A few grains of sense
The March 2 snowstorm and week-long power outage left my household stressed and disheveled, digging out from two feet of snow and numerous downed trees. While we were lucky compared to the extraordinary damage we saw all around the Upper Delaware, it was an exhausting week and not one conducive to the usual springtime occupation of planning the garden.
But that is how my intrepid husband passed the evening hours of the blackout, reading the seed catalogues by LED lantern. In addition to the customary greens, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts and a highly successful annual garlic crop, we will continue our annual experimentation with small grains and grasses such as quinoa and amaranth. This year we’ll grow tarwi (Tarwi lupinus), one of the lost grains of the Incas. Highly nutritious, it thrives in and actually improves poor soil, with the added benefit of a beautiful three-foot-high flower attractive to pollinators.
I’ve come to love the addition of grains like quinoa and millet to our diet. They have a distinctive nutty flavor and serve as a perfect canvas for a variety of accompaniments: avocado, orange slices, lemon zest, dried fruits, baby greens, pistachios—and in part because they make a great, portable office lunch that doesn’t get soggy in the vinaigrette. These tasty high-protein grains are gluten free and rich in minerals and B vitamins.
While researching tarwi’s culinary potential, I discovered the activities of “Practical Farmers of Iowa,” a farmer-run organization that helps Midwestern growers achieve greater resiliency through sustainable farming practices, diversification away from the monoliths of corn and soybeans, and reintroduction of cover crops like oats, triticale and other small grains and edible grasses that replenish the soil and expand the range of cereal crops for both human and livestock consumption. At the website of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I learned that triticale is a 19th century hybrid of wheat and rye that is classified as a superfood for its health benefits and digestibility.
Those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease should be aware that, unlike quinoa and millet, triticale is high in gluten and not suitable in a gluten-free diet. But for farmers, triticale and other small grains are high-yield, naturally disease resistant crops that rebuild depleted soil. They may never displace soybeans or corn, a $51 billion a year crop that occupies 90 million acres of U.S. farmland. But the balance may change.
Midwestern farmers experienced a double whammy last week, first with the steep tariffs China may impose on American corn and soybeans in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, and secondly as the EPA announced a record number of “hardship” waivers for gasoline refiners, excusing them from the Renewable Fuel Standard requirements for adding biofuels like corn ethanol to the fuel mix. The merits of the whole ethanol program are highly debatable, but its abrupt roll-back could be economically damaging for farmers. In that light, small grains represent a beneficial alternative for growers, consumers and the planet.