Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds

Growing Old World Grains in Gardens and on Small Farms

by BC Farms & Food  -  Permalink
January 17, 2019

Ancient grains are making a comeback, as farmers, millers, artisan bakers and diners seek them out for their exceptional flavour, nutrition, and low-gluten content.

The heritage wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa and flax at Dan Jason’s farm come in many colours. In August, at Salt Spring Seeds, the fields shimmer with blue, gold, and purple seeds and grains. Not the kind you’d see on the large industrial farms of the prairies, but old world varieties that grow today much as they did thousands of years ago. (Article continues below video.)

Video: Bringing Back Ancient Grains & Seeds

Dan Jason, farmer, seed saver and author of the book Awesome Ancient Grains & Seeds, has sought out and tested heritage grains from around the world for over 30 years. His work comes at a time of heightened interest in growing and eating local grains and gluten-free alternative grains (seeds like amaranth, quinoa and flax).

Unique Regional Flavours of Heritage Grains

Dan Jason walks along the rows of grain at Salt Spring Seeds. Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds.

Dan Jason at Salt Spring Seeds

Experiencing the diversity of these traditional grains is relatively new in North America. While there’s a food culture seeking out the terroir of such foods as chocolate or cheese, the idea that there are thousands of varieties of grains, each with a slightly different flavour, is new.

Here in Canada, “we tend to focus on different coffees and wines and cheeses and beers,” said Jason, “but most other countries have had all of these ancient grains forever.”

As small-scale growers rediscover heritage varieties, a taste for the diverse flavours and textures of these old world grains is growing. In recent years, a “local grains movement” of farmers, artisan millers, bakers and diners has been asking for more.

Heritage Wheats Rediscovered

Blue Tinge Ethiopian Emmer wheat. Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds.

Blue Tinge Ethiopian Emmer

Red Fife wheat, a traditional grain with superior taste, is probably the best example of a heritage variety embraced by artisan bakers. Red Fife produces breads with a distinctive nutty, robust flavour.

“It’s the grandma of all Canadian wheats,” said Jason. “Far, far tastier than our modern bread wheats.”

In addition to Red Fife, artisan bakers seek out old world wheats such as einkorn, spelt and Khorasan (sometimes known as Kamut®). As these ancient wheats become more mainstream, many others are waiting to be rediscovered.

Dan Jason’s collection of ancient wheat at Salt Spring Seeds includes Blue Tinge Ethiopian Emmer, and Black Einkorn, a low-gluten, high-protein wheat cultivated during the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. People with gluten sensitivities can sometimes tolerate heritage grains like einkorn better than modern wheat.

Khorasan wheat, also known as Kamut. Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds.

Black Einkorn wheat, a heritage wheat. Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds.

Alaska spelt. Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds.

Three old world wheats: Khorasan Wheat, Black Einkorn, and Alaska Spelt.

Ancient Grains vs. Modern Commercial Grains

The marked rise of celiac disease and “gluten sensitivity” in recent decades coincides with the era of modern grain breeding and industrial processing methods.

Most mass market grains have been bred to grow quickly, resist diseases, and produce high yields. In this type of breeding, commercial wheat became shorter and stronger for mechanized harvesting with industrial combines. At the same time, some bread wheat strains were cross-bred to increase gluten, to add elasticity to bread dough.

Industrial processing of this new wheat included milling to remove the germ and bran for longer shelf life, losing nutrients and flavour along the way. To standardize production, chemical agents for bleaching, maturing and dough conditioning became common components of commercial baked goods.

Taken together, these techniques may be impacting people in ways not clearly understood.

Sensitivity to Wheat and Other Grains

A combine harvests wheat in a large field. Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds.

Modern grains have been bred to be shorter for easy mechanized harvesting.

When it comes to grain sensitivity, Jason suspects it may have more to do with the way large industrial growers throughout North America routinely spray their crops, often just before harvest.

“It’s standard practice now to aerial spray with Roundup,” said Jason. “That makes it easier for the combines, because it kills all the weeds. But it’s also a desiccant. And it dries them and makes them easier to cut.

“Gluten intolerance is one thing, and some people have it. But I would bet that 90 percent of the people who think they’re allergic to wheat, are not. They’re are allergic to Roundup. They’re systems can’t handle it. It’s heavy duty stuff, and there’s been thousands of tests proving it’s really bad news. Yet…. nothing ever happens.”

The large red seed head of an amaranth plant. Bringing Back Ancient Grains and Seeds.

