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A corncob, dried and slightly shriveled, arrived in the mail not long after we opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Along with the cob was a check for $1,000. The explanation arrived the same day, in an e-mail I received from Glenn Roberts, a rare-seeds collector and supplier of specialty grains. Since Blue Hill is part of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a multipurpose farm and education center, Glenn wanted my help persuading the vegetable farmer to plant the corn in the spring. He said the corn was a variety called New England Eight Row Flint.
There is evidence, Glenn told me, that Eight Row Flint corn dates back to the 1600s, when, for a time, it was considered a technical marvel. Not only did it consistently produce eight fat rows of kernels (four or five was the norm back then; modern cobs have eighteen to twenty rows), but it also had been carefully selected by generations of Native Americans for its distinctive flavor. By the late 1700s the corn was widely planted in western New England and the lower Hudson Valley, and later it was found as far as southern Italy. But a brutally cold winter in 1816 wiped out the New England crop. Seed reserves were exhausted to near extinction as most of the stockpiled corn went to feed people and livestock.
The cob Glenn had sent was from a line that had survived for two hundred years in Italy under the name Otto File (“eight rows”), which he hoped to restore to its place of origin. By planting the seed, he wrote, we would be growing “an important and threatened historic flavor of Italy while simultaneously repatriating one of New England’s extinct foodways. Congratulations on your quest, Dan, and thank you for caring.” Glenn added, in case I didn’t care, that the Eight Row was “quite possibly the most flavorful polenta corn on the planet, and absolutely unavailable in the U.S.” At harvest he promised another $1,000. He wanted nothing in return, other than a few cobs to save for seed.
If his offer sounds like a home run for Stone Barns, it was. Here was a chance to recapture a regional variety and to honor a Native American crop with historical significance. For me, it was a chance to cook with an ingredient no other restaurant could offer on its menu (catnip for any chef) and to try the superlative polenta for myself.
Yet I carried the corncob over to Jack Algiere, the vegetable farmer, with little enthusiasm. Jack is not a fan of growing corn, and, with only eight acres of field production on the farm, you can’t blame him for dismissing a plant that demands so much real estate. Corn is needy in other ways, too. It’s gluttonous, requiring, for example, large amounts of nitrogen to grow. From the perspective of a vegetable gardener, it’s the biological equivalent of a McMansion.
In the early stages of planning Stone Barns Center, I told Jack about a farmer who was harvesting immature corn for our menu. It was a baby cob, just a few inches long, the kernels not yet visible. You ate the whole cob, which brought to mind the canned baby corn one finds in a mediocre vegetable stir-fry. Except these tiny cobs were actually tasty. I wanted to impress Jack with the novelty of the idea. He was not impressed.
“You mean your farmer grows the whole stalk and then picks the cobs when they’re still little?” he said, his face suddenly scrunched up, as if he were absorbing a blow to the gut. “That’s nuts.” He bent over and nearly touched the ground with his right hand, then stood up on his toes and, with his left hand, reached up, high above my head, hiking his eyebrows to indicate just how tall a corn’s stalk grows. “Only after all that growth will corn even begin to think about producing the cob. That big, thirsty, jolly green giant of a stalk—which even when it produces full-size corn has to be among the plant kingdom’s most ridiculous uses of Mother Nature’s energy—and what are you getting for all that growth? You’re getting this.” He flashed his pinky finger. “That’s all you’re getting.” He rotated his hand so I could see his finger from all angles. “One tiny, pretty flavorless bite of corn.”
One summer when I was fourteen years old, Blue Hill Farm, my family’s farm in Massachusetts, grew only corn. No one can remember why. But it was the strangest summer. I think back to it now with the same sense of bewilderment I felt as a child encountering the sea of gold tassels where the grass had always been.
Before Blue Hill Farm became a corn farm for a summer, I helped make hay for winter storage from one of the eight pasture fields. We began in early August, loading bales onto a conveyor belt and methodically packing them, Lego-like, into the barn’s stadium-size second floor. By Labor Day the room was filled nearly to bursting, its own kind of landscape.
Making hay meant first cutting the grass, which—for me, anyway—meant riding shotgun in a very large tractor for hours each day, crouching silently next to one of the farmers and studying the contours of the fields. And so, by way of no special talent, just repetition, I learned to anticipate the dips and curves in the fields, the muddy, washed-out places, the areas of thick shrubbery and thinned grasses—when to brace for a few minutes of a bumpy ride and when to duck under a protruding branch.
I internalized those bumps and curves the way my grandmother Ann Strauss internalized the bumps and curves of Blue Hill Road by driving it for thirty years. She always seemed to be going to town (to get her hair done) or coming back (from running errands). Sometimes my brother, David, and I were with her, and we used to laugh in the backseat, because Ann (never “Grandma,” never “Grandmother”) rounded the corners in her Chevy Impala at incredible speeds, maneuvering with the ease and fluency of a practiced finger moving over braille. Her head was often cranked to the left or to the right, antennae engaged, inspecting a neighbor’s garden or a renovated screened-in porch. (She sometimes narrated the intrigue happening inside.) During these moments her body took over, autopiloting around corners without having to slow down, swerving slightly to avoid the ditch just beyond Bill Riegleman’s home.
Often, on the last leg of the drive, Ann would tell us the story of how she came to buy the farm in the 1960s, a story she had told a thousand times before. Back then, the property was a dairy operation owned by the Hall brothers, whose family had farmed the land since the late 1800s.
“You know, I used to walk up this road every week for years; sometimes every day,” she would say, as if telling the story for the first time. “I loved Blue Hill Farm more than any place in the world.” At the top of Blue Hill Road was four hundred acres of open pasture. “But what a mess! I couldn’t believe it, really. They had cows pasturing in the front yard. The house was run-down, and so dirty. They didn’t have a front door—climbed in and out through the kitchen window, for heaven’s sake. And you know what? I loved it. I loved the fields, I loved the backdrop of blue hills, I loved that I felt like a queen every time I came up here.”
Whenever Ann saw the Hall brothers, she would let them know she wanted to buy the farm. “But they just laughed. ‘Ms. Strauss,’ they’d say, ‘this farm’s been in our family for three generations. We’re never selling.’ So I’d return the next week, and they’d say the same thing: ‘Never selling.’ This went on for many years, until one day I arrived at the farm and one of the brothers came running over, out of breath. ‘Ms. Strauss, do you want to buy this farm?’ Just like that! I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even let me answer. ‘This morning my brother and I got into the biggest fight. If we don’t sell now, we’re going to kill each other.’ I said I was interested. For sure I would buy a piece of it. ‘Ma’am,’ he said, ‘we’re selling it now—the whole thing, or forget it. Right now.’
“So I said yes. I hadn’t even been inside the farmhouse, and I didn’t know where the property began and where it ended. But it didn’t matter. What else was I going to say? I just knew this was the place.”
The dairy part of Blue Hill Farm disappeared with the Hall brothers, but Ann began pasturing beef cattle, because she wanted the fields to remain productive and because she enjoyed showing off the view to her friends; the image of cows dotting the iconic New England landscape is still fit for a coffee table book.
At the time, I didn’t know about the importance of preserving that kind of view. I just enjoyed the tractor rides, the look back at the field lined with the long, curving windrows of just-cut grass, and then, as I got older, the hard work of baling and storing hay for the winter.
Which, as it happened, suddenly came to an end because of the summer of corn. The maize invasion meant the cows grazed at another farm, which meant the hours of fixing fences and lugging salt licks and watching the herd lie and chew cud before a rainstorm came to an end, too. And since you don’t tend to a field of corn—in the same way you don’t really tend to a houseplant—it meant the baler and the hay wagons, the farm interns, the red Ford F-150 pickup truck, the big iced tea jug, and all the sweaty work went with them.
To look out from the front porch at what had always been fields of grass transformed suddenly into amber fields of corn felt not quite right. Same home, new furniture. Endless rows of corn are one of those things that are beautiful to behold at a distance. They tremble in great waves with the slightest breeze, and you think of beauty and abundance. Up close it’s a different story. For one thing, the abundance is relative. We can’t eat feed corn—I tried to that summer. The enormous cobs line the stalks like loaded missiles, tasting nothing like the sweet stuff we chainsaw through in August. And there’s little in the way of beauty. The long, straight rows take on a military-like discipline. They cut across bare soil, hard corners and creased edges replacing the natural contours of the field that I once knew so well.
I handed Jack the Eight Row Flint cob from Glenn and explained the situation, fearing that if the idea of growing corn offended him, the check for $1,000 might upset him even more. But I was wrong about both.
He loved the idea. “Look,” Jack said to me—and in Jack’s parlance, “Look” is a happy thing to hear. “Look” says: I know I may have given you some differing opinion in the past, but there are exceptions to my rule, and this is one of them. “This corn is the rare case of flavor driving genetics,” he said, reminding me of the generations of farmers who had selected and grown Eight Row Flint for its superior flavor, not solely for its yield, as is the case with most modern varieties. “How often do you get to be a part of that in your lifetime?”
So far, so good. But Jack went a step further. He planted the Eight Row Flint like the Iroquois planted most of their corn—alongside dry beans and squash, a companion planting strategy called the Three Sisters. On the continuum of farming practices, Three Sisters is at the opposite end from how corn is typically grown, with its military-row monocultures and chemical-fed soil. The logic is to carefully bundle crops into relationships that benefit each other, the soil, and the farmer. The beans provide the corn with nitrogen (legumes draw nitrogen from the air into the soil); the corn stalk provides a natural trellis for the climbing beans (so Jack wouldn’t need to stake the beans); and the squash, planted around the base of the corn and the beans, suppresses weeds and offers an additional vegetable to harvest in the late fall.
