What You Need to Know About Wheat
A Brief History
From sustenance and sacrament records of the time, we can conclude that mankind domesticated wheat about 40,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a wide strip of terrain beginning in northeast Africa, ascending along the eastern Mediterranean Sea, arcing along to the north of the Arabian peninsula, and finally descending to the Persian Gulf. Following the domestication of wheat, its cultivation expanded northward, westward, and eastward over the next few thousand years, reaching the British Isles by 3,000 BC. Today, however, an ever-dwindling number of Fertile Crescent farmers plant and harvest the world’s most ancient wheats—einkorn and emmer—in small fields surrounded by their naturally occurring native wild-wheat ancestors.
World history assumes a fundamental connection between wheat and western societies to such a degree that the first assessment of any single epoch is based upon wheat culture vigor: healthy wheat culture means civilization is in ascendancy; unhealthy or extinct wheat culture means civilization is in decline.
This connection was present in the grand wheat cultures of Babylon and Egypt, and later, of Greece, and later still, of Rome, which is renowned for its great farros. Following the decline of Rome, Celtic and Moorish cultures extended the paradigm, and eventually came to define western European wheat culture during the Dark Ages. The imprimatur of Celtic influence survives even today in the broad classification of red and white lammas wheats of Europe (“lammas” means loaf mass). In fact, historians surveying post-Celtic European culture were able to simultaneously assess the viability of modern wheat culture and society by tracking the availability of artisan-style loaves, beginning with their depiction as elite items in still-life paintings of the Renaissance era. Artisan loaves required exceptional wheat. Thus, a prevalence of this type of bread indicates that wheat culture and the civilization associated with it are on the rise or near apogee.
Wheat culture expanded rapidly during the Age of Imperialism. Western religious philosophers reclassified the culture under new headings such as “biblical,” and later used the terms “Jesuit” and “wafer,” to describe the first lammas wheat varieties that Jesuits in central Mexico introduced to the New World. These varieties are identified as Jesuit and wafer wheats even today, though they owe their preservation to Native Americans. The broadest impact of Native American conservation of Jesuit wheat is demonstrated by the now-pervasive flour tortilla. Anson Mills Sonora White Wheat falls within the Jesuit white lammas class.
Before the American Revolution, all colonial wheat production relied upon Old World European seed: Italians brought farro to Carolina rice fields in 1680; French Huguenots brought Spanish and French wheats to Carolina beginning in 1690; Sephardim brought Spanish and Fertile Crescent wheats to Georgia starting in 1730; Scottish Fife bread wheat was grown in the Carolina mountain foothills by 1732; Germans brought their wheats to the Carolina-Georgia wheat belt, centered in Orangeburg, by 1735; Italian maccheroni, Spanish durum, German hard winter wheat, French and Italian Mediterranean flatbread wheat, and many others accompanied waves of immigration before, as well as after, our Revolution. Today, Anson Mills grows and mills many of these fine colonial-era wheats of the European diaspora.
America’s first farmer-selected production wheat, Red May, was developed in Virginia by a wheat farmer who led Southern growers in a 30-year research thrust for truly American cereal crops following our Revolution. Red May achieved sustained production across the South by 1830. Today, Anson Mills is a seedsman and grower-miller of Red May wheat.
Many of the first wheats developed on the East Coast spread into the American and Canadian prairie frontiers, but by 1850, with the arrival of immigrants from Crimea and the Ukraine, early varieties were challenged by a new wave of European wheats. Two such wheats of this era, Turkey Red from the United States and Prairie Red Fife from Canada, survive today. Anson Mills grows and mills both.
Before industrialization, farmers selected their wheat for hardiness and flavor. Crop yield and durability in milling and storage ranked low among priorities because, at that time, all quality wheat milling and flour distribution was local. Whereas the modern baking industry’s descriptors for wheat flavor come to a screeching halt with a single adjective and a three-word phrase—“nutty” and “rich whole grain”—in early 19th century America, “nutty” was but one adjective associated with wheat, and “rich whole grain” flavor embodied a spectrum as diverse as vanilla-cream, honeysuckle, and faint black pepper, all against the backdrop of minerality and the distinct earthiness of terroir.
Pre-industrial wheat was very tall, its straw as valuable as the grain it produced for fodder, thatch, bio matter for healthy fields, fuel, bedding, tea, medicine, and dozens of other uses.
