From the Middle East to the Midwest

The Future of Ancient Einkorn

Beneath lazy clouds, amid a thick mid-July air that is fragrant with agriculture, a large green combine traverses a shaggy brown field. Wedged conspicuously between a verdant tangle of alfalfa and sturdy adolescent corn, the senescent crop of long arching grasses appears soft and friendly from a distance. Up close, things look pricklier: brittle dry stems topped with two-row seed heads, each grain stretched out into a spine, or awn, that splinters easily.

An untrained eye could reasonably assume this crop to be run-of-the-mill wheat. Although perhaps not often thought of as such, Ohio is a wheat state, harvesting 70 million bushels annually, and leading the nation in the production of soft red wheat, which is used for pastry flour. In 2017, following a continuing decline in wheat prices, Ohio farmers shifted to soybeans. They planted only 470,000 acres in wheat, less than half of the acreage planted eight years earlier, which set a new low in state ag records. This field in front of me is certainly not soybeans. It is, in fact, wheat—but not of the ordinary sort.

Read the rest of this story...

As the combine advances, barn swallows swoop to catch insects disturbed by the business-end of the machine—a rotating spool that chews up the grass. From the back end, dusty straw is laid down on a bed of stubble in a row that is wider than the height of a farmer.

Jon Detweiler runs this operation. Despite the heat, he’s layered a long-sleeved button-down over a white t-shirt, with blue jeans and worn leather work boots. A Stihl baseball cap and opaque sunglasses obscure the rest of him. As the combine moves along, Jon pulls out the smartphone strapped to his belt to update followers of the farm on the harvest’s progress. Jon is 29, and he has worked as a farmhand on the Steiner family farm since the age of nine. After completing a biblical studies program, he got a “regular job” for a time, but longed to return to farm life.

“I wanted to have my own farm, but it was unfeasible with the land prices around here nearing $20,000 an acre,” he concedes. He returned to the Steiner farm, now Venture Heritage Farm, which is part of a larger Orville-based company that also makes tractors and other farming equipment for small farmers. As farm manager, Jon runs the day-to-day operations and helps develop the vision for the 112-acre organic farm. He sees specialty crops, including the einkorn wheat that is being harvested in front of us, as crucial to the farm’s success.

“We’re trying to find niches that can help sustain a fairly small farm. When you’re organic, you have a lot more value you can create, but you still need to be creative with what you grow,” he says.

Jon interrupts himself and runs over to the combine as it makes a close pass. He catches fine debris from the back on a one-square-foot piece of white cardboard and, after looking it over, signals for a consultation with the combine operator, who wears a headset and rules from a glass box atop the massive machine. With talk of “opening up the sieves” and “bumping down the fan speed,” Jon explains that the combine should be storing the grain within its hulk, while kicking out straw and fine debris from the back. He’s finding unacceptable numbers of precious einkorn kernels lost from the back, as well. Having begun the harvest with combine settings that work for harvesting oats, the two have been tinkering to figure out what works for einkorn.

“There’s nobody around who knows the settings for einkorn wheat,” Jon exclaims over the noise of the combine. “The guy who tests grain moisture for me didn’t even know what it was,” adding, for emphasized astonishment, “He works in a grain mill!”

The Road to Modernity

Einkorn may be new to Northeast Ohio, but it’s hardly new. Considered the oldest form of cultivated wheat, Jon’s amber waves of grain would be a familiar and happy sight for a farmer some 10,000 years ago in the vicinity of present-day Syria. In humanity’s first foray into agriculture, einkorn wheat was among the first seeds humans planted en masse with the hopeful intention of harvesting.

Einkorn originated from wild forms of the species Triticum monococcum, a three-foot-tall grass that produces relatively few small grains, each tightly enclosed in a hull that must be removed before milling and eating. From these simple beginnings, wheat genetics became pretty messy, but the complications leading to modern wheat boosted yields and other traits appreciated by wheat farmers, millers, and bakers, and, of course, the people who enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Shortly after einkorn domestication, another strange grass caught the eye of early farmers. Emmer wheat is a product of natural hybridization between a wild wheat (Triticum urartu) and a species of goatgrass (genus Aegilops). A minor crop today, emmer appears in grocery stores as small expensive bags of farro.

