By Lindsay Suto

Inland NW Food NetworkThe full moon which occurs closest to the autumn equinox is known as the harvest moon. It rises earlier than the other full moons, offering nearly 30 minutes of extra light for farmers to finish harvesting their crops. Here in the Inland Northwest, wheat is the dominant crop being harvested around this time of year.

Even though grains have been a dietary staple for thousands of years, the way we grow, process, and eat wheat has changed significantly just in the last few generations. Grains have been villainized for causing health issues, when really the change in cultivation and consumption of grains may be the problem.

The first development to transform the art of traditional bread making was the invention of the steel roller mill in 1870. This new tool allowed for sifting the bran out of the flour, creating a more refined flour that was cheaper, easier, and more desirable to consumers, as white bread had previously been reserved for the upper classes. It was around this same time that the number of wheat crops in America increased as we began exporting to European countries that were experiencing severe food shortages after a period of political unrest and bad harvests resulting from poor farming and fertilization techniques.

Demand for wheat grew over the next century, leading to what was deemed the “green revolution” in the mid 1900’s. This revolution probably had the greatest effect on wheat as we know it, as scientists began experimenting with cross-breeding and genetic manipulation to develop the high yielding wheat varieties that are now ubiquitous in American agriculture.

These varieties of wheat became popular because they were cheaper to grow and produced greater yields, making them more economically feasible.

These advances don’t come without consequences, however. These dwarf wheats and the chemicals used to grow them have left a devastating impact on the soil. A well-known example is the havoc caused during the great dust bowl of the 1930’s, which can be traced back to the removal of the deep root systems of the traditional grasses, which had the crucial role of holding the soil in place. Additionally, new policies such as crop subsidies, synthetic fertilizer credits and use of chemical pesticide management have crowded out production of non staple crops and contributed to soil degradation and chemical runoff, leading to a very non sustainable food system.

Although grains are nutritious foods, the amount of nutrients found in modern wheat varieties are much less than those in traditional wheats. In addition, once the wheat is processed into refined flours, the nutrients found in the bran are stripped away, and the delicate fatty acids start to degrade immediately. Instead grains must be processed in ways that enhance their nutrition and digestibility—usually through fresh grinding, followed by traditional methods of soaking, sprouting, or fermenting.

Although modern wheat and the products made from it were created to save time and money and ensure convenience and uniformity, the long-term costs are not with it. The best option is to buy organic heritage wheats that are freshly stone ground (or better yet, grind them yourself!), and prepare them in ways that contribute to their nutritional value. The rich taste alone will be worth it!

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