Pre-industrial farmers were bakers and brewers as well, and did not grow a single variety of wheat in just one field. The best of them followed a tradition carried forward by grain women known as the Brewsters of the British Isles, who were talented enough to combine more than two hundred varieties of wheat in a single field and keep them all straight. The Brewsters selected entire wheat populations—not just varieties—for individual and combined taste, with special characteristics for brewing and bread baking, and for survivability. The tradition of the Brewsters, which came to be known as landrace farming and mass population selection, was brought to colonial America and was performed not by scientists and technicians, but by farmers and eaters. This system represents a body of knowledge amassed from antiquity, and, sadly, its methods and applications have been nearly lost in modern times.
Today, we’re inclined to describe the Brewsters’ old farm crops and their cropping systems with a number of rather imprecise terms—“heirloom,” “traditional,” “heritage”—because there are no official definitions or designations for them here in the United States. The term “landrace,” however, represents a classification of crops and farming systems broadly present before industrialization, and carries nuances from each of the terms above. For these reasons, “landrace” best describes the Brewster-style grower-only approach to farming.
Roller Milling and Industrialism
Roller milling, which was introduced to America in the early 19th century as a tool of mass production, brought about a revolution that took wheat production away from landrace farming. In New York’s Genesee Valley, farmers and bakers nearly rioted when operators of roller mills refused their wheat. This was the first time the industrialization of wheat met with resistance on a large scale. The uprising was ultimately quelled by military intervention, but American farmers as far away as Kansas continued to resist industrialization well into the 1870s. After that point, most of the landrace wheat production in America simply disappeared because mills would not accept the grain.
Roller milling involves rolling the outer bran layer off the kernel, scalping the germ (where all of the flavor and most of the nutritional oils reside), and then milling the starchy endosperm that remains into flour. The process punishes grains to such a degree that thin-branned kernels of traditional landrace wheats are destroyed by roller mills; only wheat varieties with extraordinarily thick bran layers—many of which are the product of scientific development—can survive the operation. Roller milling creates ultraprocessed, refined flour, drop-dead consistent for baking and totally stable for distribution and storage. In fact, roller-milled flour has itself dropped dead in a way, as it contains no nutrition except carbohydrates and must be fortified with synthetic vitamins to be classified as food.
And along with thick bran comes high tannin concentration. The red landrace varieties used to develop modern wheats derive their color from highly tannic pigment that resides in the bran; thick-branned modern wheats, then, contain large amounts of tannins. Tannins are extremely bitter, and the energy exchange between kernel and machine during bran and germ extraction is so massive that the milled flour is left with residual bitterness.
Common white flour is no exception to the rule—it, too, suffers from this residual bitterness. Though roller milling produces refined white flour as an end product, it is standard industrial process for wheat flour of any kind. To make what the industry calls whole wheat flour (as opposed to nutritionally intact whole grain flour), the scalped bran layer is ground up and mixed back into the milled, bolted white flour, without the flavorful and nutritious germ.
With short stalks and roots, modern wheat throws maximum energy into producing big kernels that can be easily harvested by machine and accommodates a higher density of plants within limited acreage, a density in which plant and soil disease flourish. Modern short-stalk wheat needs extreme amounts of water—so much, in fact, that their acreage depletes non-replenishing aquifers. When water is pumped onto the soil year after year, residual minerals in the irrigation water concentrate and salinate, with the resultant outcome that some of our best American lands have become threshold toxic to wheat horticulture. Modern wheat requires chemical fertilizers—and lots of them—because natural systems cannot concentrate nutrients in the soil to the meet the plants’ demands in order to flourish. The various petro-chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides required in modern wheat horticulture are staggering to contemplate. This is the real Green Revolution: subsidized chemical farming in an irrigated environment to grow short, thick-branned wheat for industrial roller mills that must fortify their products with synthetic vitamins to make them nutritious.
Irrigated short wheat grows gorgeous and green—a subtly nuanced, neon green-blue. You can see the fields from the air when you fly across the country: lovely spirals of wheat, the pretty patterns courtesy of petro-chemical spraying mechanisms. These circles have no soil at their core, by the way—instead, there sits a neutral medium comprised of dead earth that is incapable of holding water or soil during rain or windstorms. While enjoying their massive uptake of surface nutrients and water, the short roots of modern wheat give back with vigor, producing five to 10 times more big-kernel wheat per acre than the “old” small-kernel wheat farmers used to grow.
