What is Heirloom Wheat?

Wondering what is heirloom wheat? Learn the difference between heirloom wheat vs modern wheat. Growing and grinding your own grain may be the best thing since sliced bread.

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by AdobeStock/Radila

Wondering what is heirloom wheat? Learn the difference between heirloom wheat vs modern wheat. Growing and grinding your own grain may be the best thing since sliced bread.

Heirloom Wheat Varieties

Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop in the world. Easy to grow, this grain is sown from the tropics to the Arctic Circle, and has been an important human food source for at least 10,000 years.

Historically, wheat fields often contained multiple varieties. Farmers would save and trade seeds (also called “wheat berries”), or grow out a wheat plant that caught their attention, hoping to develop a new type. A group of wheat varieties propagated with traditional seed saving in a region over many years is called a “landrace.” Today, landrace wheats are practically extinct.

Wheat changed significantly in the 20th century. The plant was bred to be shorter, so the seed heads could grow larger without causing the stalks to fall over. Short wheat can tolerate generous quantities of chemical fertilizers, which bumped up winter wheat yields in the Midwest region of the U.S. from 20 to 30 bushels per acre in the 19th century, to 90 to 110 bushels per acre today. Modern wheat has a greater starch content than heirloom wheat, and the gluten strength has increased by a factor of three. These modifications have had tremendous benefits for industrial milling and baking: Modern flour can be processed quickly, and a bread-baking facility can make many loaves per day.

But both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that modern wheat has left us with a crop that’s productive in the field but unhealthy for human consumption. The incidence of celiac disease has increased significantly over the past 50 years. Celiac disease is triggered by gluten, which is made of proteins found in wheat and some other cereal grains. Additionally, more people than ever before suffer from wheat sensitivity. Why would a grain that’s been eaten successfully for thousands of years suddenly be suspected of causing health problems?

Researchers grapple with the sheer complexity of wheat, which has six sets of chromosomes and a whopping 95,000 genes. No smoking gun exists that indicates a specific harmful compound in modern wheat. However, scientific studies have shown that the protein content in modern industrial wheats is nearly always lower than in heirloom wheats, and has been replaced by starches.

Clinical studies in which human subjects have been asked to eat heirloom wheat have consistently shown increased antioxidants and decreased inflammation.

Setting aside possible health benefits, heirloom wheat has a lot going for it, including a great flavor and beauty in the field. Many heirloom wheats have colors ranging from red to blue and even black, and most grow twice as tall as modern cultivars.

Turkey Red, Sonora and Red Fife Grains

Choosing an heirloom wheat is a matter of taste and availability. Pasta, bread, cooked wheat berries, pancakes, pizza, and dumplings will all turn out great when made with heirloom wheat.

stalks of turkey red heirloom wheat with a dark green background

Turkey Red is a hard red winter wheat, one of the first to be revived and marketed as an heirloom. Turkey Red is an American name given to multiple Crimean wheats grown by Mennonite immigrants in Kansas in the 1870s. Turkey Red is an excellent wheat for growing and milling. It’s first-rate for bread, cake, cookies, and pasta. When grown in dry conditions, it produces high-protein flour suitable for artisan bread and pizza crust.

Sonora is a semihard white wheat introduced to the Sonoran Desert region of Mexico in the early 1700s. Planted in spring, this low-protein wheat grows best in California, Arizona, and other hot, dry areas. The husk tends to remain attached to the berry after threshing, so the seeds usually require extra processing. Sonora’s strong flavor and texture excel in cakes, quick breads, and tortillas.

stalks of red fife wheat with drooping seed heads

Red Fife is a hard red spring wheat, but it can be planted in fall in areas that experience mild winters. Ontario farmer David Fife selected a single seed head to be propagated from some imported berries he’d planted in 1842. The wheat quickly developed a reputation for disease resistance and productivity. During the late 19th century, this was the leading hard red spring wheat in North America. Red Fife has great aroma without any bitterness, and it’s ideal for pizza crusts and artisan breads.

Growing Wheat at Home

Even if your space is limited, growing heirloom wheat in your backyard is practical. A strip 50 feet by 10 feet will require about 2 pounds of seed and yield up to 30 pounds of threshed wheat. The entire process only requires simple tools and a bit of work.

rows of immature wheat plants in a dirt plot

First, choose a wheat that suits your climate and the time of year you intend to plant. Research the wheats that interest you. Winter wheats require vernalization, a period of cold dormancy after the grains have germinated and been established. Ideally, winter wheats should be planted a couple of weeks prior to your area’s average first frost date; however, earlier or later plantings will usually grow well. Spring wheats don’t require vernalization. Plant them as early as the soil can be worked. If the soil is wet and cakes up on a shovel or rake, wait until it dries out. An old saying from the Kansas wheat belt is, “Plant into mud, and you’ll get a dud. Plant into dust, and your grain bins will bust.”

Many heirloom spring wheats are robust enough to be planted in fall, especially in temperate areas. A good source for learning the best heirloom wheat for your area is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Classification of American Wheat Varieties from 1922 (or visit the USDA site and search for “Bulletin 1074”). This publication describes several hundred wheats, including their growth habits and suitability for milling. The index records all the wheats grown in each state at that time.

stalks of haynes bluestem wheat stalks of red clawson winter wheat

You can purchase heirloom wheat seed, or you can use any wheat berries as seed. Wheat can follow almost any other crop in rotation, but it’s especially helpful after potatoes and tomatoes. Broadcast by hand at a rate of at least 40 seeds per square foot. After broadcasting, cover up as much seed as possible with a rake. Planting will go faster with a hand-operated garden seeder. Use a beet plate and set the depth to 1 inch. Aim for 1 to 2 seeds every inch in rows about 6 inches apart.

