What Are Heirloom Grains?

Farming and the food it produces have changed a lot in the past 200 years. Farmers and manufacturers have become increasingly consumed with making cheap food, and, as a result, the grains and produce on your table have changed from what they were in your ancestors’ time.

The infrastructure to produce large amounts of Alfred Nobel’s smokeless gunpowder was created during WWII. This included factories utilizing the recently discovered Haber process, which could cheaply fix nitrogen from the air into ammonia. After WWII, there was no need for all these explosives, so now, for the first time in history, farmers had access to a cheap source of plant-available nitrogen they could apply to the soil. The “Green Revolution” that occurred after WWII was accomplished by maintaining higher than natural nitrogen concentrations in the soils and developing crop varieties that could better utilize the higher ammonia levels and yield more per acre. The concentration of other minerals in the soil, such as phosphorous and potassium, was also increased, and farmers bred plants to adapt to this over-fertilization. The physiology of the new crop varieties were different from the natural crops that had been grown for thousands of years.

At the same time, the U.S. population was becoming mostly urban, and farms changed from growing food for themselves to growing “cash” crops which were sold to this growing urban population. Yield and profit became the most desirable traits in the new varieties, with nutrition and taste hardly ever being considered. Most of the great-tasting, nutritious old varieties fell out of use because they couldn’t generate as much profit per acre.

Heirloom grains are typically defined as varieties that were developed before WWII and have had limited breeding selection since.

Another change in how the nation’s food was produced also occurred in the late 1800s. With the development of the railroads, the milling process in the U.S. was changed from numerous local stone mills to fewer large steel roller mills, making grain processing cheaper, and increasing the shelf life of the flour so it could be shipped long distances on the new railroads. This cheaper process removed important vitamins and minerals from the grain, preventing mold growth. But this lack of nutrition was also noticed in U.S. troops during the world wars and caused manufacturers to begin “enriching” flour. The reason so many flours and cereals are artificially enriched today is not because the grain itself lacks nutrients, but because modern processing methods strip those nutrients away.

Heirloom grains sold by us include:

(using the pre-WWII definition)

Organic Blue Hopi Corn

Organic Bloody Butcher Red Corn

Organic Henry Moore Yellow Dent Corn

Organic Hard Red Winter (Turkey Red) Wheat

Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored popcorn

Organic Einkorn Wheat

Organic Hulless Oats*


*I’m unsure of the heritage of these varieties. In general, relatively little breeding has been done in either common oats (Avena sativa) or buckwheat. Even less breeding has been done in hulless oats (Avena nuda) since WWII and some consider them ancient grains.

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