Selection among emmer varieties eventually resulted in durum, a wheat with a loose-fitting hull that easily fell off with manual threshing, exposing a grain loaded with non-elastic protein. Milled into semolina flour, durum could be transformed into chewy morsels of innumerable shapes, the foodstuff of picky children to this day: pasta.

Within 2,000 years, another chance hybridization event took wheat further along the road to modernity, when a domesticated emmer was fertilized with yet another species of goatgrass to produce spelt. Like einkorn and emmer, it too has a hull that needs removal prior to milling, but eventually farmers found a free-threshing mutant that was easy to mill into flour, with proteins that formed an elastic dough that baked into a lofty, chewy, irresistible loaf. Modern bread wheat was born, a hybrid of a hybrid with more than 100,000 genes (five times the number humans have) that farmers could continue tinkering with.

A Precarious Dependency

The combine, full of einkorn, makes its way to the side of the field, where a menacing unloader arm with its downward-facing shoot reaches out to the open top of a gravity wagon, a wheeled metal bin, hitched to a tractor. A torrent of dusty grain shoots from combine to wagon.

Jon planted 110 pounds of seed per acre on four and a half acres last September. The einkorn grew a bit last fall, then overwintered dormant before resuming growth in the spring. Jon is hoping his harvest of this winter wheat will fall in the ballpark of 2,200 pounds per acre. Modern wheat, under high-input cultivation, could yield twice that or more.

Modern wheat’s high yield resulted, in part, from larger grains on larger seed heads. Over successive generations of selection for increased yield, another valuable wheat trait became apparent to farmers: stems that could support the hefty seed heads perched at their tips. When wheat stems bend or break, the seed heads wind up laying on the ground and rotting, an age-old problem called “lodging.” Jon’s strategy to avoid lodging is to limit the plant’s access to nitrogen, a nutrient that both promotes spindly stems and large seed heads. In this sense, einkorn pairs well with organic production, where synthetic fertilizers are replaced with practices like compost addition, reduced tillage, and cover crop rotations that increase the soil’s organic matter while modestly boosting fertility.

For farmers of modern bread wheat who use abundant synthetic fertilizers, lodging isn’t much of a problem, thanks primarily to some key agronomists, whose mid-20th-century discoveries and breeding programs are credited with saving a billion lives from starvation and firmly planting wheat as a global staple of industrial agriculture.

In the mid-1930s, at an agricultural research station in northern Japan, scientist Gonjiro Inazuka bred a high-yielding strain of wheat with half the height of typical varieties of the time. Norin 10 was named and released to Japanese farmers, with touted benefits of a two-foot-tall sturdy stem that would stand up to winds and avert lodging. At the close of World War II, Norin 10 was “discovered” by a midwestern agronomist sent to Japan with American occupying forces. By 1952, seed that he sent to the States wound up in the hands of Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist directing a wheat improvement program in Mexico, where a scourge of stem rust was decimating wheat production. In a few short years, crossing dwarf wheat with traditional Mexican strains, Borlaug succeeded in producing multiple high-yielding dwarf cultivars adapted to a variety of conditions and resistant to a wide range of diseases.

The successes in Mexico caught the attention of scientists from the Indian subcontinent, whose populations were on the brink of mass famine and relying heavily on imported grain. Collaborations between Borlaug and Indian and Pakistani scientists soon led to the development and spread of high-yield, disease-resistant, dwarf wheat cultivars into farm fields across both countries. Farmers adopting the new protocol soon saw harvest five times higher than their colleagues who stuck to tradition. By the mid-1970s, both countries’ wheat yields had more than doubled and were increasing at rates higher than their populations were growing. The two had gone from being wheat importers to wheat exporters.

In 1970, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with wheat and for launching the so-called Green Revolution, the most significant change in agriculture since its inception. But the genetic improvements of Borlaug, et al., would not have yielded such spectacular results had it not been paired with the liberal application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigated water on ever larger tracts of land controlled by fewer people and worked by fossil- fueled machines. While the work of these 20th-century agronomists was rightly praised for temporarily averting Malthusian disaster, today the unsustainability of this agricultural regiment has come to the fore, and our hopeful vision of the Green Revolution has dimmed under a shadowy future of Industrial Agriculture.

