Bread and Beer: Cereals in Permaculture?
“Without bread, all is misery.” — William Cobbett, Cottage Economy
“…really good bread is a thing of so much importance, that it always ought to be the very first object in domestic economy.”—William Cobbett, Cottage Economy
“A judicious labourer would probably always have some ale in his house, and have small beer for the general drink.” — William Cobbett, Cottage Economy
Since returning to Oxford after travelling in Spain, I have been working on a small farm in Buckinghamshire assisting with the production of cereal crops for grain and thatch. John Letts, whom I am helping, is an archeobotanist who has returned to his farming roots to grow some of the ancient grains he studied academically. We have recently been joined by Joy Hought who is completing her masters in Agroecology. As we have talked and worked, I have been considering the place of cereals within a permaculture. These reflections would not have been possible without the convivial conversation of happy farm workers. I am indebted to the John and Joy for their insights.
Humans began, for better or worse, to develop a closer relationship to grasses around 17,000 BCE with the harvesting of grain from wild populations in the areas surrounding the Tigris, Euphrates and the Nile rivers — aka. the Fertile Crescent. This was followed by the transition to agriculture and settlement — the so called ‘Neolithic Revolution’ — around 9000 BCE.
These facts imply one answer to the question “why cereals?” — Most humans have formed deep preferences for foods derived from cereals; bread and beer, for example. Bread and beer have been around since humans began to process cereals. These two items stand as symbols of the way in which cereals have been embedded in human culture for millenia. The quotes from William Cobbett above illustrate just how strong can be the preference for cereals products — and I certainly wont disagree on the value of these two items of food and drink. This deep cultural preference for cereals is one of the many reasons why the embrace of food derived from perennial plants is likely to be a slow one.
There are other, less contingent, reasons that cereals are and have been so highly valued, including:
- high calorific value;
- high protein content / nutritional value;
- storability; and
- the ability provide a quick yield relative to perennial crops of similar value.
In his Cottage Economy, William Cobbett compares potatoes with wheat and suggests that a bushel of wheat will yield sixty five pounds of nutritious matter as bread where the same volume of potatoes will yield only five and a half pounds of equivalent material. That is, according to Cobbett (and I would appreciate being pointed to a more recent source!), by volume, wheat is near to 12 times more valuable than potatoes as a staple. The nutrient density of wheat means that it requires less storage space and land for its growth than an equivalent in potatoes.
All but the final of these values intrinsic to cereals apply to perennial yields like acorns or chestnuts. The establishment time of these valuable crops is a significant disadvantage and again we encounter the problem of established cultural patterns and preferences as such foods are less easily rendered into something appealing in most cultures.
This first step of analysis suggests that cereals, given their value and in accord with the need to “obtain a yield” might at least find a place in the early stages of the development of a permaculture as the transition to a more stable perennial system and set of cultural patterns is developed. But could cereals also be a part of the long-term design of a permaculture? David Harris elegantly describes the crux of the problem of historical cereal culture:
“…once land clearance and tillage is practiced regularly on more than a very small scale, the energy-input demands of the system increase substantially.” — David R. Harris, ‘An evolutionary continuum of people-plant interaction’, Foraging and Farming, 1989The continuous disturbance regime of ploughing and its associated impacts is the problem of most cereal culture.
The incorporation of cereals into the long-term stability of a permaculture requires a regenerative grain culture. Larry Korn reports that
“Until Bill Mollison read The One-Straw Revolution he said he had no idea of how to include grain growing in his permaculture designs. All the agricultural models involved plowing the soil, a practice he does not agree with.” — Larry Korn, Masanobu Fukuoka’s Natural Farming and Permaculture, 2003
Masanobu Fukuoka’s methods were revelatory to Mollison because they were able to give a grain yield equivalent or greater than the neighbouring farmers who were using conventional methods while continuously improving rather than destroying the health (ie. the life) of the soil by tillage. Since this early recognition of the possibility of cereals within permaculture, other cropping systems have been developed, notably pasture cropping. The folk from Milkwood Permaculture have very recently outlined the way in which pasture cropping opens up the possibility of a regenerative cereal culture:
“Pasture cropping sows crops (like oats, rye, wheat) into perennial pastures. The crop is raised and then harvested, leaving the stubble standing in pasture, with no bare ground or tillage involved. That pasture is then grazed within a holistic management style regime with sheep, which suppresses the pasture plants growth while increasing their root mass, species diversity and creating impressive amounts of topsoil. And that regime is followed by another crop.”