It was a masterful idea—mimicking the successful Native American strategy while taking out a small insurance policy on the Eight Row Flint. Even if the corn failed to germinate, Jack could still harvest the other crops, and in the meantime he’d show visitors to the Stone Barns Center a valuable historical farming technique. And yet I couldn’t help but feel skeptical as I watched him plant the corn kernels and companion seeds into mounds of rich soil. I had nothing against honoring agricultural traditions, but I didn’t need a sisterhood of beneficial relationships. I needed a polenta with phenomenal flavor.
As luck would have it (or maybe it was the sisterhood, after all), the Eight Row Flint had nearly perfect germination. Following the harvest in late September, Jack hung the corn upside down in a shed and waited for the moisture to evaporate. By late November, just in time for the long winter march of root vegetables, he triumphantly set a dried cob on my desk. It looked nearly too perfect, like a prop for an elementary-school production of the First Thanksgiving.
“Voilà!” he said, so pleased with himself he seemed to wriggle with the sheer joy of it. “They’re ready to go. Tell me when you want them.”
“Today!” I was feeding off Jack’s energy. “We’ll make polenta and then . . .” And then I realized something I hadn’t considered: the corn needed to be ground. I didn’t have a mill.
The truth is that I had never really considered the corncob behind the cornmeal. It hadn’t crossed my mind once in twenty years of preparing polenta. Polenta was polenta. Of course I knew it came from corn, just as I knew bread came from wheat. Beyond the obvious, I had never needed to know more.
A week later, just before dinner service, our new tabletop grinder arrived. The engine whirred as it pulverized the kernels into a finely milled dust. I toasted the ground maize lightly and cooked it right away in water and salt. I’d like to say I cooked the Eight Row Flint the way Native Americans cooked it, stirring a clay pot all day with a wooden spoon over an open hearth. But the pot was carbonized steel, the spoon metal, and the hearth an induction cooktop that heats by magnetic force. It didn’t matter. Before long the polenta was smooth and shiny. I continued stirring, which is when suddenly the pot began smelling like a steaming, well-buttered ear of corn. It wasn’t just the best polenta of my life. It was polenta I hadn’t imagined possible, so corny that breathing out after swallowing the first bite brought another rich shot of corn flavor. The taste didn’t so much disappear as slowly, begrudgingly fade. It was an awakening. But the question for me was: Why? How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal? It’s really not too much to ask of polenta to actually taste like the corn. But back then, I couldn’t have imagined the possibility until it happened. Jack’s planting strategy, as artful as a sonnet, combined with the corn’s impeccable genetics, changed how I thought about good food, and good cooking.
With remarkable, almost ironic regularity, I have found myself repeating this kind of experience. Different farm, different farmer, same narrative arc. I am reminded that truly flavorful food involves a recipe more complex than anything I can conceive in the kitchen. A bowl of polenta that warms your senses and lingers in your memory becomes as straightforward as a mound of corn and as complex as the system that makes it run. It speaks to something beyond the crop, the cook, or the farmer—to the entirety of the landscape, and how it fits together. It can best be expressed in places where good farming and delicious food are inseparable.
This book is about these stories.
If that sounds like a chronicle of a farm-to-table chef, it is—sort of.
Blue Hill has been defined by that term since Jonathan Gold, the head reviewer for Gourmet magazine, called us a farm-to-table restaurant just a few months after we opened Blue Hill in New York City in the spring of 2000. He visited our Greenwich Village restaurant on a night when asparagus was everywhere on the menu. It might have been because of the achingly short asparagus season, or because they were at the height of their flavor. Or because they had been grown locally and driven down to the city by Hudson Valley family farmers.
It was all of these things, but it was something much more straightforward, too. After returning from the farmers’ market that morning and unloading a mountain of asparagus packed into the trunk of a yellow cab, I discovered another mountain of them already in the walk-in refrigerator—a week’s worth, at least—and went into a rage about the disorganization in the kitchen. How could the market order have included asparagus when we were already overloaded? I had the cooks clean out the refrigerator and prep the cases of asparagus that were piled high and getting old. And I told them that they had to be used in every dish. I must have sounded serious, because they appeared in every dish. Halibut with leeks and asparagus, duck with artichokes and asparagus, chicken with mushrooms and asparagus. The asparagus soup that night even had the addition of roasted asparagus floating on its surface.
Instead of writing with puzzlement at the asparagus blitzkrieg, Jonathan Gold celebrated what he misinterpreted as intent. “What does it mean to be a farm-oriented restaurant in New York City?” he wrote as the opening line for the review, describing Blue Hill as a true representation of farm-to-table cooking. Farm-to-table is now a much abused descriptor, but back then the review pithily defined who we were, before we even knew who we were.
Farm-to-table has since gone from a fringe idea to a mainstream social movement. Its success comes with mounting evidence that our country’s indomitable and abundant food system, for so long the envy of the world, is unstable, if not broken. Eroding soils, falling water tables for irrigation, collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, and deteriorating grasslands represent only a handful of the environmental problems wrought by our food system—problems that will continue to multiply with rising temperatures.
Our health has suffered, too. Rising rates of food-borne illnesses, malnutrition, and diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes are traced, at least in part, to our mass production of food. The warnings are clear: because we eat in a way that undermines health and abuses natural resources (to say nothing of the economic and social implications), the conventional food system cannot be sustained.
Fixtures of agribusiness such as five-thousand-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots are no more the future of farming than eighteenth-century factories billowing black smoke are the future of manufacturing. Though most of the food we eat still comes from agriculture that’s mired in this mind-set—extract more, waste more—the pulse of common sense suggests this won’t last. It will, in the words of the environmental writer Aldo Leopold, “die of its own too-much.”
Farm-to-table—whose enthusiasts are called artisanal eaters and locavores—took root as the new food movement’s answer to the conventional food system. It was also, undeniably, a reaction against a global food economy that erodes cultures and cuisines. It’s about seasonality, locality, and direct relationships with your farmer. It’s also about better-tasting food, which is why chefs have been so influential in broadening the movement. Most chefs support the farmers’ market for the same reason that most doctors are drawn to prenatal care. As someone whose job it is to address the end result, how can you not care about the beginning? A growing number of chefs have joined the ranks of activists advancing the agenda of changing our food system.
The idea of chef as activist is a relatively new one.
It was the nouvelle cuisine chefs of the 1960s who, breaking with an onerous tradition of classic French cuisine, stepped out of the confines of the kitchen and launched modern gastronomy. They created new styles of cooking based on seasonal flavors, smaller portions, and artistic plating. In doing so, they established the authority of the chef, giving him a platform of influence that has only continued to expand.
Fifty years later, chefs are known for their ability to create fashions and shape markets. What appears on a menu in a white-tablecloth restaurant one day trickles down to the bistro the next, and eventually influences everyday food culture. After Wolfgang Puck reimagined pizza in the 1980s at his fine-dining restaurant Spago, in Los Angeles—smoked salmon instead of tomatoes; crème fraîche instead of cheese—gourmet pizza spread to every corner of America, eventually culminating in the supermarket frozen food aisle. We now have the power to quickly popularize certain products and ingredients—in some cases, as with certain fish, to the point of commercial extinction—and increasingly we do, with dizzying speed and effect. But we also possess the potential to get people to rethink their eating habits.
Which is where farm-to-table chefs have been most effective. Today the message has gone viral, highlighting the perils of our nation’s diet and exposing the connections between how we eat and our heavy environmental footprint. We raise money for school lunch programs and nutrition education and shed light on the real costs of processed and packaged food. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America are on our cookbook shelves, as much for reference as for inspiration. In Berry’s words, we understand that eating “is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”
And yet, for all the movement’s successes, and the accompanying shift in popular consciousness, the gains haven’t changed, in any fundamental way, the political and economic forces shaping how most of the food in this country is grown or raised.
Nor, for that matter, have they changed the culture of American cooking. Americans have more opportunities to opt out of the conventional food chain than ever before (farmers’ markets are ubiquitous; organic food is widely available) and more information about how to do it (innumerable cooking shows and easy access to a world of online recipes), but the food culture—the way we eat, which is different than what we eat—has remained largely unaffected.
How do we eat? Mostly with a heavy hand. For a long time, the prototypical American meal has featured a choice cut—like a seven-ounce steak or a boneless, skinless chicken breast or a fillet of salmon—and a small side of vegetables or grains. The architecture of this plate has shifted little throughout the years. It’s become a distinctly American expectation of what’s for dinner, seven days a week, every week of the year, protein-centric proof that our nation can produce staggering amounts of food.
And it persists even among the most forward-thinking farm-to-table advocates. That much became clear to me on a summer night just a year after we opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Standing in the kitchen a few minutes into the beginning of service and staring down at a collection of newly sauced entrées ready for the dining room, I experienced what I think ranks as a revelation. I started asking myself a series of questions that took a turn toward abstraction. Among them was: Is a restaurant menu really sustainable?
Chefs are often asked how their menus are created, especially how new dishes come into existence. Some of us are inspired by a favorite food from childhood, or we’re drawn to rethinking classic preparations. A new kitchen tool may spark an idea, or a visit to the museum. As with anything creative, it’s tough to pinpoint the origin, but whatever the process, the scaffolding for the idea forms first; assembling the ingredients comes later.
