Wednesday, July 29, 2015

VanderWeele's Wheat, Mat-Su Valley, July 2015

VanderWeele Farm's wheat on July 21, 2015, near Palmer, Alaska with Chugach mountains in the background. The wheat was planted early this year, at the end of April, and was six weeks from harvest.

Ben Vanderweele welcomed us to his farm in the flat fertile Matanuska Valley, a 45-minute drive from downtown Anchorage. My husband, Jim, and I had arranged to meet with Ben to learn about growing wheat in SouthCentral Alaska. One reason I wanted to go was that I'd been researching and writing about wheat for twenty years and had never been to see it in the fields. Beyond that, I wanted to know why hardly anyone in Alaska was growing wheat as a cash crop, and why Ben was succeeding at it.

Ben VanderWeeele (on the right) talking to a tourist who stopped by to admire the farm, next to a truckload of cauliflower ready for market. VanderWeele Farms grows potatoes, a wide variety of vegetables, and wheat.

Tall, with bright-blue Dutch eyes and the strong slender build of a person who lives out-of-doors, Ben started our tour of the farm in the barn that housed the potatoes, his main crop.

Eighteen-foot high Rube Goldberg contraptions sucked in potatoes from somewhere, washed them, and dumped them onto a conveyor belt set on a platform six feet above the floor for sorting and bagging. It was colder in the barn than the mid-60s weather outside, and the several college students working with the machinery dressed in warm coats.

Ben showed us a bin of potatoes, tennis-ball sized and evenly rounded, that he grows for Alaska Chip Company in Anchorage. "They like them all one size. Makes it easier for the potato chip machines."

He took us to another room where waist-high plastic cubes holding bushels of wheat sat, the grain covered with nothing  more than a sheet of cardboard cut to fit. Startled, I asked about mice -- I've had mice in my garage that chewed through plastic that thick, and for things less tasty than wheat. Ben grinned and said, "The cat takes care of them." We didn't see the cat, but surmised that it must be exceedingly happy.

Each of the wheats was marked, some with numbers, others with names. Ben experiments with different varieties, looking for those that do well with the weather and soil, and are suitable for the markets that he's sought out. Last year he sent samples of five different wheat grains to the Kansas State University Wheat Quality Lab, where they analyzed the amount of protein, the water content, how well the flour ground from the grains absorbed water in a dough, and how well it worked in baking bread. LA511135 from Oregon came back the best. These were all spring hard wheats, OK for bread dough, but typically better for pastries and cakes, distilling, and other uses.

Louise wheat, flowering, about six weeks from harvest.This is a spring wheat, planted as soon as the ground can be worked, and harvested later in the same year.

Most of the this year's crop of "Louise," a soft white wheat has already been sold to an Anchorage distillery for making liquor. "Soft" wheats are lower in gluten, and better for distilling because the smaller amount of protein means a clearer drink. Wheats with higher gluten contents are better for beers because the extra gluten allows the frothy head to keep its shape for longer.

Ben said that winter wheats do poorly in Alaska. They are planted late in the summer and lie dormant in the cold, but get an early start as the snow melts. Because they can be harvested earlier in the short growing season, they might seem like logical choices for Alaska  But May is chilly here so they tend to develop fungal diseases, and farmers prefer spring wheats.

Winter scene near Anchorage. Winter wheat can survive the cold, but doesn't thrive in cool Alaskan springs.

Flowering wheat stalk. The long stiff points at the end of each kernel are awns. They have little barbs, and one of their purposes is help the seed "drill" into the ground so that it can sprout.

Wheat is a sturdy plant, well-adapted to many temperate climates as proven by its persistence in much of the world through the past ten millenia. But it makes demands. It needs a longer growing season (about 100 to 130 days) than other grains such as rye and barley, and prefers warm weather during those days. It doesn't need a lot of water, but the water must arrive reliably throughout the growing period, especially when the wheat is flowering. At harvest, when the grains need to dry out so that the wheat doesn't spoil or sprout in storage the moisture is not so welcome. In fact, one of the most important criteria for knowing when wheat is ready to harvest is the moisture content of the kernel.

Automatic irrigation system rolling through the potato fields about 4:00 p.m.; it will be in the wheat fields in the foreground in an hour or so.