Amaranth is a high-yield crop for gardens and small farms.

Growing Ancient Grains at Home

In his book, Jason encourages home gardeners and small farmers to grow their own heritage grains. Amaranth, quinoa, and old-world wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat, flaxseed, and rye are actually easier to grow than vegetables, and can be grown on small plots. Grains and seeds are low maintenance, drought tolerant, and beneficial to the soil when composted. They also have a very soft carbon footprint when sustainably grown on small acreages.

Growing at home allows gardeners to sample quinoa or try out heritage varieties such as emmer, spelt, and einkorn wheats in small quantities. Jason offers over 40 different traditional grains and seeds in his Salt Spring Seeds catalogue, including hulless oats and barleys for easy threshing.

Small-Scale Grain Threshing

At present, there’s a great need for smaller-scale processing equipment in North America. “That’s the one missing link,” said Jason.

Robust barley, drying. Bringing back ancient grains and seeds.

Robust barley

He looks to a time when groups of small farmers in North America can invest together in small-scale threshing machines like those available in Italy, India and other parts of the world. Such small-scale equipment (often in the $10,000 range) can fit on the back of a pick-up truck and go from farm to farm to process grains.

Until then, small-scale growers can use a homemade threshing box for grains and dry beans, which has thin, raised slats in the bottom to help separate the seeds from their hulls.

Old World Grains—Nutrition and Flavour

Quinoa seeds. Bringing back ancient grains and seeds.

Quinoa, an ancient seed of the Incas, is a gluten free alternative for cereals, salads and side dishes.

And then there’s the eating. Ancient whole grains are rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and antioxidants. They offer delicious taste, producing flour and breads with deep, rich, nutty flavour. If you don’t have access to a mill, Jason suggests grinding whole grains into flour with a coffee grinder.

Traditional grains, including wheat (farro), can also be cooked up whole like rice. “Most people in North America have forgotten, or perhaps have never known, that grains and seeds can be cooked as the whole foods they are,” said Jason.

And if you don’t want to cook, you can you can sprout them and eat them raw. “You get a lot of vitamins that way,” he said.

Sustainably grown, without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, sprouted or freshly-milled and baked, these ancient staple foods take us back to the roots of what it is to farm and eat whole foods.

As Jason notes, “There’s just something about eating these grains fresh….”


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Know Your Flour: Traditional and Gluten-FreeKnow Your Flour: Traditional and Gluten-Free

The Seeds of SustainabilityThe Seeds of Sustainability

Grow a Climate Change Resilient GardenGrow a Climate Change Resilient Garden

A Low-Carbon Citrus Greenhouse in Canada A Low-Carbon Citrus Greenhouse in Canada

10 Tips for Year-Round Vegetable Gardens10 Tips for Year-Round Vegetable Gardens

3 Responses leave one →
  1. 2021 March 20
    Greg Garrels permalink

    I am in Alaska and messed about with finding small scale ways to process grains. One way that effectively threshed out hull less barley and oats was to make a “beater” out of 2×2 wood with rubber strips affixed to it. A round tenon was turned on each end. The tenons are inserted into a matching hole in a piece of wood affixed to the bottom of the bucket and a hole in the lid. Drive a bolt or what-have-you into the top of the top tenon. Two larger holes are cut in the bucket lid. These match up to shop vac attachments. In use, rough grain is put into the bucket, the beater is installed and the lid is put on. Set a shop vac up to run as a blower and fit the hose and whatever fittings you have to one of the larger holes in the bucket. Get the shop vac going, and then drive the beater with one of those battery powered impact drivers, or a drill that is locked onto the aforementioned bolt. The beater knocks all the chaff loose and the shop vac blows it out of the other other hole on the bucket lid. You’ll want to do this outside as it makes quite a mess.

  2. 2020 March 21
    Deborah Chiocca permalink

    Thank you for sharing this information. I live on two acres and plan on growing wheats oats barley and rye. I hoe to rotate the gardens and to use it for fruits, vegetables, grains and chickens. Hoping to add two goats and maybe a small donkey. Can you suggest were I can buy the seeds? Most of the work will mainly be manual with the exception of a small mowing tractor. You mention barely- hulless and how to thresh by stomping.

    • 2020 March 22
      BC Farms & Food permalink

      To find local seed growers, search for “seeds” under the pulldown menu for “Plants & Flowers” on the farm map. And of course, Salt Spring Seeds, profiled in this article, is a source for these heritage grain seeds.

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