precise speech.

Over the course of the day, I would come to realize that Rene has encyclopedic knowledge of almost any topic you can throw at him: the geology of Eastern Washington, the genetic heritage of cereal grains, the evolution of agriculture, the history of the USDA, nutritional information, organic farming techniques, and anything about growing grain…. He must have read a lot during those twenty years when he was living in a teepee in the woods, picking apples for a living!!

Introducing Einkorn - The Most Ancient of Grains

Our first stop is to be Brad Bailie’s farm. Lena and Rene contract with farmer Bailie to grow the ancient grains Emmer and Einkorn.

Rene explains that Einkorn is an ancient grain; an early ancestor of wheat that originated in the Fertile Crescent one million years ago. He ordered a handful of seeds from a seed bank in Idaho to start this field, and to his knowledge, he is the first person cultivating Einkorn in the US. He walks into the field, his legs disappearing into the waist-high, waxy green grains waving on slender stalks. His eyes mist over when he stops to consider: he is standing amidst a crop with a million-year-old heritage. Every bread, every cereal, every pasta, every cake has ultimately come from this grain. It started in the birthplace of civilization, and it was among the first grains ever cultivated.

To get to the Emmer fields, we drive down a desiccated dirt road, kicking up so much dust that the rear windshield becomes entirely opaque. (Between the dust and the thick clouds of insects on the drive over, I’m not surprised that Tim’s wife insists on a car wash after we get home!)

Compared to Einkorn, Emmer is a lighter, silvery green, more dainty on the stalk. Emmer is only 500,000 years old, a newcomer compared to ancient Einkorn. Rene tells me that it was first cultivated in Turkey and was widely used in ancient Egypt and the middle East. It’s still popular in Italy, where it is known as "Farro".

All three of Lentz Farm’s specialty grains – Emmer, Einkorn, and Spelt (which Lena herself grows) – have more fiber, protein, and other nutrients than conventional wheat. Plus they have a nutty flavor and satisfying, toothsome texture. And they are thought not to have the nasty part of the gluten protein that can sicken people with celiac disease* (though they do have gluten).

Brad Bailie - The Art of Growing Emmer and Einkorn

At the Emmer field, we meet Farmer Brad Bailie under a gargantuan, tubular watering rig that must stretch for a quarter mile long and reach 100 feet into the air. At age 38, Farmer Brad is surprisingly young – he has a friendly, boyish face and is wearing a baseball cap. He tells me that he is blessed, because the land he farms has been in his family for four generations.

Being an organic farmer has it's perks. People surround him at parties, eager to know what he does and how he does it. Brad's goal is sustainability; to farm in harmony with nature. He feels like he’s there, but if you wanted to surprise him for Christmas, he’d be thrilled with a solar-powered tractor.

Still, he never uses pesticides or chemical fertilizers. He plants insectaries – stands of flowering plants that attract good bugs to consume the bad bugs that would destroy his crops. (Although Brad himself is reluctant to label bugs as good or bad – who are we to judge?) He builds telephone-pole-like perches for hawks and eagles, nature’s non-chemical solution for rodent control. And he’s very mindful of soil fertility, of making the soil a rich ecosystem of microbes capable of breaking down organic material into an array of nutrients that his crops are able to incorporate through their root systems.

And that’s where the enhanced nutrition comes in. Brad says he likes farming heirloom grains, because their roots dig deeper than conventional wheat, and they are able to squeeze more nutrients out of the soil – nutrients that end up in the product that he sells. Plus his plants grow taller than short, stumpy commodity wheat, so they handily out-compete weeds, and he is left with more organic material to turn back into the soil to feed next year’s crops (which he’ll rotate to include onions, potatoes, beans, and cover crops).

Lena Lentz Hardt - A Leep of Ancient Faith

A dusty hour away lies Lena Lentz Hardt’s 240 acres. Lena is a fourth generation farmer, her family originating from Germany via the Russian Steppes. She lives in the house that her grandparents built for her parents, down the street from the family cemetery, adjoining the land where her extended family used to homestead. Touring the property to find our interview location, I trample fresh chamomile flowers, which release a sweet, floral scent, and later dill whose pungent leafiness fills the hot air. (It turns out her mother liked to make pickles.)

Lena has a shy, inviting smile, and as we talk, her long graying hair is swept back by the wind. She shows me a copy of the certificate, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt himself, granting her great-grandfather the deed to their land. The family started out by growing wheat and barley, the only crops that would survive in this dry, unforgiving farmland. Eventually, though, she tired of the low, government-mandated prices for her crops, and she consulted with Rene.

Why not try heirloom grains? They had evolved in the arid conditions of the Middle East, so perhaps they would be more naturally suited to the parched landscape of Eastern Washington.

Thus began a 10-year experiment that has resulted in Lentz Farms becoming the premier grower of heirloom grains in the state of Washington.

Lena is modest when she admits that their grain is prized by chefs and bakers alike. She was nervous on camera and clutched a hand-written cheat sheet in her hands, but her heart came through when she relayed the story of a team of bakers who had been using her spelt flour and who visited her farm for the first time earlier this summer. Her eyes twinkled and she smiled shyly as she remembered how moved they had been as they walked through the fields of sunrise-colored golden grain – grain that she had lovingly tended with her own hands, grain that soon would make its way to their bakery to be lovingly tended by their hands as well.

The Circle of Life - Summer Farro Risotto (Farrotto..?)

I guess I feel the same way. Our trip gave me the sense of a closed loop, a direct connection, an intimacy.

When we get home, Tim gives me a bag of Emmer from Lentz Farm. I plan to soak it, simmer it, and make it into a chewy, nutty-flavored Summer Farro Salad that will nourish my family with nutrients emanating from the deep volcanic soil and continuous sunshine of Eastern Washington. And I will thank Lena, Rene, and Brad for toiling so hard to produce delicious, healthful, sustainable foods for my table.

The only problem is that I think I lied about my alarm clock. Harvest is in three weeks, and we plan go back to catch it all on film.

* OK, I am not a doctor, so please do not take my word for it. If you have Celiac Disease, check this out with someone more highly trained than I! It seems there might be some medical disagreement about this point, and I would hate to be the cause of your next episode of writhing pain.

(c) ChefShop.com, 2010

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