Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Grain Treasure Trove

Modern Farmer:
One day in 1965, several members of the agriculture society were out hiking through the fields of Ardre on Gotland, an island off the Swedish coast, when they discovered a chest on Ragnar Pettersson’s farm. While Pettersson had a reputation for his bread, most people thought he was a little off his rocker. Instead of planting monocultures, he sowed his fields with a hodge-podge of grains. He claimed this blend was the secret behind his superior bread.
What the researchers found there would later spur a radical movement of growers and a new generation of experimental bakers. That cache of seeds is now referred to as the “treasure of Ardre.”
“What we discovered in Ardre was pretty much the history of wheat,” says Curt Niklasson, an organic spelt farmer on Gotland.
At the time, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences had issued a request that all native seeds and animal breeds be recorded, so the discovery was sent to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. As the majority of farmers around the world began growing modern, short-stemmed bread wheat (triticum aestivum) the treasure of Ardre sat, virtually untouched, for 30 years.
It wasn’t until the 1990s when Hans Larsson, a researcher in plant breeding for organic farming at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, decided to unearth Pettersson’s seeds take a closer look at their DNA. He counted at least 70 different varieties of grain. Larsson enlisted the help of Niklasson and together they began experimenting with re-growing the ancient grains. But by 2007 the pot of seeds was nearly depleted.
The majority of the article covers using these heritage grains in bread, but I thought this quick history of wheat interesting:
 Gotland is located smack-dab in the middle of the Baltic trade route between Denmark and Sweden. Originally, einkorn made its way from Persia, crossed with wild grasses and turned into wild emmer, was cultivated and crossed with another wild grass and became spelt. There is evidence that einkorn, emmer and spelt were all cultivated on Gotland as far back as 500 B.C. and seeds of all of these were found in Ardre, including multiple sub-varieties, like summer wheat, white, red, blue and black emmer, and borstvete, a variety of wheat that appears to be unique to Gotland. Borstvete, or “brushed wheat” is now listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
Anyway, I enjoyed the story about Ragnar Petterson.  Farms tend to raise up some "interesting" characters. One thing to remember about the heritage varieties which the trendy gardeners have been flocking back to is that because they haven't been improved by breeding, the yields are tremendously low, and just can't provide cheap food for a global population.

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