Eat more grains — and keep it local

by Lane Selman

Published: 9/29/23, Last updated: 10/10/23

Did you know that the UN has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets, the nutritious, drought-resistant grains already widely grown across Africa and Asia? How much do you know about buckwheat, which isn’t actually wheat (it’s more closely related to rhubarb) and isn’t even technically a grain at all? With FoodPrint’s “Get to Know These Grains and Seeds” campaign, we’ll be diving deeper into these crops and many more — where they come from, how to use them and why they should become mainstays in your kitchen.

There’s a reason we aren’t already eating more types of grains. Much of the country’s grain growing is focused on a few commodity varieties like corn and wheat. Rarely do we find local flours and whole grains or seeds available at the farmers’ market, making this wide world of ingredients a bit of a mystery for many. There is often a lot of confusion (or at least a lack of transparency) as to where a bag of flour, for example, came from to begin with.

As a professor of practice at Oregon State University, my time is focused on supporting local farmers growing food organically. I created the Culinary Breeding Network to build communities of plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, food professionals, retailers and others to improve quality in the food we grow. As I learned more about the “grain chain” — as some call it — I started to understand the complexity of the current system, and why we see fewer of these products available from small, local growers. Once harvested, grain is usually cleaned then moved elsewhere for milling and packing, or for malting and then brewing or distilling. Consolidation has led to the closure of thousands of local mills over the last century, and these and other kinds of necessary “middle infrastructure” for processing and packaging are out of reach for many farmers, making commercial quality for certain grains out of reach as well. This means that few farms in the U.S. sell their own grains directly to consumers or produce their own flour.

Things are slowly shifting as a movement for local grains takes shape: Innovative farmers, like those at Meadowlark Organics in Wisconsin and Farmer Ground Flour in New York, have started to clear the hurdles to process and package on their own properties. Organizations are working to build a sustainable, fully integrated supply chain that allows small growers to grow, process and distribute grains on a local scale. Still, to realize this vision around the country, one thing must be present: demand.

This is where you come in. As consumers, we must choose to support these smaller regional farms and mills by seeking out their products. In doing so, we are also supporting more sustainable agricultural practices: Creating demand for a diversity of grains allows farmers to grow on six-, seven- or even 10-year rotations, which improves soil health, structure and drainage. This year, unpredictable weather patterns and enormous amounts of rain have adversely affected many farms — but those with more diverse rotations and alternative crops (rather than soy, corn or wheat) have been more resilient to damage. Growing a diversity of grain and seed crops is one way to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Plus, filling up on flavorful, fiber-packed whole grains — or mixing them into dishes like burgers or stuffed cabbage to stretch your protein — can also be a way to lower demand for meat, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

FoodPrint’s site can be your resource for learning more about grains and seeds, whether you’re browsing our Real Food Encyclopedia or reading up on the environmental impacts of rice production and the possibilities of Kernza. And for the next six weeks, you can follow along on social media and learn more about the diversity of grains and seeds you can incorporate into your diet. We hope you’ll be motivated to seek out locally milled flours and locally grown whole grains — and to put more of them at the center of your plate.

Books:

Organizations, resources and other media:

Read more about grains and seeds on FoodPrint

Top photo by MarekPhotoDesign.com/Adobe Stock. 

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