One outcome of this revolution is certain. Today, wheat is a global staple planted on more acres of cropland than any other grain, with nearly 150 pounds consumed per person annually. Had wheat remained a low-yielding, quasi-wild, lanky-stemmed grass like einkorn, it seems doubtful humanity would have entered into such a precarious dependency on it.

The Indictment of Modern Wheat

With falling prices and expensive inputs, it’s not surprising that a young enterprising farmer like Jon Detweiler would shun a crop that saved countless lives and won a Nobel prize. But does it make sense to invest in a has-been wheat with low yields and a tendency to fall over? Will anyone want to buy and eat einkorn? These two questions are not trivial for a farmer with little more than 100 acres to allocate to crops. And although he grew fewer than five acres of einkorn, Jon still has to find a market for 10,000 pounds of it.

Turns out, all of Jon’s harvest is spoken for, under contract with Stutzman Farms in Holmes County. Here at the dawn of our century, Monroe Stutzman put together a working mill with antiquated stone mills, rollers, and dehullers and has been selling whole grain products since 2005. Stutzman’s experimentation with einkorn began with his first learning of it at a family farm event in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He had been hired to speak about grain, but when someone in attendance brought up einkorn, Stutzman was at a loss, having never heard of it.

Underscoring the obscurity of einkorn, Stutzman’s search for seed followed a circuitous pathway that started with an Idaho seedbank and ended with an Amish farmer selling him 150 pounds of einkorn from his own seedstock. In 2015, Stutzman planted experimental plots of three different varieties outside his mill. Of these, one lodged and was useless, but the others showed promise.

The next year, Stutzman contracted farmers to grow out 25 acres of einkorn, and upped this to 40 acres from Jon and three other farmers in 2017. Demand has been growing modestly for Stutzman’s hulled einkorn berries and whole and all-purpose einkorn flours, which reach customers through grocery stores, buying clubs, bakeries, and walk-in retail sales at the mill.

When I ask Stutzman if he’s thought much about the fact that he’s milling a wheat that was grown 10,000 years ago, he’s emphatic: “That’s why I’m excited about it. It’s probably the only [wheat] that hasn’t been messed with.” Since learning about einkorn that one fateful day, he now says it’s the only wheat he and his family eat, adding that he doesn’t feel good if he eats regular wheat.

Stutzman’s sentiments about modern wheat and how he feels eating it have become a popularly expressed basis for renewed interest in einkorn. The supposed villainy of gluten has been the subject of books, websites, and popular conversation for some time, though the science behind claims of widespread harm caused by gluten is inconclusive.

Glutenin and gliadin are two types of proteins found in the seeds of several edible grasses, especially wheat. When wheat grains are milled into flour mixed with water and kneaded, these proteins link together, forming long stretchy chains of gluten, which give bread its “muscle,” sublimely expressed in a perfect baguette.

In people with celiac disease, gluten is attacked by the immune system in the small intestine, damaging this important organ and leading to numerous health problems. Celiac affects about 1% of the U.S. population, but in the early 1980s, clinicians came to recognize celiac-like symptoms in those without the disease, symptoms that abated when wheat was omitted from the diet. Today, perhaps 6% of the U.S. population exhibits “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”

Given that Americans were eating twice as much wheat in 1900 than they were in 2000, the go-to culprit behind the rise of wheat intolerance became the “messed-with” wheat that dominates post-Green Revolution fields. The argument has some merit, as some cultivars of dwarf bread wheats have been found to be higher in forms of gluten known to trigger a stronger immune response in celiac patients. Still, the indictment of modern wheat isn’t a done deal. Researchers are looking into other factors that might help explain the uptick in wheat intolerance, such as changes in bread making or whether certain carbohydrates or different wheat proteins might deserve more of the blame. Other researchers are asking whether the trend should be examined as part and parcel with the general rise in auto-immune disorders.

Einkorn offers some an exit from the debate. With lower levels of gluten-forming proteins, even while having a higher overall protein content, many with gluten-sensitivity (though not celiac) have renewed their relationship with bread, thanks to this ancient wheat.