We forget that for most of human history, it happened the other way around. We foraged and then, out of sheer necessity, transformed what we found into something else—something more digestible and storable, with better nutrition and flavor. Farm-to-table restaurants promote their menus as having evolved in that order: forage first—maybe with a morning’s stroll through the farmers’ market—and create later. The promise of farm-to-table cooking is that menus take their shape from the constraints of local agriculture and celebrate them.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns was conceived with that promise of further shortening the food chain. David Rockefeller, grandson of patriarch John D. Rockefeller, set out to preserve a memory—the place where he sipped warm milk from the lid of the milking jug. (The Normandy-style structures were built in the 1930s as part of the family’s old eighty-acre dairy farm, twenty miles north of New York City.) He was also intent on making a tangible tribute to his late wife, Peggy, who raised breeding cattle on the farm and founded the American Farmland Trust to curb the loss of productive farmland.
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, along with the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, opened in the spring of 2004. Mr. Rockefeller donated the land and funded the renovation of the barns into an educational center, a place that he and his daughter Peggy Dulany envisioned would promote local agriculture with programs for children and adults. He also funded a working farm. Vegetables and fruits are managed by Jack, who oversees a 23,000-square-foot greenhouse and an eight-acre outdoor production field. The animals—pigs, sheep, chickens, geese, and honeybees—rotate around the more than twenty acres of pasture and woodlands, under the direction of Craig Haney, the livestock manager.
Take the harvests from the Stone Barns fields just outside the kitchen window, or from farms within a radius of a hundred or so miles, and incorporate them into the menu. How much more farm-to-table can you get?
But during that summer evening, the shortsightedness of the system—and perhaps the reason farm-to-table has failed to transform the way most of our food is grown in this country—suddenly seemed obvious. In just the first few minutes of a busy dinner service, we had already sold out of a new entrée of grass-fed lamb chops.
For much of that month, I had been preparing the waiters for the farm’s first lamb—a Finn-Dorset breed fed only grass. The waiters learned about Craig’s intensive pasture management, about how the sheep were moved twice a day onto the choicest grass, and how the chickens followed the sheep to help ensure even better grass for the next time around. It was among the more interesting things happening on the farm, if not the most delicious.
To honor the addition of lamb to the menu, we carefully sketched out a new dish, which included roasted zucchini and a minted puree made with the skins. I visited the farmers’ market on an early-morning sweep to supplement whatever zucchini Jack promised to harvest.
That night, the waiters (convincing as waiters tend to be when they get their hands on a good story) succeeded in selling the lamb chops to each one of those first tables, sometimes to every diner at the table. There are sixteen individual chops per lamb. We had three animals, so forty-eight chops were ready for roasting, three to a plate. After months of work, years of grass management, a four-hour round-trip to the slaughterhouse, and a butcher breaking down the animals with the patience and skill of a surgeon, we had sold out in the time it takes to eat a hot dog.
Craig’s lamb chops were replaced with grass-fed lamb chops from another farm. Diners, unaware of what they were missing, were happy. So where was the problem? A year into the life of Stone Barns, the farm’s harvests were better than expected, the restaurant was busier than we’d anticipated, and our network of local farmers was expanding. With my sudden qualms about our tactics, I might have been accused of looking for the hole in the doughnut.
And yet, the night of the lamb-chop sellout, I began to think that the hole in our doughnut was the menu itself, or our Western conception of it, which still obeyed the conventions of a protein-centric diet. Sure, our meat was grass-fed (and our chicken free-range, and our fish line-caught) and our vegetables local and, for the most part, organic. But we were still trying to fit into an established system of eating, based on the hegemony of the choicest cuts. By cooking with grass-fed lamb and by supporting local farmers, we were opting out of the conventional food chain, shortening food miles, and working with more flavorful food. But we weren’t addressing the larger problem. The larger problem, as I came to see it, is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow. Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s picked that day (and I should know, since I do it often), but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. Which is really about an expected way of eating. It forces farmers into growing crops like zucchini and tomatoes (requiring lots of real estate and soil nutrients) or into raising enough lambs to sell mostly just the chops, because if they don’t, the chef, or even the enlightened shopper, will simply buy from another farmer.
Farm-to-table may sound right—it’s direct and connected—but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around. It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain.
We did away with the menus a year later. Instead diners were presented with a list of ingredients. Some vegetables, like peas, made multiple appearances throughout the meal. Others, like rare varieties of lettuce, became part of a shared course for the table. Lamb rack for a six-top; lamb brain and belly for a table of two. No obligations. No prescribed protein-to-vegetable ratios. We merely outlined the possibilities. The list was evidence that the farmers dictated the menu. I was thrilled.
And then, after several years of experimenting, I wasn’t. My cooking did not amount to any radical paradigm shift. I was still sketching out ideas for dishes first and figuring out what farmers could supply us with later, checking off ingredients as if shopping at a grocery store.
Over time, I recognized that abandoning the menu wasn’t enough. I wanted an organizing principle, a collection of dishes instead of a laundry list of ingredients, reflecting a whole system of agriculture—a cuisine, in other words.
The very best cuisines—French, Italian, Indian, and Chinese, among others—were built around this idea. In most cases, the limited offerings of peasant farming meant that grains or vegetables assumed center stage, with a smattering of meat, most often lesser cuts such as neck or shank. Classic dishes emerged—pot-au-feu in French cuisine, polenta in Italian, paella in Spanish—to take advantage of (read: make delicious) what the land could supply.
The melting pot of American cuisine did not evolve out of this philosophy. Despite the natural abundance—or, rather, as many historians argue, because of the abundance—we were never forced into a more enlightened way of eating. Colonial agriculture took root in the philosophy of extraction. Conquer and tame nature rather than work in concert with nature. The exploitative relationship was made possible by the availability of large quantities of enormously productive land.
Likewise, American cooking was characterized, from the beginning, by its immoderation—large amounts of meat and starch that grossly outweighed the small portions of fruits and vegetables. None of it was prepared with special care. In 1877, Juliet Corson, the head of the New York Cooking School, lamented the wastefulness of American cooks. “In no other land,” she wrote, “is there such a profusion of food, and certainly in none is so much wasted from sheer ignorance, and spoiled by bad cooking.” A real food culture—that way of eating—never evolved into something recognizable, and where it did, it was not preserved. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the great gastronome who famously said, “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you who you are,” would have found that difficult to do here.
With few ingrained food habits, Americans are among the least tradition-bound of food cultures, easily swayed by fashions and influences from other countries. That’s been a blessing, in some ways: we are freer to try new tastes and invent new styles and methods of cooking. The curse is that, without a golden age in farming, and with a history that lacks a strong model for good eating, the values of true sustainability don’t penetrate our food culture. Today’s chefs create and follow rules that are so flexible they’re really more like traffic signals—there to be observed but just as easily ignored. Which is why it’s difficult to imagine farm-to-table cooking shaping the kind of food system we want for the future.
What kind of cooking will?
In a roundabout way, I was confronted with that question not long ago. A food magazine asked a group of chefs, editors, and artists to imagine what we’ll be eating in thirty-five years. The request was to sketch just one plate of food and make it illustrative of the future.
It brought out dystopian visions. Most predicted landscapes so denuded that we will be forced to eat down the food chain—all the way down, to insects, seaweed, and even pharmaceutical pills. I found myself sketching out something more hopeful. My one plate morphed into three, a triptych tracing the recent (and future) evolution of American dining.
The first plate was a seven-ounce corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables (I chose steamed baby carrots)—in other words, the American expectation of dinner for much of the past half-century. It was never an enlightened or particularly appetizing construction, and at this point it’s thankfully passé.
The second plate represented where we are now, infused with all the ideals of the farm-to-table movement. The steak was grass-fed, the carrots were now a local heirloom variety grown in organic soil. Inasmuch as it reflected all of the progress American food has experienced in the past decade, the striking thing about the second plate was that it looked nearly identical to the first.
Finally, the third plate kept with the steak-dinner analogy—only this time, the proportions were reversed. In place of a hulking piece of protein, I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.
The point wasn’t to suggest that we’ll be reduced to eating meat only in sauces, or that vegetable steaks are the future of food. It was to predict that the future of cuisine will represent a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about cooking and eating that defies Americans’ ingrained expectations. I was looking toward a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and—like all great cuisines—begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.
Since the best of them coevolved over thousands of years, tethered to deep cultural traditions and mores, how does one begin building a cuisine? In other words, how does the Third Plate go from imaginable to edible?
That question was not the starting point for this book; it is something that has evolved in the writing of it. I started, instead, with farmers, and with experiences like that Eight Row Flint polenta that challenged my assumptions as a chef and taught me, again and again, that truly delicious food is contingent on an entire system of agriculture.
To get a handle on what kind of cooking best supported this, I needed to uncover something more basic: What kind of farming is this? Local? Organic? Biodynamic? I learned that it goes beyond labels. It requires something broad to explain it. Lady Eve Balfour, one of the earliest organic farming pioneers, said that the best kind of farming could not be reduced to a set of rules. Her advice was prescient. She lived before organic agriculture became defined by just that—a set of rules—and before farming methods were used as marketing tools. The farming that produces the kind of food we really want to eat, she believed, depends “on the attitude of the farmer.”
That’s frustratingly vague advice, and yet I came to understand Lady Balfour’s idea when I heard one farmer speak about the ultimate goal of good farming. “We need to grow nature,” he said, and in doing so he revealed more than an insight. He was articulating an attitude, a worldview, and he might well have been speaking on behalf of all the farmers in this book.
To grow nature is to encourage more of it. That’s not easy to do. More nature means less control. Less control requires a certain kind of faith, which is where the worldview comes into play. Do you see the natural world as needing modification and improvement, or do you see it as something to be observed and interpreted? Do you view humans as a small part of an unbelievably complicated and fragile system, or do you view us as the commanders? The farmers in this book are observers. They listen. They don’t exert control.