Ben VanderWeele irrigates all of his crops, especially wheat. "The rains might be sufficient for the wheat," he says, except for the fact that they come at the wrong times. "We get twelve to fourteen inches of rain -- not very much in the spring and early summer when we need it; mostly in August and September when we'd prefer it dry." He can't do anything about the late summer rains, but he can provide water in May, June, and July when it's essential for the wheat to grow. "There's nothing easier than growing wheat, I think," he says, "but I'll never make any money doing it." Wheat, for him, is an iffier crop than many of the vegetables. "You only get one chance with wheat  each season," he said. "If something goes wrong, you've lost that year."

I asked about pests. "Ten years ago we had grasshoppers," Ben said, "but we weren't growing wheat them. They were worst for the carrots that year." What about going organic? "It's a lot of trouble and expense. I never use pesticides, but I do fertilize once, at the beginning of the season. It's not what's defined as an organic fertilizer, so I don't qualify. The ground is so clean here -- no diseases in the soil and lots of nutrients. I rotate crops to keep any diseases or pests from building up. Next year, this field will be potatoes and I'll plant the wheat somewhere else."

Ben said that their land is one of the original farms developed in the mid-1930s when the Matanuska Valley Colony Depression-era farm project was started. The soil is as good now as it was then -- silt loam left  by the glaciers, with very little clay. It's excellent for wheat, as well as for the root crops like potatoes and carrots on the farm. We didn't talk much about the winds, but the wheats he grows are dwarf varieties so the Matanuska winds don't matter as much.

VanderWeele wheat (and chard) for sale at the South Anchorage Farmers' Market.

Harvesting is another question. With only a few acres of grain, it doesn't make sense to have  his own combine. Ben's neighbor has the right machines, so Ben uses his services. And how much grain does he harvest? Three thousand pounds per acre, he said, and added, "Maybe I could get more." That seemed to be characteristic of him -- always interested in the science and art of his crops, always wondering what he might try next.

A strip of pink fireweed between the wheat field and the trees; Chugach mountains behind.

What about the straw left at harvest? Ben said that he sells it to the Alaska State Fair to use for bedding for the show animals. Oat straw has no awns, he said, and is preferred by dog mushers and other animal owners. Wheat is next best, and barley straw is worst.

Flowers on the railing outside the VanderWeele's farmhouse. They also do well in the long, cool days.

Ben grew up on a farm in the Netherlands, and  came to Alaska in 1967 with his wife Suus because there was more land here. The VanderWeeles' three kids all grew up on the farm, and still work on it; he pointed out his daughter as she drove by the barn. Twenty-five to thirty other people work on the farm as well at different seasons, planting, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, and preparing the produce for market. Of the 680 Alaskan farms, VanderWeele's is one of the most familiar in SouthCentral Alaska, one of the most successful, and one of the oldest. It is also one of the few growing wheat, and I felt fortunate to have had the chance to trace Alaskan wheat back to its roots.

Alison Arians of Rise and Shine Bakery in Anchorage at the South Anchorage Farmers' Market. All of her wheat breads use some VanderWeele's wheat.

All photos by Teri White Carns.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mid-July on the Kenai Peninsula

       Any road trip that starts with a mom and baby Dall sheep on the rocks above Turnagain Arm bodes well. We headed for Homer for the weekend, with sunshine, breeze, and dry roads. The sheep were at about Mile 107 of the Seward Highway, with another mom and baby a little further up the mountainside also drawing crowds of on-lookers.

      At Placer River Overflow just past Portage, and again at Tern Lake we saw swans. They were too far away to get good photos, and besides, they were doing what birds do in the summertime -- putting their heads down and eating.

      We got an early start, and the sun shone brighter as we closed in on Soldotna. It occurred to us that it would be fun to go watch subsistence dipnetting on the lower Kenai River, an occupation that draws thousands of urban Alaskans each July when the red salmon are running.

      We met these two young women on the trail down the steep bluff to the beach. They had four fish, caught over the past four hours, they said, and their family of six could catch a total of 75.
     They weren't the only ones catching fish. Several other people pulled fish out as we watched.

       This guy pulls his net in from the surf with his fish,

and knocks it on the head until it stops flopping.

       Here is another successful fisherman; note the person standing in the water, just to the right of him in the picture who has a fish too. Plenty of gulls were hanging around waiting for their share of the spoils.