There are marked differences in working with einkorn flour. Einkorn doughs tend to be wetter and without the elasticity of modern bread wheat doughs, but for those bakers willing to work with it, einkorn has its charm. Jud Smith, who’s been baking whole grain sourdough bread in a hand-built wood-fired oven at his Brimfield Bread Oven, just south of Kent, admires einkorn’s “clean, nutty flavor . . . with very little of the bitter flavor you sometimes get with whole wheat,” adding that he finds the dough to “have very good strength for a whole, ‘ancient grain’, produc[ing] loaves with good volume.”

Whether or not the case against gluten and modern dwarf-wheat varieties winds up holding water, there are good reasons to preserve ancient wheats, as well as their wild grass relatives.

The Future: Diversity Begets Resilience

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) has managed a seed bank of dry-adapted crops in Syria for decades, since its relocation from Lebanon during that country’s civil war. Seed banks preserve seeds cryogenically, requiring reliable energy systems to maintain constant frigid temperatures. Recognizing the fragility of these systems, the conscientious scientists of ICARDA had been placing copies of the Syrian collection in other banks, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway. Their foresight paid off as Syria’s own civil war threatened ICARDA’s seed collection, and it relocated from Aleppo to Beirut in 2012.

As with all seed banks, the ICARDA collection is a recognition that diversity begets resilience, and that genes from commercially obsolete varieties of ancient crops and their wild relatives may be useful in improving or even saving a future harvest. The ICARDA collection includes nearly 37,000 varieties of bread wheat, durum wheat, and primitive and wild wheats. Even as security was faltering at the Syrian seed bank, agronomists from faraway lands were requesting these wheat seeds to address emerging threats to this most important crop.

In Kansas, farmers have been reporting heavy losses of wheat due to Hessian fly larvae, which feed on and weaken the plant’s stem. Cold winters used to reliably kill the dormant fly larvae. In the upper Midwest and adjacent Canada, hotter-than-normal summers combined with intense though sporadic downpours have led to outbreaks of Fusarium head blight, a fungus that spoils wheat grain on the plant. Recognizing that climate conditions in America’s breadbasket have been looking decidedly more “Middle Eastern,” researchers are delving into wheat’s extensive genome for favorable traits for the future. As wheat farmers grapple with our new climate reality now, multiple climate change models anticipate wheat yield reductions of 4%–6% for every degree Celsius increase in global temperature. These diminishing returns—from heat and water stress, pests, and disease—come just as the swell of humanity (more than 7.5 billion and counting) has pledged allegiance to its sustenance.

As we wrapped up our conversation, I found myself thinking about the future of farming and the motivations of a young farmer like Jon. The average age of farmers in this country is pushing 60, and the question of who will replace them has been a central one for those prone to thinking about the future of humanity’s 10,000-year endeavor.

Our revolutionary changes to farming have yielded modern obstacles for the would-be farmer, with the costs of land, machinery, seed, and various inputs forming an effective barrier between the land and those with the energy and enthusiasm to work it. On the other side of this barrier is an occupation with an annual salary determined by a storm cloud or a herd of deer, and the long-term security of an eating trend or a climate change prognosis.

With youth also often comes idealism, and Jon expressed to me a measure of faith in humanity, crediting this moment as one in which people are “more educated and . . . care more about their food, which gives the farmer the validity to care, too.” Th is perceived level of engagement frees him to experiment with crops outside the high-input industrial rotation, returning lost diversity to our agricultural landscape.

But it will be up to us—the eaters —to affirm his idealistic choice, and those of other innovative farmers, to be more than cogs in an unsustainable agricultural machine. It will be up to us to show farmers that we care about what they do.

Jon is betting that einkorn can offer us an impetus to care.

Here’s a nearly wild wheat that flourished before there were farmers to coddle it. A wheat with meager demands and offering sound nutrition. A wheat with genes and traits that could prove useful in our uncertain future. A crop worth saving, not only in cryogenic collections, but alive, as a field of wind-tousled seed heads, as a hot commodity in a vibrant local marketplace.

In short, Jon is offering us something interesting because, as he modestly assessed, “When you feel like there’s energy behind what you’re doing, it’s very encouraging.”