It’s hard to label these farmers, because it’s hard to label an attitude, which was Lady Balfour’s point. When King Lear asks the blind Gloucester how he sees the world, Shakespeare has him say, “I see it feelingly.” The farmers in this book see their worlds feelingly.
If the future of delicious food is in the hands of farmers who grow nature and abide by its instructions, we ought to become more literate about what that means. By and large, we tend to calculate sustainability based on the surface level of agriculture. We take what is measurable (increases in the use of pesticide and fertilizers, inhumane conditions in animal feedlots) and push alternatives (buy organic, choose grass-fed beef). These things are easy to quantify. They are things you can see.
The farmers in this book farm one level down. They don’t think in terms of cultivating one thing. If your worldview is that everything is connected to something else, why would you? Instead, they grow nature by orchestrating a whole system of farming. And they produce a lot of things—delicious food, to be sure, but also things we can’t easily measure or see. I learned this lesson many times, whether in wetlands or pastures. I was introduced to the kind of jam-packed diversity, both above and below ground, that I had read about but never really understood. It changed dramatically, and not only from farm to farm but from field to field. Each living community was vast, complex, and critical to the health of the whole system.
Had I been given a tour of Blue Hill Farm’s fields during that summer of corn—or any monoculture field anywhere in the world, really—I would have discovered little to write about. Monocultures do that. They impoverish life and all its fantastic little ecosystems. They depopulate landscapes.
I confess I kept getting pulled into visiting the farms in this book because I was in pursuit of how an ingredient was grown or raised—whether it was flint corn, whole wheat, a fattened goose liver, or a fillet of fish. I went in search of answers to practical questions. A core finding of my experiences was that I was asking the wrong questions. Each time I tried to parse the specifics of how something was grown, I was instead pointed in the opposite direction: to the interactions and relationships among all the parts of the farm and then, with more time, to the interactions and relationships embedded in the culture and history of the place.
I was learning what John Muir, the American environmentalist, observed a century ago: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Or rather, I was relearning what I’d discovered with that summer of corn, which supplanted the natural contours of the farm, stripped away the community of farmers, tractors, and hay bales—what Wendell Berry called the “culture” in agriculture—and left me without much of a summer.
Science teaches us that the answer to understanding the complexity of something is to break it into component parts. Like classical cooking, it insists that things need to be precisely measured and weighed. But interactions and relationships—what Muir called hitching, and we call ecology—cannot be measured or weighed. I found, for example, that the health of an aquaculture farm in southern Spain is connected to how we treat our soil, and that how we treat our soil determines, to a considerable extent, how we grow our grain, especially wheat, which is impossible to separate from how we choose our bread.
What we refer to as the beginning and end of the food chain—a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other—isn’t really a chain at all. The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together. Which is how I came to understand that the right kind of cooking and the right kind of farming are one and the same. Our belief that we can create a sustainable diet for ourselves by cherry-picking great ingredients is wrong. Because it’s too narrow-minded. We can’t think about changing parts of our system. We need to think about redesigning the system.
A good place to start is with a new conception of a plate of food, a Third Plate—which is less a “plate,” per se, than a different way of cooking, or assembling a dish, or writing a menu, or sourcing ingredients—or really all these things. It combines tastes not based on convention, but because they fit together to support the environment that produced them. The Third Plate goes beyond raising awareness about the importance of farmers and sustainable agriculture. It helps us recognize that what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that cannot be reduced to single ingredients. It champions a whole class of integral, yet uncelebrated, crops and cuts of meat that is required to produce the most delicious food. Like all great cuisines, it is constantly in flux, evolving to reflect the best of what nature can offer.
And its realization will rely, at least in part, on chefs. They will play a leading role, similar to that of a musical conductor. The chef as conductor is an easy comparison: we stand at the front of the kitchen, cueing the orchestra, cajoling and negotiating, assembling disparate elements into something complete. I’m not the first to make the association. And yet there’s a deeper, more interesting level of work related to the job of conducting, and it may inform the role of the chef for the future. This is the behind-the-scenes work, the preconcert study that investigates the history of the composition, its meaning and context. Once that’s been determined, a narrative takes hold, and the job of the conductor is to interpret that story through the music. One could say that a cuisine is to a chef what a musical score is to a conductor. It offers the guidelines for the creation of something immediate—a concert, a meal—that will also ultimately be woven into the fabric of memory.
Today’s food culture has given chefs a platform of influence, including the power, if not the luxury, to innovate. As arbiters of taste, we can help inspire a Third Plate, a new way of eating that puts it all together.
That’s a tall order for any chef, not to mention eaters, but it’s an intuitive one as well. Because, as the stories in this book suggest, it always takes the shape of delicious food. Truly great flavor—the kind that produces plain old jaw-dropping wonder—is a powerful lens into the natural world because taste breaks through the delicate things we can’t see or perceive. Taste is a soothsayer, a truth teller. And it can be a guide in reimagining our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.
See What You’re Looking At
ONE MORNING late in the spring of 1994, Klaas Martens finished spraying pesticides on his cornfield. He went to lift the sprayer to put it away, but he couldn’t pick it up. Which was strange, because Klaas had been lifting the sprayer the same way for many years. He tried again, and again he could not lift it.
“My right arm just wouldn’t work,” he told me one night more than twenty years later as we sat around his kitchen table. “Less than an hour before, I could loft a bale of hay one-handed over my head.”
“He could,” his wife, Mary-Howell, said. “He absolutely could. It’s my first memory of falling for Klaas. We had just started dating, and I remember coming to the farm to visit. I walked up to the barn and from the distance I could see Klaas towering over everyone, grabbing one-hundred-pound bags of grain feed and tossing them, literally, like they were feathers. I didn’t know someone could be so strong.”
Klaas, looking shy, reached across the table for the homemade butter, which Mary-Howell keeps in a white bucket that’s frequently passed during meals. He gently dug his spoon in deep.
“I started having muscle spasms,” he continued, dropping a mound of the butter on a slice of Mary-Howell’s homemade bread. “Terrible spasms that went up and down the right side of my body.”
“I remember standing there by the stove when he walked in the house with his big, protective Tyvek suit still on—we called it the ‘zoot suit’—and green plastic gloves,” Mary-Howell said. “I knew something was wrong.”
“I think I said, ‘Something is really wrong,’” Klaas said, softly.
“I thought something wasn’t right weeks before,” Mary-Howell said. “I was out in the yard on a beautiful June afternoon with our son—our daughter was on the way—and I smelled something I didn’t like.”
“It was 2,4-D,” Klaas said, referring to the chemical herbicide commonly used to control weeds.
“It was, yes, absolutely it was 2,4-D, but I remember smelling it in a different way. It usually smelled like freshly cured leather. Now for some reason the smell had undertones of raw flesh.”
Mary-Howell looked across the table at Klaas. “So he goes to an orthopedic surgeon. And get this: it was June—spraying time—here was a grain farmer, and the doctor thought nothing of the dead arm. He just sent Klaas home with a handful of muscle relaxers and painkillers.” Mary-Howell got up to clear the dishes and turned around at the sink. “By this point I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what was happening. My husband was being poisoned.”
Klaas, along with his sister, Hilke, and two younger brothers, Jan and Paul, was raised on a farm down the road.
Their father arrived at Ellis Island from Germany at the age of fourteen. This was 1927, and with him were his grandmother and six siblings. (His parents—Klaas’s paternal grandparents—had already passed away.) Wary of mounting political turmoil, they had sold their farm and fled Europe in search of a new future in America. After World War I, Germans were not allowed to own land in the eastern United States, so the family moved to North Dakota and leased land to grow wheat. The crop failed, and in 1931, alarmed by the worsening conditions of the Dust Bowl, they moved again, to a dairy farm in Bainbridge, New York, where they finally prospered. But there were too many siblings and not enough land.In 1957, Klaas’s father and his young wife broke away from the family and moved their dairy cattle to Penn Yan, a small town in the Finger Lakes region. Klaas was two years old at the time. They earned a profit the first year, then earned still more as new agricultural technology swept onto their farm. Improved grain varieties, including hybrid corn and a high-yielding wheat, and, more important, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, boosted yields beyond anything they could have imagined. As Klaas grew older and assumed more responsibility on the farm, he watched one record-shattering harvest after the next. “My father would stand at the grain bin and just scratch his head,” he told me. The yields, which more than doubled in one year, fueled explosive profits. It was a magical time.
“Everything was happening so fast, we got drunk on yields,” Klaas said. “It was like a drug addiction. The first year, there was an incredible response from the chemicals, but we didn’t notice that it kept taking more and more chemicals to get the same yields.”
Weed resistance soon followed, which called for more chemicals, which led to even more stubborn weeds. Within a few years, Klaas was applying combinations of different herbicides to get rid of weeds they had never seen and didn’t know existed. Klaas’s father wasn’t happy, and though profits remained strong (thanks to Klaas’s increasingly creative chemical cocktails), he was skeptical that yields could be sustained. Convinced that his children’s future was at risk, he encouraged each of his sons to experiment with new sources of income on the farm. Klaas saw it as an opportunity to pursue his “lifelong hankering” to grow bread wheat.
“Up until that point, we focused only on animal feed,” he said. “I really wanted to grow grain that fed people directly.”