      Lots going on in this photo -- the guy in red is carrying his net, giving you an idea of its size. The rim of the net is at the left of the picture; the end of the pole  reaches just about to the right-hand edge. The kids are playing in the sand. Hundreds of people are sitting on the beach, walking around, and down in the water fishing. It's a curved bay, and you can see hundreds more people in the distance out in the water.

      Many people brought tents and RVs and camped for several days. All those cars parked on the bluff on the other side of the bay were a small part of the total. There were hot dog tents, football games,

dogs, various methods of transport,

and constant comings and goings.

      These kids were barefoot, playing in the surf, just as happily as if they'd been at a beach where it was 85 degrees instead of 65 and windy, and the water was more like 70 degrees than 40 degrees.

     Beyond it all, Mt. Redoubt loomed, less clouded than we've seen it all summer.

      We stopped at the Russian Orthodox church just above the beach, with its white picket gate, but no fence.

     The weather was even pleasanter in Homer, with less wind, but still enough for the para-sailors at the end of the Spit.

     We ate dinner at Land's End. Saw more people with fish they'd caught; these with rod and reel rather than dipnets.

     This little boy was part of  a family group that was leaving; his job was to carry the net, and he found an efficient way to do it.

     A sailboat on Kachemak Bay, with sunlight caught on the mountainside behind it.

        An eagle watching at Land's End; behind him and across the bay are the bluff and East End Road.

       A heart in the sand; appropriate for our 34th anniversary today.

     Evening shadows.

      Wild roses for the occasion.

     Just above and to the right of the couple on the beach is the hint of Mt. Augustine, a hazy dark spot. Maybe tomorrow we'll get a better view.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why wheat?

Wheat field, near Walla Walla, Washington, June 2015 [Photo by Hanna Nelson].

Why Wheat? 

      That's what people frown and say when I tell them I've been working on a book about wheat. Writing about wheat, they seem to feel, is like being in a museum full of Picassos and Rembrandts, and Giottos, and talking about canvas rather than the paintings. You could write about so many wonderful and delicious foods made from wheat – Bread. Or cakes. Or flatbreads. But . . .  wheat?

I’m writing about wheat, because the canvas has its own intrigue. Wheat seduced us into building villages, then cities, then empires. It enticed us into settling down, promising the glories of bread and beer. It made its way into our graves, our temples, our altars, becoming for Christians the very body of their God. For something that appears to be a heap of brown seeds, a cup full of bland powder, it has profoundly shaped the world in which we live.

Wheat field in Hungary (July 2009).

From the standpoint of humans (other creatures have their own views), wheat is one of the most versatile plants. Beyond its varied uses as a food, it appears in paints, cosmetics, fuel, animal food, buildings, and dozens of other guises. Wheat is a sacred object and food in religions. It is the substance of hundreds of metaphors, the focus of dozens of superstitions, the cause of wars, and when made into bread, is a symbol of food itself.

                                                    Dog in wheat field, Italy.

         Because we grow wheat, we have dogs as companions --  their digestive systems adapted to eating grains early in the history of agriculture.

Cat and mouse, Arabic.

      Because we grow wheat, we have cats as sort-of companions -- they eat the rodents that come for the grain.

        Because we have grains, we have all sorts of other domesticated animals -- cows, horses -- all of which eat grains, and serve our needs for butter, bacon, beauty, and brute labor.

Wheat, the 2015 version

Back room at Tartine, Guerro Street, San Francisco, March 8, 2013 [Photo, TWCarns].

These days, wheat has come from the unnoticed background to front and center, by turns praised, vilified, and feared. The names of bread bakers -- Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Pruett at Tartine in San Francisco, Pierre and Lionel Poilane in Paris, Peter Reinhart, James Beard –  rank with the best-known chefs in the world. Artisan bread is considered a sacred calling by some, and as one of the highest forms of food by others.

A gluten-free loaf of bread.

Yet, driven by a belief that our bodies are poisoned by gluten, 30% of Americans in 2013 said that they were eating (or thinking about eating) gluten-free foods. Some thought that they should go wheat free because humans were not designed to digest grains, or they believed that current varieties of wheat were inedible. Some were concerned that they might have an allergy or disease related to wheat, or thought that a wheat-free diet was healthier, or that they would lose weight.