Like Fukuoka’s methods, pasture cropping does not disturb the soil in the way that a plough agriculture does but it is much more suitable for (though not limited to) dry or ‘brittle’ landscapes where herbivores perform important nutrient cycling functions. In addition, the stable ground cover ecology deals with the nuisance plants which otherwise inhabit a distubance ecology (aka. ‘weeds’).
I am coming to learn that these systems are not enough by themselves, however. I have found myself in the unique position of being able to learn, from a man named John Letts, about the additional dimension of plant genetics and its importance for low-energy systems. John has been searching out and developing cereals which are genetically superior in low input systems. No, its not GM; its back to the future of ancient and old grain species and varieties.
Agricultural crops are products of the agroecosystem in which they are grown. Modern cereals are bred for use in systems with high levels of soluble nutrient and to meet the needs of industrialised processing industries (eg. baking, oil production etc. etc.). The so called “Green Revolution” was ushered in by the development of cereals which were shorter, less competitive amongst themselves and which could most rapidly convert soluble nutrient large yields of high protein grain.
Most modern cereals, then, are precisely those which will be disadvantaged in any low input, regenerative system which relies on a biological pathway from organically complexed (and so stable) soil nutrients to the crop. In fact, trials in the early 80’s (Austin 1980 - ‘Genetic Improvements in winter wheat yields since 1900 and associated physiological changes’) showed that older varieties of wheat, on average, had a higher percentage of nitrogen (protein) in individual grains than the newer modern varieties in both low and high input conditions. The lower yields of the older varieties means that there is, on average, a lower overall percentage of nitrogen than the modern varieties. To the cheap energy mind this latter point is the more important. Low yield of an individual crop in a complex system with a high aggregate yield has never been an problem for the cultivator of permacultures.
Having sourced thousands of genetically distinct samples of old cereal varieties from gene banks around the world, John Letts is developing genetically diverse cereal populations suited to his region. This redevelopment of genetically diverse landraces is a foundational work of each place in which a regenerative cereal culture is sought. Nick Romanowski has begun this work for the eastern states of Australia but as far as I am aware, no one in the Western Australian wheat belt is developing such endemic cereal populations.
John says that:
“Older varieties of wheat are lower yielding, but they are also hardier, and produce grain with good gluten content as well as tall, strong straw perfect for use as thatch. They also grow better and are more reliable than modern varieties in low input/organic conditions. The biodiversity of our fields helps keep them free of disease, and the tall stems and large leaves helps choke out weeds.” — John Letts, Interview with the Real Bread CampaignSuch old varieties in conversation with the particularities of climate and land within no tillage cropping systems are the next best thing to high yielding perennial grains grown in polyculture. This latter breeding project is being undertaken by Wes Jackson and The Land Institute. Jackson says that
“If we’re to solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture, we’re going to have to perennialize the major crops and put them in mixtures so that we can bring the processes of the wild to the farm.” — Wes Jackson, Q&A, Mother Jones, Oct, 2008Cereals don’t get much more permaculture than that but high yielding perennial mixtures are yet some time off. In the mean time, we must ‘obtain a yield’ and the best approach I can see is the combination of zero-till cropping systems like pasture cropping and natural farming with ancient and old species and varieties of cereals grown in landrace populations or mixtures. There is certainly a place for cereals within permaculture.