He didn’t feel good about the inefficiencies of feeding grain to animals. Which is a fair concern—it takes roughly up to thirteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, for example. Klaas didn’t want to farm in a way that put more pressure on limited resources. And he wanted to grow wheat that Mary-Howell, by now his wife, could use to bake her bread. Still, to his brothers, this seemed an absurd venture. At the time, farmers in the Northeast grew only pastry wheat, which was easier to cultivate.
Undeterred, Klaas grew a test plot. And it worked. The harvest was exceptional. But then he confronted a larger problem: Who was going to buy bread wheat from upstate New York? No distributors handled it locally, because no one else was growing it locally. But Klaas found a Mennonite neighbor who offered to buy it.
“They were thrilled to have local wheat for their bread,” he said. The neighbor talked to Klaas about the wheat’s flavor and baking quality. “It reinforced the idea that I wanted to grow grain for people, not for cows.”
Klaas’s father died in 1981, and, after several years of disagreements and difficult harvests, Klaas and his brothers decided to divide the land. The process was not easy. Klaas credits the story of Abraham and Lot for giving him the wisdom to make a deal. The Bible tells of Abraham traveling to Canaan with his nephew, Lot. With limited grazing land, it soon became clear that there wasn’t enough for both of them to raise their respective herds. Abraham, fearing conflict, proposed that they settle separately. As the eldest, he had the right to choose whatever land he wanted, but instead he allowed Lot to make the first choice. Lot chose the beautiful, rich valley, while Abraham was left with the rugged hills and little drinking water.
After hearing the story one Sunday in church, Klaas stopped demanding what he felt was a fair and equitable distribution of the land. He took less than his third, including fields that were in poorer condition and not as productive. It was the same land—now thriving—that Klaas and Mary-Howell’s house stands on today.
For dessert, Mary-Howell served rhubarb cake, which was so light and airy, I was sure it had been made with cake flour. It wasn’t, Mary-Howell told me, in a voice that suggested she wasn’t surprised I had guessed wrong. In fact, the cake was made with whole wheat flour—a variety called Frederick, grown on the farm and hand-milled in her kitchen that morning. She pointed to a tiny old mill no larger than a toaster oven, next to the microwave.
Each bite of cake brought a whiff of wheat. Just as the sweetness of the sugar and the vegetative tang of the rhubarb made the cake delicious, the wheat itself was unmistakably present, and it made a prosaic dessert richly textured and interesting.
“We were scared,” Mary-Howell said, continuing with the story of Klaas’s numb arm. “I mean, here we were, completely on our own, just the two of us, and Klaas can’t use his right arm.”
I asked when they stopped using chemicals. “That day,” they said.
While interest in organic agriculture had already begun to grow by the early 1990s, organic grain farming was still essentially unknown. “We literally had no one to turn to,” Mary-Howell said. “There were tons of successful organic vegetable farmers. And there were some good organic dairies, to be sure. The organic market was booming. But grains? We didn’t know one farmer.”
“Which is when people started planning our auction,” Klaas said. Mary-Howell laughed and accused him of exaggerating. “Oh yes, indeed,” he insisted. “There was talk at the coffee shop in Dresden. I heard that firsthand. And then there was old man Ted Spence . . .”
“Oh, God, Teddy . . .” Mary-Howell shook her head.
“He came over here one day, drove right up to the house,” Klaas said, pointing to just outside their front door. “He rolls down his window and yells, ‘Klaas, your dad would be disgusted with the way you’re farming.’”
“He said that,” Mary-Howell confirmed. “He absolutely said that.”
By luck, a few weeks later, a local farm paper carried an advertisement from a large mill that wanted to pay for certified organic bread wheat. Sitting at the kitchen table, Klaas and Mary-Howell couldn’t believe the coincidence.
“It was like a hand from God was reaching down to us,” Klaas said. “We jumped at the chance.”
THE FERTILE DOZEN
I first met Klaas in 2005, at a gathering hosted by Jody Scheckter, the controversial former world champion race-car driver known for his erratic driving and for what was perhaps the worst accident in Formula One history. Having turned his attention to organic farming, Jody created Laverstoke, a two-thousand-acre farm in Hampshire, England, that he determined would be the best in the world. Jody being Jody, he really meant the best. So he reached out to Eliot Coleman.
Eliot, a widely revered organic vegetable farmer and author from Maine, is a Gandhi-like figure for the sustainable agriculture movement. He did not invent organic farming, of course, just as Gandhi did not invent the doctrine of nonviolent resistance, but countless small farmers and gardening enthusiasts have absorbed the philosophy through his teachings. I was given a copy of Eliot’s back-to-the-earth guidebook, The New Organic Grower, in college, and in my early twenties I took it with me when I went to California to apprentice in a bread bakery.
Jody commissioned Eliot to identify the twelve most important farmers in the world—half from the United States, half from Europe—and bring them, at Jody’s expense, to England for a three-day discussion on how best to use his land. Eliot framed the event as a once-in-a-lifetime summit of the world’s greatest agricultural minds. He called the group “the Fertile Dozen.”
Eliot, who by this point had become a friend (and later would be a trusted adviser during the creation of the farm at Stone Barns Center), called me a few weeks before the meeting to ask if I’d be interested in preparing the final dinner. It wasn’t so much a question as a foregone conclusion.
I spent the day at Laverstoke shuttling between the kitchen and a corner of the large room where the twelve men sat around an old English table (King Arthur’s Round Table came to mind) explaining their farming methods and philosophies. They were brilliant, engaging, passionate, and inspiring in a way that you know will stay with you for a lifetime.
There was Joel Salatin, in the days before he was made famous by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, speaking about energy exchange and pasture-based farming; Willem Kips, from Denmark, who married traditional biodynamic farming with modern technology for high yields; Frank Morton, an Oregon seed breeder who quietly revolutionized American salad with his new varieties of greens; Thomas Harttung, whose pioneering community-supported agriculture program today supplies organic vegetables to more than 45,000 homes in Denmark and Sweden; Fons Verbeek, of the Netherlands, who spoke about animal-vegetable relationships; Joan Dye Gussow, the nutritionist and innovative organic gardener considered by many to be the founding voice for the local-food movement; and Amigo Bob Cantisano, a California organic farmer, adviser, and creator of the Ecological Farming Conference, with a résumé almost as impressive as his salty-gray Tom Selleck mustache. One after another, without pretension or exaggeration, these farmers described their unique contributions to farming.
No one spoke directly about how their work translated into crops with more flavor, because it was simply understood. I got hungry just sitting there.
And then Klaas Martens rose to tell his story. Standing six foot three, with his John Deere baseball cap askew and his overalls hiked alarmingly high, he looked more Gomer Pyle than agricultural statesman. I decided to get back to the kitchen, but as I turned to leave, Klaas offered the group a simple question: “When do you start raising a child?” Just like that. It was an oddball opening to a talk about his life’s work, but Klaas’s humble, practical tone drew everyone’s attention. I stayed for the answer.
Klaas said he’d come to the question through his interest in the Mennonite community, a group he had known over the years and greatly respected. He explained that Mennonites forbid the use of rubber tires on their farm tractors. The Fertile Dozen shook their heads in near unison. Klaas smiled, acknowledging the severity of the decree—steel-tired tractors inch along, slow as oxen.
He said one day he got up the nerve to ask a Mennonite bishop why rubber tires were forbidden. The bishop answered Klaas’s question with a question: “When do you start raising a child?” According to the bishop, Klaas told us, child rearing begins not at birth, or even conception, but one hundred years before a child is born, “because that’s when you start building the environment they’re going to live in.”
Mennonites, he went on, believe that if you look at the history of tractors with rubber tires, you see failure within a generation. Rubber tires enable easy movement, and easy movement means that, inevitably, the farm will grow, which means more profit. More profit, in turn, leads to the acquisition of even more land, which usually means less crop diversity, more large machinery, and so on. Pretty soon the farmer becomes less intimate with his farm. It’s that lack of intimacy that leads to ignorance, and eventually to loss.
Around the table, heads nodded in silent recognition: Klaas had just described the problem with American agriculture.
IF FEELING humbled in the face of nature is what you’re after, skip the Grand Canyon and stand in a large field of wheat. Or stand in any grain field next to dozens of other, contiguous grain fields. The wide, ripe expanse doesn’t just surround you, it envelops you. It makes you feel small. I once heard the environmental lawyer and activist Robert Kennedy Jr. speak of an epiphany he had. God talks to human beings through many vectors, he said, but nowhere with such clarity, texture, grace, and joy as through a growing field of wheat.
A few years after meeting Klaas at Laverstoke, I stood in the middle of one of his wheat fields in Penn Yan, New York, and saw what Kennedy meant. I had never been to Penn Yan—didn’t even know it existed until I met Klaas—and though it’s only forty-five minutes from downtown Ithaca and the hubbub of Cornell University, it feels more like central Kansas than upstate New York.
The scene reminded me of a painting I once saw in grade school. A crew of seamen, sailing at a time when conventional wisdom had it that the world was flat, quaked with fear and knelt in prayer as their ship slowly approached the edge of the horizon. Their expressions of despair would be appropriate if you found yourself about to fall off the face of the earth, but I had trouble sympathizing. To my adolescent mind, the men looked a little silly, their fear exaggerated.
And yet from the vantage of that wheat field, I thought maybe those men had been on to something. The idea that the world is not flat seemed, at that moment, sort of radical. I raked my gaze back and forth, enormity and abundance in every direction. The rain had just cleared, and the air was still thick with odor and color. To the east, beyond Klaas’s fields, I could see his neighbor’s fields—a figure of a man on a tractor was no larger than a grasshopper—and, beyond this, his neighbor’s neighbor’s fields, until eventually the grass just dropped off into a kind of oblivion.
