Grow Your Own Heritage-Grain Breads

Reader Contribution by Mona Esposito And Pamela Sherman
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In this time of Covid-19 when grocery store shelves are too often bare and emergency food bank lines can be long, growing and making our own heritage bread can both help and delight. Mona Esposito guides gardeners in doing this. Her website, The Grain Lady, acquaints the reader with some of the top heritage grain varieties, where to source them, their baking qualities, how to bake with them, and much more. The Grain Chain, a nonprofit she served on as founding chair, re-introduces heritage grains to communities in Colorado, as is happening country-wide. Here are six steps to grow your own heritage bread.

The Foundation: Choose Your Grains and Get Set Up

The foundation: fall in love! The taste and texture of heritage grains make them, as Mona says, “the star of the show, not a canvas for other things.” If you’ve never had any, buy a handful of a few different kinds (some sources are on the websites above), cook as you would oats or any cereal. Then taste-test.

Choose varieties you love, that grow well in your area, and which you want to use for specific types of recipes (breads, pastas, cakes etc.) OR choose ones to trial grow.

Set aside 1,000 square feet for growing in a backyard, neighborhood park, unused lot, or the campus of an organization. It’s estimated that this amount can grow enough for a loaf a week. Some grains are sown in spring, some in fall. Take note and plan accordingly. If spring-sown, grow winter cover crops to improve soil and keep weeds down.

Read the resource for essential growing strategies, as well as a cultural history of grains and recipes: the book Restoring Heritage Grains by New England farmer, Eli Rogosa. This is Mona’s and my essential source guide as well as being a riveting read. So is Rogosa’s website, The Heritage Grain Conservancy.

Prepare a Heritage Grain Growing log book to record everything important to you from seed source to harvest. This will be invaluable over the years.

Sourcing Heritage Grain Seeds

Now that your foundation is set, the next step is sourcing seeds. For some this is not yet obvious, so it bears repeating: the kernels of wheat (or rye, oats, spelt, etc.) you cook with and which you pulverize to make flour are the seeds. (Same as beans.)

Seeds can be bought from farms, procured from seed libraries and seed swaps, farmers markets, friends, and other places–see the above websites or check out resources online for your area. The Rocky Mountain Seed Network has many varieties to choose from and a heritage grain trials program to participate in. Gardeners are welcome. Contact Lee-Ann Hill at RMSA to get started. 

It’s best to get seeds from an area similar to yours in growing conditions, but over the years your grains will naturalize to your local conditions.

Seeds can also be bought from boutique food sellers. They cannot call it “seed,” but “grain” will do– same thing! The most recent grain/seed will likely be the most viable (likely to sprout). You can do a germination test with a representative sample of a few seeds from your grain purchase (20 or so) in a paper towel or cloth of natural fiber, if you like. (Depends on how well you know and trust your seed source.)

Planting Heritage Grains

Mona says, “commit to building healthy soil.” (Your crops, health, taste buds, animals, and land will thank you.) The pillars of soil health are: low to no till, keep a living root in the soil at all times, keep the soil covered, low to no biocides or synthetic fertilizers, plant biodiversity in polycultures, integrate animals/animal by-products.  

If you’re not planting directly into your winter cover crop, plant an understory of short clovers or other short legumes BEFORE seeding the heirloom grains. My family’s first year growing grains, we didn’t listen to this advice from Eli Rogosa. She says if you don’t do this you will be sorry. Yes, we were. Without the clover understory, it was too easy for weeds to claim that space; heritage grains are planted up to a foot far apart, due to their robust root systems. The clovers also fix nitrogen, provide pollinator forage, animal feed, and nutrition for humans. Their power of protection becomes obvious when you start planting. 

Healthy soil will help build healthy seed. Reminder from Mona: commit to building your seed supply! The return on investment in small grains is astonishing. Farmers create large viable farms from a handful of seeds. Grow enough to expand your grain garden little by little and share with neighbors and friends. Trial grains on a small scale that you are not sure will grow well but that you really want; you can scale up as desired.

During the Growing Season

Mona has worked in Colorado with grain farmers and has also grown grains in a 5’x10’ patch in an alley near her house. The verdict: heirloom grains at all scales don’t need a lot of care during the growing season. Some are well adapted to extremes of drought, flood, temperature, soil type. They have persisted for a reason: taste, durability, and ease of care.

Harvesting Ancient Grains

Harvest when at the tooth-crack stage (see the website links above and Rogosa’s book). Keep tasting til it’s past the milk stage (yes, small grains have a milk stage like corn). Not all grains ripen at the same time. With a small patch, you can take the ones that are ready each week. If it looks like rain, harvest fast! A scythe works well, a sickle can work in a small patch. Scale will inform your harvesting decisions.

Threshing and Winnowing

The equipment you choose depends on your scale. Mona recommends this Mother Earth News article on equipment. At a small scale, you can thresh and winnow by hand. She says: “Remember, it won’t go bad! You don’t need to do it all at once!” It can even be done in winter.

Storing Grains at Home

Unthreshed small grains can be stored in cardboard boxes or piled up in the barn. Threshed grains can be stored in jars, strong paper bags made for this purpose, cardboard boxes, tightly woven baskets, and where rodents are an issue, in garbage cans. How dry or damp your climate will determine any further storage particulars needed. Store in basement, cold room, on pantry shelf. 

Every bite of cereal, of bread made with your own grains continues the relationship you have with these plants. Mona commented during our discussion: ”grains are the final frontier in the Farm to Table Movement.” And a crucial basis in reinvigorating our home and local food systems.

Mona Esposito is a heritage small grain educator and organizer. She can be reached through her website, The Grain Lady.Pam Sherman blogs for Mother Earth News, gardens at altitude, and can be found at  Colorado Local Food & Regenerative Ag Hub.You can read all of Pam’s Mother Earth News postshere.

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