Tall Straw, Deep Roots
Anson Mills farms and mills pre-industrial, low-input, non-irrigated, deep-root, tall-straw landrace wheats. (We consider 1850 the cutoff date for the end of Southern landrace crop seed systems, and our landrace seeds come from that era.) These wheat varieties are genetic time capsules from a distant age. Each variety carries a proper name, not a number: Red May, Red Fife, French Mediterranean, Sonora. Having survived the ravages of drought and disease over centuries, these wheats adapt readily to change. Their deep roots extract a wider array of micronutrients from the earth—micronutrients that carry remarkable flavor to baking—and can withstand drought. Tall straw also increases circulation of moisture and nutrients within the wheat plants when compared with modern short-straw wheat—this is one reason modern wheat needs more water. Did you know that the deep roots of ancient wheat water and cool the plant above ground when it is really, really hot and really, really dry? This is why wheat can reproduce and make grain with very little water in extreme heat conditions. This is also why science calls wheat a dry land crop. Consider this trait in ancient wheats and the positive impact it can have on global climate change.
The deep roots of ancient wheat also produce wheat kernels with high micronutrient and mineral content, and without irrigation, the plants produce smaller kernels, so the micronutrients are concentrated, resulting in outstanding flavor. This scenario reflects the same laws of nature that apply to great wine: grape vines stressed by seasonal growing patterns produce wines of superior flavor concentration and a diverse flavor profile. It’s that simple.
Anson Mills’ pursuit of wheat crop flavor began in 1998 with our first field of landrace wheat. To this day, the surrounding watersheds have remained pristine, and our yields have increased slowly as soil quality improves, allowing us to work less to grow better wheat with each successive year. Most important, the flavor of Anson Mills’ wheat in baked goods and whole grain preparations diversifies and improves with each new crop.
French farmers have an old saying, “There is only so much flavor per hectare.” At Anson Mills, we farm for flavor, not yield; we farm the soil, not the crops.
Any discussion of modern versus pre-industrial wheat must come with the acknowledgment, however, that landrace wheat provides but one-quarter to one-half as much grain at harvest compared to modern wheat. Nor does heritage wheat conform to the characteristics required for industrial milling.
Heritage wheat, on the other hand, produces crops century in, century out. Considered from this perspective, the verdict may still be out on yield comparisons. In addition to maintenance issues in the field, modern short-stalk “mega” wheat seed requires constant “improvement” in the laboratory and a global network of seed banks with thousands of heritage varieties that are used to provide an array of genetics to create “new” and “better” modern wheats. These seed banks were founded in the public domain over the last century, but are being re-missioned and privatized today. Before industrialization, the equivalent of these global seed banks was simply called “local wheat farming.” All farmers were seedsman. Farmers cared for their own heritage wheats over many centuries to develop appealing flavors. No microscopes, no labs—just flavor in the field and taste at the table.
Consider the alarming growth of wheat allergy complications here in the United States since the advent of industrial wheat farming. What is wrong with wheat today that wasn’t a half century ago? Scientific breeding for better or worse created a path, not only for improved yields, but also for increased protein and gluten strength to satisfy the fast-growing demands of industrialized milling and manufactured bread. In 1998, when Anson Mills started up, we received no inquiries about gluten intolerance. Fifteen years later we must acknowledge that gluten concerns are here to stay. Friends within the industry—many bakers and millers who have used modern wheat for decades—have been forced to retire (or enact near magical measures to stay in business) due to developed gluten intolerance. You would be shocked at the names of famous chefs and bakers afflicted with gluten allergies. While we have no definitive answers to this problem, studies conducted outside the United States persuade us to take notice as we all wait for American agricultural scientists to address the issue.
At Anson Mills, we employ a clean milling and processing room with vestibule air protection as well as “clean” suits and safety gear when handling wheat and other gluten grains. These safety measures make milling ancient grains more a hazmat exercise than an artisan endeavor. But even in this space-age room with space-age gear, we still mill and process by hand—a spectacular collision of modern technology and ancient art.