Klaas leaned over, broke off a stalk of emmer wheat, and brought it to his mouth for a taste. He chewed thoughtfully, separating the wheat kernel from its chaff and rolling it around in his mouth. Klaas’s features sometimes seem to have outgrown his frame. His hands flap around like empty ski gloves when he speaks, and his shoulders are so wide you’re tempted to inspect the back of his jacket to make sure he didn’t leave the coat hanger in. He embodies a particular brand of solidness—the German immigrant farmer who plowed our country’s midsection with nothing more than grit and determination. And yet Klaas is an irrepressibly cheerful man, generous and humble.
I asked Klaas why he found it important to grow wheat. He paused to examine another stalk. “The nice thing about wheat is how it’s tied to Western civilization, to the cradle of civilization. The history of wheat is the history of a sociable crop.”
He was right. For centuries, wheat was a community builder, a grain whose benefits were reaped only through cooperation and effective social organization—farmers grew it, millers ground it, and bakers turned it into sustenance and pleasure. In his book Seeds, Sex & Civilization, Peter Thompson says all three of the world’s great grains—wheat, corn, and rice—provided the foundations for civilization. But, he wrote, “whereas the foundations provided by maize and rice were sufficient to build walls,” wheat’s inherently communal qualities “provided the keystones of arches to support the edifices of urban civilizations.”
The story of wheat is the story of who we are.
Klaas broke off a kernel and held it in his big hand. “This is probably what someone was threshing when Ruth showed up,” he said, adding that emmer was one of the first domesticated crops. He shook his head. “It humbles me just holding it.”
God may or may not communicate through wheat, but for sure we communicate by carpeting so much of our landscape with grain. The middle of the wheat field in Penn Yan was insignificant—a mere nursery compared with the Corn Belt of the Midwest, or the plowed-up prairie of the Plains. Today nearly 60 percent of American cropland is in grain production—corn, wheat, and rice, mostly. Wheat—which, worldwide, covers more acreage than any other crop—is planted on fifty-six million acres in the United States. Vegetables and fruits, by comparison—what most everyone, including chefs, fixate on—occupy just 5 percent of our cropland.
Why haven’t we talked more about wheat? While we’ve been obsessed with record corn harvests—as impressive and record-breaking as they are—wheat still blankets much of our country’s midsection. It also constitutes a large percentage of our diet—more than 130 pounds per person, every year. That’s more than beef, lamb, veal, and pork put together. It’s more than poultry and fish, too. If you don’t count corn sweeteners, we eat more wheat than every other cereal combined.
But rarely do we consider how it’s grown. If we want to improve the condition of our food system and create a food tradition that thoughtfully ties together the disparate parts, focusing only on fruits and vegetables is like planning a new house but designing only the doors and windows. It misses the big picture.
Klaas acknowledged the disconnect. “I see people go to all the trouble to visit the farmers’ market and really take the time to pick out the best peach, or stand in line for a grass-fed steak that’s treated the way a cow ought to be treated,” he said. “And then on their way home they buy packaged bread in the store.” He removed his cap and ran his hand over a mop of matted-down hair. “That’s bread made with wheat that’s adulterated and dead, even more than the fruits and vegetables they successfully avoided purchasing a half hour before. And I mean dead, like a rotten tomato, which you would never eat.”
He turned to me. “So how is this possible? How do we get to the point that we willingly, even happily, eat the equivalent of a rotten tomato?” He paused, looking out at his fields as a gentle breeze made the wheat sway in unison. “It happens,” he said, “because we’ve lost the taste of grain.”
My office sits in the corner of the kitchen at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The drafting chair at my desk faces out so I can observe the cooks, catch mistakes, and sometimes even head off small disasters.
One night, not long after my fateful conversation with Klaas, I was sitting at my desk and watching the kitchen wind down for the end of service. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed a thousand times before, the cooks slowing to the rhythm of the late orders. But for some reason, on that night I noticed something I hadn’t been conscious of before. Wheat was everywhere.
In one corner, a waiter cleaned the bread station for the evening, saving the unused loaves for the pigs’ dinner. Over by the stove, Duncan the fish cook sprinkled the last order of trout with flour before roasting it. Across from him, the meat cook wrapped a loin of pork with an herb dough. An intern organized trays of fresh ravioli and thick-cut spaghetti. And there was Alex, the pastry chef, serving his white-chocolate-and-cardamom cake with dried fruit strudel. Trays of after-dinner cookies and small pastries flew past on the way to the dining room.
Suddenly Jake, the pastry sous chef, came into view hauling a fifty-pound bag of all-purpose flour, which he heaved into the flour bin just outside my office. It was his second fill of the day. A white flurry hovered in the air, as in a just-shaken snow globe. As it drifted toward the window of my office and fell away, I was reminded of standing with Klaas and watching his fields stretch to the end of the horizon. Back then I’d been struck by how much the story of agriculture is really about grain. The kitchen scene that night had me realizing that the story of our menu is really about grain, too, particularly wheat.
When Klaas complained of his neighbors’ visiting the farmers’ market for fruits and vegetables, only to then carelessly purchase bread at a supermarket, he might as well have been complaining about me. As the owner of a farm-to-table restaurant—actually a restaurant in the middle of a farm—I’ve gone on and on (and on and on) about local fruits and vegetables with no more apologies for repetition than a peanut vendor in a ballpark. Like most chefs, I can name the heirloom variety of this or that tomato, or the breed of cattle with the most flavorful grass-fed steaks. We root around obsessively for all these things because they taste better, and because we know the people, and the practices, that produced them. The soft, white dust dumped into the container bin twice a day was the most generic thing in our kitchen, but I knew more about the construction of our stove than how the flour had been farmed.
I wanted to learn the taste of wheat (or relearn it), and to do that, I needed to learn its history. What could account for its odd duality—the all-purpose little grain that is everywhere on my menu but about which I knew close to nothing?
IN THE MYTH OF PYGMALION, a sculptor falls in love with his female statue and helps bring her to life. The story of wheat is the anti-Pygmalion: in our ten-thousand-year effort to sculpt a more perfect grain, we’ve succeeded mostly in making it more dead.
Can something be more dead? Technically, no. And yet as I began to dig into the story of wheat in the United States, I learned that it suffered exactly that: several stages of degradation and death. Who’s responsible for killing wheat? It’s no mystery—what makes the story of American wheat so interesting, and so tragic, is just how obvious it all was. Culinary historian Karen Hess once called it “the conjugation of seemingly unrelated events.” Everyone and no one killed wheat. It was the perfect murder.
It began innocently enough. Domesticated wheat wasn’t even here when Columbus arrived, as opposed to corn, which flourished. The Spanish were the first to bring wheat to the New World, and other European immigrants did the same when they settled the colonies. It failed miserably at first, but with great effort on the part of the early settlers, it eventually took hold. Long before wheat became synonymous with the Midwest, the East Coast was America’s breadbasket. Gristmills dotted the countryside—one for every seven hundred Americans in 1840. Once ground, flour had a shelf life of only about one week, and if you wanted a loaf of bread, you baked your own. That meant bringing your wheat to the mill or milling it yourself.
With the help of farmers, wheat adapted itself to specific regions. But it thrived especially in the milder climate of the mid-Atlantic—Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York. As of 1845, wheat was grown in every county in New York, including four acres in Manhattan. Wheat had distinctive characteristics, flavors, and baking qualities, not just from state to state (Massachusetts “Red Lammas” versus Maine “Banner wheat”) but from farm to farm, and from year to year. Diversity flourished. Farmers tasted the raw kernels in the field to assess their protein content and when it was time for harvest. Women adjusted recipes according to the condition of the flour. These were good times for wheat. After all, what more could a grass seed want than to find itself thriving in a new world?
The opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825, completed the link between the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest, establishing new trade routes and creating a milling hub around Rochester, New York—soon to be known as the Flour City. Railroads soon followed, which coincided nicely with our nation’s longing for cheaper and less crowded farmland. And wheat went along for the ride. This was nothing sinister, just inevitable. But something significant happened here that served as a harbinger of times ahead: for the first time in America, wheat started to be grown far away from where it was consumed.
The roller mill appeared in the late 1800s, just in time to expand the divide between the wheat field and the table. It was a technological breakthrough that revolutionized the wheat industry just as the cotton gin had done for the cotton industry a century earlier. Until its widespread use, people used stone mills. Stone mills, like the one we use at Blue Hill, work like molars, crushing the kernels between two large stones. They are effective, but slow and tedious, and they do little to separate the kernel into its component parts, a key development in the drive to industrialize flour.
A few years ago, Klaas’s wife, Mary-Howell, showed me a picture of a wheat kernel in cross section. It looked like an ultrasound image of a six- or seven-week-old human gestational sac, which isn’t a bad comparison; a wheat kernel is a seed, after all. The grain’s embryo, or “germ,” is surrounded by the starchy endosperm—the stuff of refined white flour—which stores food for the germ. Surrounding the endosperm is the seed coat, or bran, which protects the germ until moisture and heat levels indicate it’s time to germinate. (Later that same day, I returned to the field with Klaas and saw, in a bizarre neonatal vision, the wheat as a phalanx of plant stalks holding their embryos up high in the air, as if they were torches.)
Whereas stone mills had crushed the tiny germ, releasing oils that would turn the flour rancid within days, roller mills separated the germ and bran from the endosperm. This new ability to isolate the endosperm allowed for the production of shelf-stable white flour, able to be stored and transported long distances. Overnight, flour became a commodity.