        It is true that about 1% of people worldwide have celiac disease (an immune system condition caused by gluten), and another 6% might have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For those people, eating wheat or other grains with gluten, or any wheat (depending on the nature of their disease) can be harmful or life-threatening. For many others though, the doubts about wheat exemplify humanity’s changing relationship to food. 

Egyptian goddess Nuit offering a deceased man and his wife gifts of bread and water from the spirit world (Nuit is in the Tree of Life).

Thoughtful people from the earliest writers  until this day believed that the food we ate was related to our well-being, physical, mental, spiritual. As a result, people sanctified some foods and forbade others. As the bonds of religions loosened, concepts of culture and social class changed, and scientific knowledge increased. During the past 150 years or so, we have created a new set of reasons for promoting quinoa or kiwis or acai berries, and for demonizing wheat or milk or red meat.

US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee "Food Plate" image. Grains, including wheat, 
are the basis of a healthy diet in this model.
The tools of science have encouraged us to think about food in ways that involve objective facts (or bits and pieces of facts) instead of moral strictures, religious demands or taboos, and what is acceptable in a particular culture. We enjoy the freedom to explore all sorts of new concepts. Weekly, a new bit of stunning information comes along that is related to what we eat and how our bodies react. Genetics, the environment, the microbiome both within us and outside of us, all are candidates for science and speculation. What will we find next that influences what we eat? Sunspots? Penta-quarks? And how will that affect whether we eat salads or Tootsie Rolls or crickets , , , , or wheat?

A Wheat-o-phile

      How did I stumble into wheat-o-philia? My young life with wheat, in the 1950s and 1960s was unremarkably Midwestern -- peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches were a staple, along with macaroni-and-cheese, tunafish casserole with canned peas, and pies, cakes, and cookies for special occasions.

       Years went by. I learned to cook, tried vegetarianism, traveled, had kids, and tried a low-gluten diet for a few years in the mid-1990s. Quinoa, rice, oats, and corn became staples. Suddenly, wheat went from ordinary to a thing of mystery and intrigue, an object of desire. I pored over recipes that featured wheat, read bakery menus in steamy windows, languished over artisan bread displays in supermarkets.

 Women making flatbreads in Tamuz, Iraq.   

       A book shaped itself in my imagination. It would start with the simplest of foods -- flour and water, mixed into a dough, rolled between patient hands into a ball, flattened, slapped onto hot stones or the side of a tandoori, transformed into the staff of life. The book's recipes would add oil, then sugar, then leavenings, and finally, yeast. It would delve into the origins of noodles and the world-wide penchant for wrapping fillings into won-tons, dumplings, pasties, and pies. It would quote the Song of Solomon, Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house, The Little Red Hen, and the story of Demeter and Persephone. I made some notes, and continued on with life.

The Greek goddess Demeter giving Triptolemus wheat, and the knowledge of agriculture; her daughter, Persephone, blessing him.

       In 1997, chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant for a slow-moving leukemia intervened, and by about 1999, when my body settled down a bit and I went off drugs, I discovered that I couldn't eat quinoa, oats, rice. Most of my go-to grains and other proteins mad e me seriously ill. But I could eat wheat. The docs, after many tests, said, "We don't know exactly what happened -- you had some damage from the chemo, and it's made you sensitive to some proteins. That's your new life."  I took that as a sign that I should get busy writing the book about wheat -- accumulating research, notes, torn-out articles, and fattening files. Over the past ten years, these are growing into a book, grains of knowledge ripening and bearing fruit. 

Biscuit dough, April 26, 2014 [Photo TWCarns].

      We think about wheat in our own lunch box, but it is important in the larger world. It may be that empires are built today on the price of oil, not wheat, but the grain is still one of the three top crops grown, along with corn and rice. The price of wheat in Russia or Kansas is as important in many ways as it ever was. Wheatavore searches out answers to all of the questions about how good wheat is for you, its future as a crop, and more, and provides the answers that are available today. If, when tomorrow arrives, and new facts change how we look at  the questions, or how we answer them, Wheatavore will be there to help write the on-going history of wheat. In these pages, you will also find recipes, mythology and fairy tales, jokes and riddles, haiku, photos and paintings -- all facets of wheat's long relationship with us.

wheat-field-tntiseverwhere-flickr.jpg (500×367)