The Heritage Grain Conservancy: Restoring Ancient Grains from Biblical Times: “Eat it to save it.”
Eli Rogosa has a long history with rare seeds. Twenty years ago Rogosa went to the Middle East to work with farmers in the ancient lands of the “Fertile Crescent,” the birthplace of wheat. She discovered stunning heirloom varieties of grains and vegetables, unlike anything available in the United States, that grew robustly in the harsh desert climate without irrigation. Curious how this vigor had evolved through the local traditional farming methods, Rogosa embarked on a journey that would lead her to remote traditional farms across Europe and the Middle East.
Her quest today is to ensure food security for the next generations, in the face of climate change and profound uncertainty in where seven billion human beings will get their daily bread. The Heritage Grain Conservancy works with seed banks and traditional farmers to ensure future generations access to these ancient gene pools. The European Union, Israel and the USDA have funded Rogosa’s Heritage Grain Conservancy work to collect almost-extinct varieties of ancient grains before they are lost to the world, enabling her to travel to isolated farms where ancient “landrace” wheat is still grown.
Funding from the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture (MSPA) has supported Rogosa in trials of elite varieties from her vast world grain collection at the University of Massachusetts Research Farm, to develop varieties that thrive best on local organic farms.The Heritage Grain Conservancy, based on a twelve-acre biodiversity conservation farm in Colrain, MA, cultivates a diverse polyculture of rare heirloom and landrace foodcrops. “These grains are a Noah’s Ark of resilience to climate change weather extremes, yet are on the verge of extinction,” says Rogosa. Through millennia of cultivation, wheat has been adapted to lands from the scorching desert sands of Palestine to the frigid plains of Siberia. Today, a handful of modern, patented varieties dominate the global food market, while ancient varieties of wheat, bred in the public domain by farmers and seed-sharers, are on the verge of extinction. In the state of Israel, wild emmer still grows, yet ninety percent of the wheat eaten in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan is commercially grown in the monocultures of the western United States and Canada.
In contrast to the commercial varieties that are bred for high yield under conventional growing conditions, with acres of the same kind of wheat grown tightly packed together, the varieties available through the Heritage Grain Conservancy are grown in widely spaced polycultures, as they were traditionally cultivated. This biodynamic growing method mixes varieties in the field to allow their complementary attributes to make more efficient use of sun and soil than a monoculture. They’re grown without chemical pesticides, and the seeds are selected for their adaptability to growing conditions here in New England, as well as for their delicious flavor and high nutritional value.
In addition to growing rare grains, Rogosa manages an artisan bakery on her farm, and bakes with a wood-fired oven. Her most popular breads are baked from einkorn, a grain so ancient that the plant has a different kind of gluten, which many otherwise gluten-intolerant people find digestible. The main reason to taste einkorn bread, however, is the flavor. “Einkorn has a rich, satisfying flavor, far superior to all the other grains,” Rogosa says. Einkorn grain and flour, and other heritage grains are available for sale through the Conservancy website, at www.growseed.org.
The Heritage Grain Conservancy booth at the Boston Local Food Festival October 1, will display world heritage grain sheaves, educational posters, and offer einkorn bread and beverages to taste and buy. Her main products, however, are education for biodiversity. By creating awareness and a demand for rare heritage wheat, she hopes to save the delicious grains that sustained traditional peoples, and are a Noah’s Ark of resilient traits for a sustainable future.