It’s hard to fathom that merely removing a temperamental little germ could revolutionize a staple grain. But that’s just what happened. The settling of the Great Plains and the advent of roller-mill technology meant that white flour was suddenly cheaper and more readily available. Small wheat farms, including those in the former grain belt of New York, couldn’t compete. Farmers chewing kernels in the field and gristmills dotting the landscape became the stuff of folklore. The homogenization of the U.S. wheat industry had begun.
The whiter flour became, the greater the demand. To be fair, that’s been the history of wheat for thousands of years. But for all its efficiency, steel couldn’t match the old-school grindstone in two key respects. In fully removing the germ—that vital, living element of wheat—and the bran, the roller mill not only killed wheat but also sacrificed nearly all of its nutrition. While the bran and the germ represent less than 20 percent of a wheat kernel’s total weight, together they comprise 80 percent of its fiber and other nutrients. And studies show that the nutritional benefits of whole grains can be gained only when all the edible parts of the grain—bran, germ, and endosperm—are consumed together. But that’s exactly what was lost in the new milling process.
There was another cost as well, just as devastating. Stone-milled flour retained a golden hue from the crushed germ’s oil and was fragrant with bits of nutty bran. The roller mills might have finally achieved a truly white flour, but the dead, chalky powder no longer tasted of wheat—or really of anything at all. We didn’t just kill wheat. We killed the flavor.
Our nation’s prairie became collateral damage along the way.
What did I know of the prairie before I developed an interest in wheat? Nothing, really. I doubt that I would have been able to locate it on a map. I definitely didn’t know that at one point, not that long ago, our country was more than 40 percent open prairie, a lush expanse of grassland that extended from Missouri to Montana and straight down to Texas. And even if I had known these things, I couldn’t have said why it mattered to a chef.
Then I met Wes Jackson. Wes is the folksy and eloquent cofounder of the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, where he leads research into how to breed grain crops—wheat in particular—so that they can be planted once and harvested year after year. Domesticated wheat—the wheat we eat—is an annual crop, which means that every year new seed is sown.
If it were to instead become perennial, like wheat grows in the wild—if it could be “native to its place,” as Wes likes to say—agriculture’s worst offenses, like plowing and the need for chemical fertilizers, could be avoided.
In 2009, Wes and I attended a food conference in California as part of a panel about the future of food. When asked by the moderator to describe his work, Wes simply said, “I’m solving the ten-thousand-year-old problem of agriculture.” To his mind, agriculture’s problem is not mega-farms or feedlots or chemical fertilizers. The problem is agriculture itself.
On the walk back to the hotel that evening, I asked him about the possibility of his perennial wheat appearing anytime soon, a question I later learned annoys Wes, because he hears it so often. But he only cranked up his slow prairie drawl and said, not immodestly, “If you’re working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” He said he wanted to show me what he meant.
I followed him to his room, where he handed me a cardboard shipping tube. “You are the first to see this,” he said. I must have had a look of Why me? because he added, “We shipped them here the day they arrived. I knew I wouldn’t sleep tonight if I didn’t have a nice, long look-see.” I started uncorking the tube. He stopped me. “Go ahead and roll it out, but do it in the hallway. It won’t fit in the room.”
I unfurled the photographic banner onto the hallway carpet. It was twenty-two feet long and reached down the corridor, past the doorways of two other rooms. Wes bent down and evened out the crinkles. On the left was a life-size profile of perennial prairie wheat, showing the plant both above and below the soil. Aboveground, the stalks, leaves, and seed head took up less than half the photograph. Belowground, the wheat’s root system was at least eight feet long—a Rapunzel-like tangle of thick fibers anchored deep in the soil.
I stepped back. The roots merged into what looked like the trunk of a sequoia tree, only growing down instead of up. “That’s nature investing—digging into the soil, seeking nutrients and moisture,” Wes said as I studied what once had been the underbelly of the prairie.
To the right of this, a photo showed another patch of wheat, above and below ground. But this was modern wheat, the kind that’s planted each year and, as Wes reminded me, “occupies sixty million acres of real estate in this country alone.” Aboveground, the wheat was a much shorter copy of its perennial cousin. But belowground, the roots were wispy, thin hairs, barely an arm’s length in depth. Compared with the perennial, they looked laughably anemic, needle threads next to those dreadlocks. Such are the roots that blanket the prairie and fill those bags of white flour dumped into the bin in front of my office. I was looking at the roots of my cuisine.
“Those wimpy little things,” Wes said, smiling. “There’s your problem right there.”
Until the 1800s, almost everyone who visited the Great Plains thought the problem was the prairie itself. The massive land area was called the Great American Desert, which, from the perspective of people accustomed to things like trees, is a forgivable first impression. But also a mistaken one.
In fact, there was plenty of aboveground diversity in the prairie. Add to the grasses the surrounding two hundred or so broadleaf flowering plants, the forbs, shrubs, and sedges, and what you had was a kaleidoscope of natural variety—a richly purposeful system in which grass and plant depended on one another to thrive.
And yet, the true wealth of any prairie exists in the soil, where the majority of the biomass resides (unlike, say, a rainforest ecology, where the richness, or biomass, is mostly above the surface). Wes likes to remind his audiences that the soil’s richness results from a lucky geological break. A few million years ago, glaciers formed in the continent’s far north. Frozen rivers stripped northern Canada to hard rock and dumped ancient dirt on top of the already rich soil of this country’s midsection. As fierce prairie winds distributed the dirt, it was the grasses that clung to it, holding it long enough to consolidate the mass into soil. The rich root systems absorbed nutrients from the soil and knit the soil together.
For the prairie, this was the greatest insurance policy against erosion and extreme weather fluctuations. The weather in the Plains was—and still is—unpredictable, fierce, and destructive—desertification on the one hand, flash floods on the other. The root systems’ ability to store energy and nutrients ensured that the prairie grass could always grow back quickly. And the grass, in turn, kept the rich soil in place as millions of bison fertilized it over thousands of years, depositing more nutrients into the soil’s natural fertility bank.
We’ve been drawing from the account ever since the first settlers tried to dig in with their plows, an effort that, from above (or, more to the point, from below), must have appeared comical. The root systems were so dense, the plows snapped and clogged. Looking at the entangled roots of just one small patch of perennial wheat made it easy to see why. One square yard of prairie turf can contain twenty-five miles of these massively thick roots; the coal-black topsoil can run to a depth of a dozen feet. (Wes reminded me, with glee, that the average topsoil on the East Coast is closer to six inches.)
In 1837, an Illinois blacksmith named John Deere solved the problem by inventing a cast-steel plow that could cut through the deep roots and rip up the grass for planting. Like the roller mill, the steel plow arrived at a fortuitous moment—just at the time when thousands of “sodbusters” were crashing deep into the Plains. President Abraham Lincoln sweetened the deal in 1862 by signing the Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres of free land to anyone who could claim and cultivate it for five years.
Biologist Janine Benyus, in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, describes the misplaced heroism of the settlers who worked to replace perennial prairie grass with annual wheat: “A Sioux Indian watching a sodbuster turn the roots skyward was reported to have shaken his head and said, ‘Wrong side up.’ Mistaking wisdom for backwardness, the settlers laughed as they retold the story, ignoring the warning shots that fired with each popping root.” The more you learn about the destruction of the prairie, the more difficult it becomes to see a modern wheat field as a thing of beauty, in the same way it is hard to see beauty in a clear-cut forest.
The new wheat didn’t exactly thrive on the Great Plains at first. Varieties grown in the East did poorly with less rain and extreme variations in temperature. Disease was common. So were low yields and outright failures. It wasn’t until the 1870s, when hard winter wheat, the drought-resistant “Turkey Red” introduced by Mennonite immigrants, replaced the traditional soft wheat, that it took hold. Hard wheat suited the new steel roller mills as well, making the now assembly-line-like refining process even more efficient.
Wes’s banner in the hallway blocked a couple on the way to their room. “Good evening, folks,” Wes said cheerfully. “We’re making an analysis of our nation’s depleted capital. Care to join us?” The couple smiled uncomfortably and shuffled alongside the two root systems.
Wes pointed to the annual wheat. “Of course, this wheat won out. Sixty million acres of puny roots that we need to fertilize because it can’t feed itself. Puny roots that leak nitrogen, that cause erosion and dead zones the size of New Jersey.” Wes smiled beatifically, gums and all. “This wheat won out, but what you’re looking at is the failure of success.”
By the early 1900s, westward expansion amounted to a twenty-million-acre experiment.
And the wheat kept growing. When Europe ran out of wheat during World War I, the American government stepped in, guaranteeing wheat prices. The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 followed, doubling the amount of free land to 320 acres per settler, and the wave of settlement became a tsunami. In 1917, a record forty-five million acres of wheat was harvested; by 1919, it was seventy-five million acres. Much of the gain came from plowing marginal land—areas of North Dakota and the southern Plains where soils were thinner and there was less water for irrigation—but for the time being, it didn’t matter.
Historian Donald Worster argues that by the time the war effort ended, the Midwest’s grain economy had become inseparable from the industrial economy. “The War integrated the plains farmers more thoroughly than ever before into the national economy—into its networks of banks, railroads, mills, implement manufacturers, energy companies—and, moreover, integrated them into an international market system.” The grasslands were remade. There was no turning back.
So the plows kept plowing until the rain suddenly stopped. The soil, naked, anchorless, and now dry, turned to dust and, in 1930, started to blow. Dust coated everything, consuming surfaces, bed linens, and attic floors (which routinely collapsed under the accumulation). It buried fence posts, cars, and tractors in enormous drifts. And this was only the light stuff. The heavier soil clumps ripped fences apart and whacked down telephone poles as they blew across the landscape. During the worst of these storms, visibility was zero, and vegetables and fruits died from the storms’ electrical charge. The drought ushered in a biblical infestation of insects, which devoured any wheat that survived, and a plague of jackrabbits emerging from their habitats in search of food.
