by Katie Ruppel
In Melinda DeFeo’s Edgartown school classroom this winter, corn kernels clanked through a sheller like pennies shooting out of a winning slot machine. “Shuck it, then shell it,” Melinda instructed her fourth and fifth graders over the loud, steady clanging. “When you clean the shelled corn, put a handful in your hands and look for bad bits or pieces of cob.” Her students did just that: shucked the husks, pushed the corn through a hand crank sheller, and tossed out the unsavory pieces. They poured all of the rest into the hand crank mill, until masa squished out of the other side, rolled the masa into balls, smashed them in the tortilla press and passed the flattened meal to Melinda to cook on a griddle.
“We need students to know how to grow and save grains,” explained Melinda, an Island Grown Schools educator.
Island Grown Schools, along with a handful of interested home gardeners and farmers, have begun planting and experimenting with grains on Martha’s Vineyard—some to promote self-sufficiency, some for food security, some to connect to history, and others, it seems, just for a good challenge.
This past year Melinda’s classes grew, harvested and saved plenty ofTaos Blue corn, and in the spring all the schools will be planting Narragansett flint corn, a variety native to the tribe from which it gets its name. “I believe what grows in our natural environment will nurture us,” Melinda said. “Not what grows in California.”
Before the ready availability of commercial goods, locally-grown grain played a significant role in the Island economy. The native people dubbed the area of West Tisbury “Takemmy” or, “where anybody goes to grind corn,” in reference to the mill built to grind, not just corn, but wheat and rye, too.
Grains have always been an efficient way to feed many mouths. Wheat, rye and corn, especially, reigned as powerful crops and were occasionally even used as a form of currency: When Thomas Mayhew started divvying up Vineyard land to other colonial settlers, he asked for rent payments to be made in grains—mostly corn. And in 1672 the General Court of the Vineyard passed its first set of laws, declaring that “all charges of the Court shall be paid in Money, corne or feathers”; land taxes, for some, were made in “six peckes of good wheat.”
But the relative ease of importing grains soon put a halt to local production. By the late 18th century, nearly all the bread supplied to the Island was from Connecticut, which was convenient, and usually cheaper— unless, of course, the boats were not running. First, during the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812, Martha’s Vineyard relied on high-priced black market flour, grain and corn, sailed illegally from across the ocean.
Rye, oats and corn were still grown by the bushel until the turn of the 20th century, when the Midwest began to monopolize the production of grains.
In the last five years or so, the desire to reconquer grains has increased nationwide. Heritage grain seeds have risen in sales, as farmers experiment with small grain plots, share seeds and build micromills. In nearby Amherst, Mass., Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains recently capitalized on these budding operations and started a grain CSA that provides its members with an entire year’s worth of grains gathered from local farmers. Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass. sells barley, rye and wheat berries by the pound as well as stone ground flour milled at the farm. Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield, Mass. has trialed more than fifty varieties of wheat in order to determine which grow best in the Berkshires. And that’s just in Massachusetts.
Glenn Roberts has spent the last 16 years resurrecting nearly extinct varieties of rice, corn and wheat. For him, food is more than just necessity—it’s history, culture, politics—and he has been working to reshape our agricultural landscape and restore heirloom grains to the American palate. Glenn is the passionate founder of the heirloom grain company Anson Mills and a part-time resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Last year, he approached Island Grown Schools with the idea to reintroduce some of the country’s oldest grains into Island school curriculums.
When speaking about grains, Glenn is engaging to the point of prophecy. “You can grow wheat anywhere. You can grow it in a teeny garden or a great, big field, said Glenn, with a thick southern cadence. Everyone should be interested in growing their own food or helping their neighbors grow food.”
And so by collaborating with Island Grown School coordinator, Noli Taylor, schools all over the Island began to plant grains in raised beds this past fall. “It’s the missing piece of the agricultural puzzle,” said Noli.
Each school began with Turkey Hard Red Winter Wheat, one of the heartiest heritage wheat varieties. The wheat stores its energy in its roots in the winter, aerating and loosening the soil, and prepping it to be replanted in the summer. While some may see no prospect in the rocky soil and humidity of coastal Massachusetts for growing a grain like wheat, Glenn sees this as a benefit. “We want wheat that struggles, just like great wine grapes,” he said.
For Glenn, the rewards are numerous: in the challenge, the connection to history, the quality of the product and the opportunities for education that the practice brings. The revival of grains paves the way for a rediscovery of lost flavors and forgotten ways of thinking about local agriculture.
“‘Wheat doesn’t grow here’—that is not an answer,” Glenn said. “Start. Just start.”
THE SEEDS OF CHANGE
Before Glenn arrived, small inroads had been made on the grain front, some deliberate, others accidental. Rye has historically been prevalent within the farming community on the Island—most know it as a highly effective cover crop—but it’s rarely given the opportunity to reach maturity.
