Heritage Wheats

Summer 2009

Heritage wheats
A small sampling of Eli Rogosa’s display of heritage wheats at MOFGA’s Spring Growth Conference. English photo.

Spring Growth Conference 2009

Eli Rogosa spoke at Spring Growth about her work with traditional farmers who grow landrace wheat. She explained the hidden crisis of modern “Green Revolution” wheat, the most widely grown crop on earth, which has been “bred by industrial breeders in agrochemical soaked fields for high yield and uniformity.” Nutrition is neglected, said Rogosa, and flavor is forgotten.

The global extent of the problem of modern wheat has been apparent to Rogosa, since she is Israeli and spends every winter in her homeland working with traditional Arab and Jewish farmers. The focus of her work is to collect and conserve ancient landrace wheats in their ancestral homeland of the Fertile Crescent. However, the Fertile Crescent wheats that sustained earlier civilizations are now on the verge of extinction due to replacement by modern varieties.

Although modern pedigree wheats yield well in controlled field conditions, the age-old landrace wheats have evolved over centuries of organic conditions to bear stable yields in harsh weather. “Fertile Crescent heritage wheats are a Noah’s Ark of genetic diversity that may carry us through the unprecedented weather extremes of climate change,” said Rogosa, “since they evolved over millennia in the unpredictable weather extremes of Israel, a narrow land corridor bordered on one side by cool Mediterranean breezes and on the other by the scorching Arabian desert.”

Rogosa began working with farmers in the Mideast in the early ‘90s, when she and an Arab farming NGO began working with lead village farmers to develop demonstration organic farms in the West Bank and Gaza. She raised funds to send two Palestinian farmers to study organic farming in Santa Cruz; one now runs an organic CSA in Gaza.

Rogosa soon established her own organic farm in the ancient Jewish village of Tekoa, home of the Prophet Amos, near Jerusalem. Her traditional, terraced, restoration farm is devoted to conserving indigenous food crops and dryland farming methods. With help from neighbors, she built terraces, digging almost a meter deep into rocky clay soil, removing rocks, building retaining walls, incorporating goat manure and straw with the soil and making traditional sunken waffle beds to channel precious rainfall to the roots of plants.

The Politics of Earthworms

Regarding the complex, multi-layered conflicts in the area, “I rarely discuss politics there. People need support to develop local sustainable food systems, to be self-reliant and to break the cycle of blame. That is a key to peace building. When anyone asks me what ‘side’ on am on, I reply ‘I’m on the earthworms’ side.’”

Over 60 percent of Palestinians earn their living by farming, yet 90 percent of the wheat eaten today in the ancestral homeland of wheat in Israel, Palestine and Jordan is imported from U.S. megafarms. “In a wheat-based traditional culture, where the women have been traditional home bakers and seed-savers, and the men small-holder wheat farmers for millennia, the globalization of the wheat system cuts right into the heart of the village economy and traditional cuisine,” said Rogosa.

Rogosa works in the Arab village of Wadi Fukin in the hills near Jerusalem. Because of its pure flowing natural springs, Wadi Fukin has an ancient history of good farming practices and seed saving. The farmers still report finding coins and pottery from 2,000 years ago as they plow their fields.

Today Wadi Fukin farmers have organized an organic CSA attracting members ranging from Jerusalem professors at Hebrew University to Bethlehem mothers. Every winter Rogosa brings open-pollinated seeds from Fedco Seeds to share. At first she was concerned that the seeds were not drought-hardy, but the farmers said, “No problem. We’ll make them baladi!” ‘Baladi’ is the Arab word for locally adapted village seed.

Rogosa watched as a farmer called over other farmers working in the valley and an impromptu seed exchange occurred, with farmers sharing skills on how to save and select the seed of each variety. She learned more from those traditional farmers than from any formal trainings. She reported that the traditional farmers grow polyculture mixtures of landrace populations, allowing nature and farmers to work together to develop the best locally adapted varieties. Research confirms that wheat cultivar mixtures tend to yield higher.

International Seed Cooperation

As a result of her work in seed conservation, Rogosa represents Israel in the EU network of organic plant breeders. She discovered that the loss of resilient, local, heritage wheat landraces is a worldwide problem. In remote villages throughout Europe, the modern, industrial-bred wheats are replacing the more delicious, hardy, local varieties.

In 2007, she organized a regional seed conference called “Restoring Ancient Wheat,” with participants ranging from representatives of Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian gene banks to Hasidic rabbis and traditional Arab farmers. To date the project has collected 36 landrace wheat varieties, which Rogosa returns to the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian traditional farmers to grow out. “It takes a community to restore a wheat system,” said Rogosa. Conference proceedings are posted at https://growseed.org/wheat.html.

Rogosa is growing an ancient wheat, Einkorn, found in the Golan Heights and once grown by the mysterious Druze tribe. Einkorn has not crossed with modern wheat varieties. It has about 24 percent protein, is high in micronutrients and beta-carotene, and its gluten is not toxic to people with Celiac disease. Wild Emmer (which means “Mother Wheat” in Hebrew, which still grows on the wind-swept hills of the Galilee, has evolved robust traits of resistance and has the rich flavor of a wild food) and Einkorn make delicious breads, said Rogosa. They don’t rise as much as modern bread wheats, but their high nutrition, flavor and aroma “are really winners.”

Rogosa noted, “In ancient Israel, slightly green grain was held over an open fire and parched as a spring offering in the temple in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago. Parched spring wheat is quite marketable – an absolutely delicious product.” When it’s cool, the hulls are gently abraded.

Bringing Landrace Wheat to the Northeast

The USDA SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program is funding a regional initiative, Northeast Organic Wheat, started by Rogosa to restore wheat biodiveristy to the hands of New England organic farmers to evolve anew. The diversity of Mideast and old European heritage wheats nourishes this work. See https://growseed.org/now.html for details.

She is trialing landrace wheats collected by Nikolai Vavilow, the renowned plant explorer, at MOFGA, and will distribute seeds of the most robust varieties to farmers to help rebuild the community system of on-farm saved, selected and bred seed. “We’re also going to cross in the best modern cultivars of wheat. We’re going to be giving out packets of gene pools – wheat that combines the best of the land races and the good, modern varieties that people like. Then farmers will select and save seed of the healthiest plants in their fields.”

Rogosa gave out samples of the high yielding Maine-adapted heritage spring wheats ‘Siberian Spring,’ grown in 1800s Maine, and ‘Mida,’ a cross of Emmer, Marquis, Red Fife and a Russian land race, which did “phenomenally well” in her trials at CR Lawn’s farm in Canaan, Maine. Spring Growth participants who took this seed agreed to share it at a future MOFGA seed exchange.

For more information, contact Eli Rogosa at [email protected].

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