Growing with the grain: Review of “Homegrown Whole Grains”

As you may have guessed by now, I love to bake. And since part of my self-employment now entails baking goods to sell at Local Roots, I'm keenly interested both in sourcing what grains and flours I can find locally — as well as growing what I can. Thanks to the inspiration offered by Gene Logsdon in his "Small-Scale Grain Raising" (reviewed last year), I started growing buckwheat, a flavor most people know only through pancakes but which has provided excellent taste and texture in the butter cookies and espresso chip shortbread I sell at the market.

Still, I'm always happy to learn more, which is why I eagerly cracked the cover of "Homegrown Whole Grains: Grow, Harvest, and Cook Wheat, Barley, Oats, Rice, Corn and More" by Sara Pitzer. The new (2009) edition updates the 1981 classic originally aimed at homesteaders. As Pitzer points out, those looking for self-sufficiency often tried to do too much:

The '60s and '70s were a period of economic and cultural uncertainty, not unlike today's climate, with its dire economic forecasts and worries over food safety. It's no wonder that people are starting to produce their own food again. But today's focus is much more realistic: a manageable-size vegetable garden with a patch of grain.

long-viewIf this sounds like an echo of Logsdon's "pancake patch," you're right. Pitzer encourages small-scale growing approached mindfully. Before even discussing the many grains, she reviews what should be considered first — your available space, time, budget, and storage options — as well as what the process of growing grains entails, from planting to harvesting and even grinding. The first chapter outlines the basic methods of harvesting, threshing, winnowing, storing, and milling the grains that can be grown at home. It's worth noting that most of these methods are based on simple hand tools, such as sickle, scythe, and flail, or on modestly-scaled machinery such as a home grain mill. Such methods "take muscle power but are not difficult," and the book's line drawings included illustrate the point very clearly.

Following this introduction, Pitzer devotes chapters to individual grains and to one grouping of "heirloom" grains (many gluten-free) such as amaranth, quinoa, emmer faro, and spelt. Within each chapter, she offers the standard information of botanical name, yield, growing requirements, and days to harvest before exploring the possible varieties of each grain and how to grow them. Of particular usefulness are the sections on pests and diseases that may damage crops. I found the line drawings of corn smut and ergot to be stunningly clear warnings about potential problems, and I don't think I'll miss these now if I ever see them.

Though Pitzer is clear about the potential difficulties in raising and storing grain, she doesn't dwell on what all could go wrong. Instead, she acknowledges gently that some people will simply find this too daunting and includes what to look for when buying those grains from the store.

corn-close-upEach chapter ends with a discussion of culinary uses for the grain, whether as whole grains or milled into flour or coarser grinds. Several recipes reflect the versatility of each grain, and many offer the traditional flavors of our ancestors, both frontier and immigrant: spoon bread, buckwheat cakes, rye borscht, tabouli, and assorted grain pilafs. (I've bookmarked a few for future experiments, of course.) While some recipes have survived from the 1981 edition, Pitzer agrees that "tastes have changed quite a bit in 30 years. Back in the peace-and-love days on the commune, grains were often cooked up in bland, dense, heavy casseroles." The newer recipes — such as a quinoa and vegetable salad or a chickpea and millet paella  — reflect "our more sophisticated palates."

Interspersed with the grain chapters are brief profiles of grain farmers around the United States who are growing heirloom grains or marketing them in unusual ways, such as Jennifer Greene of Windborne Farm in Scotts Valley, California. (If the farm has a website, I can't find it.) Greene's CSA program focuses on a variety of grains and dried beans instead of the usual produce selection, and the response from her CSA members has encouraged her to find other varieties to grow.

The book includes four pages devoted to listing possible further resources on whole grains: seed sources, equipment, books, movies, and more. Surprisingly, thanks to my own research into the subject, I found odd gaps here. While Logsdon's book is listed, it refers to the original 1977 version, not the 2009 edition (which was surely known to be in the works before Pitzer's book went to press). Also not listed are "The Whole Grain Cookbook" by A. D. Livingstone (2000) or "The Scythe Book: Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small Grains with Hand Tools" by David Tresemer (2005). In terms of equipment resources, I may have a local bias, but I'm flabbergasted that Lehman's Hardware is nowhere to be found, when Lehman's offers almost all the equipment mentioned in this book. And while the list of seed resources is delightfully extensive, it lacks a mention of the Kusa Seed Society, an organization dedicated to preserving rare and ancient grains through offering them for sale.

While I would continue to hold Logsdon's "Small-Scale Grain Raising" as the gold standard for homesteaders and backyard grain growers, Pitzer's "Homegrown Whole Grains" does offer extensive detail on varieties, growing and harvest information, and humor that makes it either a fine starting point for those hesitant about growing their own grains or a lighter companion to the Logsdon tome.

2 Responsesto “Growing with the grain: Review of “Homegrown Whole Grains””

  1. Sophie says:

    Here's another resource: the Heritage Wheat Conservancy. From their Web site: a cooperative to collect, conserve and restore delicious world heritage (landrace) grains on the verge of extinction. Our varieties are available in small amounts to multiply and restore. We manage a community seedbank of hundreds of rare varieties. Members are invited to work with us to help grow-out and evaluate our collection.

  2. Eric Stoffer says:

    Great review! In the future I would like to augment our market garden with dried bean production but I am still so fascinated with growing small plot grains, perhaps that's in our future too! Thanks again for the post. Eric