Staff of Life


I’ll admit, growing vintage wheat varieties is kind of a weird hobby. It started when I came across an old photograph of Mono Basin pioneer Chris Mattly, standing waist-deep in a field of wheat. Surprisingly, this flourishing field grew near the alkaline shores of Mono Lake at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. The sage-covered slopes of the Eastern Sierra are hardly your classic wheat belt. The snows lie deep in that country and if you blink twice you’ll miss the growing season. Yet, back in 1922, acres of waving seed heads covered Mattly’s farm. How did he do it?

Mattly’s wheat field started me down a path of agrarian research from which I’ve never recovered. Wheat, being a domesticated grass, will grow just about anywhere. Since it’s easy to propagate new varieties, family farmers like Chris Mattly could breed grain to suit their climates and cuisines. Up until the so-called Green Revolution introduced petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides in the 1950s, all wheat was grown organically. Successful varieties had to be hardy, adaptable, and disease and pest resistant.

During the Green Revolution, wheat breeders shifted their attention to new varieties that performed like athletes on steroids — yields were off the charts but artificially induced. When interest in growing wheat organically resurfaced decades later, the petroleum-dependent varieties failed. A handful of wheat breeders scrambled to find what remained of the pre-industrial strains. Wheat preservationists worried that valuable genetic resources were becoming extinct. Wheat preservationists? Yep. Even ancient crops have their passionate proponents and I became one of them.

How did I help preserve vintage wheat varieties when I’ve never owned more than a measly third-of-an-acre? I got acquainted with wheat breeders at Washington State University in Pullman. They sent me seeds to test based on my climate and organic methods. They also directed me to USDA seed banks so I could request more varieties to try. Many of these old varieties hadn’t been “grown out” for decades. Seed has to be fairly fresh to remain viable, so by growing, harvesting, storing, and keeping careful records of heirloom varieties we help keep them alive. I grew dozens of little patches in the backyard, checkerboards of bowing, graceful grasses. They have names like Pacific Bluestem, Regenerated Defiance, White Fife, Jumbuck, Quality, Burt, Coulee, and a modern upstart from Utah called Golden Spike.

My husband teases me about how I fuss over those rising stems. We barely grow enough to eat but they are stunning when their whiskered heads form, full and tall. There’s something primal and satisfying about cultivating wheat — the ancient staff of life — right in the backyard. Amazing. I can harvest a tiny remnant of an agricultural legacy stretching back ten thousand years to the Fertile Crescent!

It may not look like much, but if the world goes to hell in a handbasket, we’ll at least have enough wheat to make a dozen pancakes before we’re forced to survive on rangy jackrabbits.