Klaas remembers his aunts telling him about the Dust Bowl. The storms were so severe that the family would set the dinner table with the plates upside down. By the time they served dinner, the table linen would be imprinted with rings of dust. The family lived with the hardship until the farm itself went under.
Over the course of the next decade, our country’s midsection heaved hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of incomparably rich soil into the air. Some regions lost more than 75 percent of their topsoil. The decade came to be known as the Dirty Thirties, and it marks one of the worst environmental disasters in our history. In his book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, Timothy Egan describes one of the dust storms:
A cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top appeared. . . . The sky lost its customary white, and it turned brownish then gray. . . . Nobody knew what to call it. It was not a rain cloud. . . . It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard—a black blizzard, they called it—with an edge like steel wool.
One of the largest of the storms hit in the spring of 1935—Black Sunday. It didn’t die in the prairie but moved east, gathering strength as it went.
The following Friday, a scientist named Hugh Bennett stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate, arguing for the creation of a permanent Soil Conservation Service. Even though photos of Black Sunday had appeared in newspapers around the country the same morning, most senators believed they had already done enough for the people of the prairie. Just as Bennett was wrapping up his plea, an aide appeared at the podium and whispered in his ear. “Keep it up,” he said. “It’s coming.” Bennett kept talking. A few minutes later, he stopped talking. The chamber turned dark. A giant copper dust cloud blew through Washington for an hour.
“This, gentlemen, is what I’m talking about.” Bennett said, pointing to the windows. “There goes Oklahoma.” Eight days later, Congress signed the Soil Conservation Act into law. Some call the incident the beginning of the environmental movement in America.
The white mushroom cloud, the one that billowed up from the flour bin in the restaurant’s kitchen and slowly drifted toward my office window, could be thought of as the modern manifestation of the Dust Bowl, with all-purpose flour now playing the part of prairie topsoil. Which is to say the degradation of the prairie is still reaching us like it reached Hugh Bennett a century ago, as vital a topic now as it was the day he stood in front of the Senate and argued for reform.
THE MODERN PRAIRIE
Writers have spared no ink in making the case that the Dust Bowl era is a parable of man’s hubris. In his essay “The Native Grasses and What They Mean,” Wendell Berry writes, “As we felled and burned the forests, so we burned, plowed, and overgrazed the prairies. We came with visions, but not with sight. We did not see or understand where we were or what was there, but destroyed what was there for the sake of what we desired.”
This blindness began with our nation’s earliest European settlers, many of whom weren’t themselves landowners in Europe and had little experience farming. If you have a hankering, as I do, for the old days of our young republic, when farming was what farming should be—small, family-owned, well managed and manicured, a platonic paradigm of sustainable agriculture—think again. Today’s industrial food chain might denude landscapes and impoverish soils, but our forefathers did much of the same. They just had a lot less horsepower.
Even George Washington criticized the exploitative methods of “slovenly” farmers who, spoiled by the abundance of fertile land and natural resources, “have disregarded every means of improving our opened grounds.”
Colonial farmland was quickly run down. Forests were cleared for coveted virgin land. In his book Larding the Lean Earth, historian Steven Stoll identifies the detrimental precedent that came to define American farming:
In a common pattern, farmers who had occupied land for only 20 or 30 years reduced the fertile nutrients in their soils until they could no more than subsist. Either that, or they saw yields fall below what they expected from a good settlers’ country and decided to seek fresh acres elsewhere. Forests cut and exported as potash, wheat cropped year after year, topsoils washed—arable land in the old states of the Union had presented the scares of fierce extraction by 1820.
This attitude only intensified as we pursued Western expansion. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his famous study of the country, farmers approached farming with the attitude of capitalists rather than conservationists. “Almost all the farmers of the United States combine some trade with agriculture; most of them make agriculture itself a trade,” he wrote in Democracy in America. “It seldom happens that an American farmer settles for good upon the land which he occupies.” Americans arrived on the prairie to settle the West on their own terms. We set out to conquer rather than to adapt—unable, or just unwilling, to adjust our sight to the needs of the new ecology. There was so much abundant and enormously productive land available that vigilant soil management became an Old World idea.
I had understood this, to some degree, for years, but what I hadn’t understood until that evening when Wes and I studied root systems in a hotel hallway was what that blindness had wrought. We didn’t just replace the deep root system of perennials with puny annuals. We replaced the prairie’s ecosystem, one of the most diverse in the world, with 56 million acres of monoculture. Today, almost all the hard wheat grown in the prairie comes from just two varieties, which, in the words of writer Richard Manning, is “a spanning of the scale of genetic possibilities from A to B.”
Look out on a field in the middle of Kansas or North Dakota and what you see are grain fields so uniform they look like tabletops, the prairie manifestation of a desecrated grave. Wheat, as Klaas describes it—as a social crop, as a community builder, as the story of who we are—no longer really exists. At least not in the way we’re farming it. Or eating it.
Not long after my evening with Wes, I consulted a map of the United States. I was looking for the breadbasket states—the “Wheat Belt,” as I’d heard it called countless times before, without knowing the coordinates. On the map, it appeared as a thick strip, a belt of land running from North Dakota all the way down to Texas, passing through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Wheat is the primary crop of these six states.
By chance, I came across another map in my search, a census of population changes in the first decade of the twenty-first century. I put it next to the map of the Wheat Belt, and the comparison was as stark and alarming as Wes’s banner. The census map showed how the same stretch of six states has become shockingly depopulated. The Wheat Belt is emptying out, even as the rest of America grows denser. It is a relentless decline in numbers that began in the Dust Bowl years ago and has never really ended. What makes this population drop so remarkable is that the phenomenon seems almost wholly confined to these Wheat Belt states, indeed that while much of America continues to grow, the former heart of the country’s grain production is today in demographic free fall. In Kansas alone, six thousand towns have vanished in the past eighty years. In many parts, the population is like those wispy annual roots—sparser today than at the end of the nineteenth century, when the census deemed them “frontier.”
One explanation for the population declines can be traced back to advances in farming technology and the subsequent consolidation of farmland. New tractors and other farm machinery did more work in less time. Take, for example, the combine, introduced in the 1830s. Until then, farmers spent hours harvesting, threshing (separating the edible part of the grain from the surrounding chaff), and cleaning their grain to prepare it for milling. True to its name, the combine consolidated these functions into a single machine, mechanizing the harvest and, in keeping with the Mennonites’ predictions, enabling fewer farmers to farm even more land. Between 1950 and 1975, the number of farms in the country declined by half, as did the number of people on farms. And the average size of farms nearly doubled, from 216 acres in 1950 to 416 acres in 1974. Nowhere were these trends more apparent than in the Wheat Belt.
But underlying all of this was a lack of biological diversity. Verlyn Klinkenborg, an author and editor who often writes about agricultural issues, argues that biological complexity has direct implications for social and cultural robustness. In other words, the Wheat Belt’s cultural decline is a reflection of its denuded landscape—the product of “what nature has made of us and we have made of nature.”
However unwittingly, chefs and bakers have played a part in that decline. Profiting from mountains of cheap flour, we’ve bought into the system. We’re complicit in the depopulation of the prairie, just as we have blood on our hands for the death of wheat.
LATE ONE SWELTERING June morning a year and a half after my initial trip to his farm, I found myself back in Klaas’s fields. Klaas, intent on schooling me in the diversity of grass, told me to focus on a small circle of ground, no more than a few feet in diameter. We inched around the perimeter as he provided a grass-by-grass playlist.
“Here’s the wild garlic, and the yellow rocket, and that right there is”—Klaas squatted low for a gopher’s-eye view, brushing the other grasses aside—“yup, wild radish, right underneath.” I followed him, head down. The intensity of his obsession for the smallest detail—a divot in the ground, a grass that looked out of place—seemed almost comical, considering the vastness that surrounded us.
“Okay . . .” Klaas said slowly, stopping at a particularly lush spot. “Oat grass. And there’s fleabane, bladder campion, foxtail, dandelion, red clover, chamomile, quack grass—couch grass in England.”
“Weeds?” I asked.
“Grasses and legumes and forbs, and, yes, weeds. But ‘weed’ is an arbitrary word. When I was in Agronomy 101, the definition of a weed was anything that grows where you don’t want it to grow. How preposterous is that?”
Aldo Leopold asked the same question in his 1943 essay “What Is a Weed?” and answered it with a warning about blacklisting grasses for no other reason than what we mistakenly perceive to be their value.
“If I lose crop yields to weeds, I’m the one doing something wrong,” Klaas continued. “They’re not doing damage to the pasture. The opposite, actually; they tell me when I’m doing damage.” He pointed. “Orchard grass. I love orchard grass. Very pleasing to look at,” he said, taking his own advice. “And, hey! Hairy vetch—you know vetch, right? Great cover crop. And here’s sow thistle. I think that’s sow thistle—yep, sure, that’s thistle, for sure.”
The year Klaas stopped using chemicals, he began reading old farming books to learn how to eradicate weeds naturally. “I discovered that either they didn’t write a lot of books about weed control before 1945 or someone had thrown them all away,” he said. After a long search, he came across a book in a Cornell University library written by a German agricultural researcher named Bernard Rademacher. Rademacher was the leading authority on weeds in the 1930s, and he participated in some of the first research on chemical herbicides.--Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
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