Once wheat is planted, there’s little to do but watch it grow. Watering is almost never necessary, and a good stand of heirloom wheat will out-compete most weeds. When the seed heads have matured and the plant changes color, start thinking about harvest. Test for ripeness by removing a seed head and rubbing it between your hands. Blow away the chaff and inspect the berries. If they’re still soft, wait another week or two. Most of the seeds should be hard at the time of harvest.

stalks of wisconsin pedigree wheat with drooping seed heads

Reaping What You’ve Sown

On harvest day, cut down the stalks at the base with garden shears, a kitchen knife, or a sickle. Gather the stalks into bundles, and put them somewhere safe to finish drying. The drier the wheat, the easier it will be to thresh, and the better it will store. You can put off threshing for months if you protect the bundles from rain and rodents.

You can thresh wheat by spreading the stalks out on a clean floor and walking over them while wearing hard shoes, or by piling the stalks a little deeper and hitting them with a stick. Threshing can also be done on a tabletop by rubbing the seed heads with a piece of wood.

man's hand using wooden block to remove grains from wheat stems

Once most of the seed has fallen out of the heads, set aside the straw for animal bedding or mulch, and collect the grain. Next, you’ll have to remove the dust and chaff. Pour the wheat slowly from one bucket to another in a good breeze, or in front of a fan. After two or three passes, the wheat will be clean enough for food use.

But first, test the wheat to ensure it’s fully dry. Bite a single wheat berry in two. If there’s any hint of softness, lay the grain on a tarp in the sunshine for a few hours until it’s hard and dry. Store your harvest in a tightly sealed container until you’re ready to start milling.

close up of wheat grains in a person's palm

Be sure to set aside enough berries for next year’s planting to become part of the continuing story of heirloom wheat: plant, grow, harvest, eat, repeat.

Heirloom Wheat in the Kitchen

To purchase heirloom wheat flour, find a stone miller who produces small batches to ensure the flour is as fresh as possible. The flour should be lightly sifted, or not sifted at all, because intensive sifting removes fiber and nutrients. White flour is nearly pure starch and has had its nutrients removed, which is why major milling companies voluntarily add vitamins to “enriched flour.” If you don’t plan to use the flour right away, put it in a sealed package in the freezer to preserve freshness.

pasta drying on a wooden pole made from red fife flour

To fully unlock heirloom wheat’s potential in your kitchen, mill the berries at home. Since whole-grain milled flour loses flavor within weeks, the first thing you’ll notice after milling at home is the wonderful smell — sometimes grassy, other times sweet. Some varieties exhibit a satisfyingly bitter tang. You’re smelling the oils that commercial mills work hard to remove from white flour because they contribute to the product going stale a few weeks after milling. While white flour is shelf-stable and consistent, and suitable for food distribution, it’s questionable for taste and human health.

You have many good equipment choices for milling at home. Hand-cranked mills are the most basic and use either stone or steel burrs. The grain drops between the rotating burrs and falls out as flour. It takes considerable effort to grind flour by hand, as well as a sturdy counter to clamp or bolt down the unit. In 15 hard-working minutes, you’ll mill about 1 pound of flour, or 3 cups.

turkey red loaf of bread on a wooden table in a backyard

Powered mills make the work easier and provide a fresh, wholesome flour. These include stand-alone units or attachments for stand mixers. Some electric units are burr mills, and others are hammer mills, whereby high-speed knives break the grain into flour.

Heirloom wheat will work in any recipe calling for wheat flour. You may have to experiment with the amount of moisture you use, as most recipes will benefit from additional milk, water, or honey, since fresh whole-grain flour absorbs more liquid than white flour. For cookies, you can add more water than you think is necessary, and then allow the dough to sit in the refrigerator overnight, where it will absorb the excess moisture and stiffen up.

Seed Sources

Sherck Seeds. Based in Bristol, Indiana, John Sherck sells many locally adapted winter and spring wheat varieties in small quantities only, usually 7-gram packets.

Great Lakes Staple Seeds. Eleanor and Scott offer a wide variety of wheats from Michigan’s past in small quantities only, usually 50 seeds per packet.

Stephens Land & Cattle. The Stephens Turkey Red strain may be the oldest local wheat maintained continuously in the United States. Kansan Bryce Stephens offers seed in large and small quantities.

Barton Springs Mill. Proprietor James Brown’s stone milling operation specializes in landrace grains purchased directly from farmers in Texas and the Great Plains. 512-855-7507

Janie’s Mill. The Wilkenses are fifth-generation Illinois farmers. A good source for larger quantities, they sell seeds for every wheat they mill. 815-953-1073

Anarchy Acres. This is author Charlie Tennessen’s farm, from which you can purchase Wisconsin Pedigree No. 2, Red Fife, and Marquis for planting.

Charlie Tennessen is a miller, author, and heirloom grain enthusiast. You can learn more about his efforts to preserve and grow historic wheats at Anarchy Acres.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368