A few years ago, Emily Duncker, a local farm educator, worked in the garden at The Farm Institute, and was experimenting with minimal and no-till farming. While the wheat variety she planted succumbed to diseases, the rye grew vigorously. She had originally planned to go the cover-crop route, but decided to let it grow.
“It was impossible to kill the rye in the spring,” she said. So Emily borrowed scythes and sickles from a friend, then plundered through the rye with these sharp, apocalyptic tools, learning how to use them as she went.
After the rye dried in the hayloft, her students whacked the bundles against a big tarp, then waited for a windy day. When it came, everyone grabbed hold of the tarp, pulled it tight, and up in the air went the golden grass. Then away the chaff blew and the seeds rained down like drops on a tin roof. The children used a hand-crank mill to grind the rye that Emily baked into sourdough bread and latkes with potatoes.
“It’s just one more thing that, if you have the space, you can grow to be more self-sufficient,” Emily said. “One less thing to get at the grocery store.”
In January, Dan Sternbach’s small plot of winter wheat was just starting to take root. Dan, a local carpenter, is one of the only people successfully growing grains on the Island.
“People have been doing this forever— it’s complicated, but not too complicated,” said Dan. “[And] let’s face it, you can’t live on tomatoes in July. Or February. You need to have carbohydrates; veggies can only get you so far.”
Like the school programs, Dan prefers winter wheat because it’s one of the easier strains to grow—hardy and responsive, despite this region’s harsh weather and poor soil conditions. After starting out with tiny plots four years ago, he finally harvested more than 30 pounds of wheat berries last fall, although his experience hasn’t exactly been an easy one: His wheat lodged two years in a row, and the next successful year he was only able to harvest enough to replant. But last fall’s yield was excellent. Dan was able to modify his wood chipper for the threshing process, although, at an hour per pound, he probably wouldn’t recommend that to others.
Dan has a table mill that he uses for his homegrown wheat berries and other store-bought grains. He’s been baking so much bread that he’s thinking of branching out into rye next year, too. The planting and harvesting is very similar to wheat, and although rye will yield less per area, it is much more resilient.
For Kevin Brennan, a local farmer and forager, the more he can grow on his own, the better. Kevin presses his own cider, grinds coffee from dandelion root, taps maples for syrup and forages and fishes with his friend and mentor Max Eagen, a local chef. “I like being inspired by the people who lived here before us and how they survived,” he said.
Last summer, Kevin challenged himself to eat only locally grown food: without grains, he lasted about four days. So last spring, he planted Hickory King White Corn, a variety that averages a pound of cream-colored kernels per plant—“It does really well in the climate without much maintenance,” Kevin said.
This past fall, after a successful growing season, Kevin harvested 100 pounds of corn. And through the winter, Kevin has been enjoying hand-pressed tortillas, like the ones Melinda’s students made, as well as cornbread and hominy.
A GROWTH ECONOMY
“If the boats stopped running, would we ever get to taste bread again?” Rebecca Gilbert mused aloud in her kitchen at Native Earth Teaching Farm. It’s a question not unlike the one Islanders asked during the Revolutionary War, and it’s one worth asking against today’s backdrop of climate change and food insecurity.
But for the first time in recent memory, the reality of a local grain economy is not so far off. (Although at this early stage it might be just a few loaves or tortillas.)
This spring, Island Grown Schools will plant flint corn and rice in their gardens; in the fall, they’ll make pizzas or bread with their wheat and, throughout this, are hoping to connect with farmers about their experiences.
“We are connecting kids to flour in the bread and then the seeds that make the flour,” Melinda said. So when we are out in the garden they are asking questions— it’s all because we connected them to their stomach.”
“It’s a great opportunity for kids to help bring something back that was important here,” Noli said. And local farmers are getting on board: Jim Athearn at Morning Glory said he wants to experiment with quinoa, a pseudograin related to lamb’s quarters. Keith Wilda at Thimble Farm said IGI has loose plans to experiment with oats, flint corn and rice, and said a grain mill could be a future possibility.
The last months of winter were once known as the “starving time”— the root cellar ran dry, the beans had been baked, and the jelly jars had been scraped out. Thanks to global trade, extended growing seasons and the trusty ferry, the Vineyard today has access to many foods, regardless of distance or season. But the allure of self-sufficiency has always been a motivating force for Islanders. With an abundance of locally-grown produce, meat and dairy, hopefully grains will soon join the ranks.
But efforts beyond individual plots require a community commitment. Historically, neighbors bounced from farm to farm for threshing parties,mill sites became community hubs and bread would be broken together for special occasions. “Of course we will never be 100 percent self-sufficient,” Glenn said. “But if you have neighbors, even hundreds of people growing, sharing different seeds—the more the merrier.”