Clemson, collaborators expand efforts to revive ancient southern crops
CHARLESTON – The main mission of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which includes board members Merle Shepard, Stephen Kresovich and Brian Ward of Clemson University, is to research and rehabilitate the central grains of the rice-growing system associated with the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
But this is just scratching the surface of the foundation’s more recent endeavors. The CGRF’s current initiatives include the investigation and potential revival of every provisional and regional crop tied through the centuries to the South.
At the foundation’s recent spring meeting at the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory, which works in conjunction with Clemson University’s nearby Coastal Research and Education Center, several CGRF board members provided updates on ongoing trials, research and other undertakings.
Here are some of the highlights:
BRIAN WARD, research scientist with Clemson’s Coastal REC: Ward, who is one of the nation’s leading experts at reviving landrace and heirloom crops, spoke about several varieties of wheat that are in various stages of restoration at Coastal REC and also in the fields of the nearby U.S. Vegetable Laboratory. Landraces are varieties that have been created by hundreds of plant generations of seed selection and are thus legacies handed down in communities to the present age; they are the most ancient grains and vegetables. In comparison, heirlooms are anything created prior to 50 years from the present date and can include hybrid varieties driven by selective pollination by plant breeders.
By early June, Ward will harvest 1,200 linear feet of Purple Straw wheat, the only landrace wheat to have been cultivated continually in the South from the Colonial Period into the last quarter of the 20th century. Ward will follow this up with a second, larger harvest in 2017 and a third, much-larger harvest in 2018 that should produce several tons of the rare and valuable seed. Purple Straw traces its American roots to the 1700s, but it became the center of wheat culture throughout the South in the early 1820s because it ripened quickly and withstood pests such as joint worms. It is an excellent wheat for biscuits, cakes and whiskey. For a story, photographs and a video on Purple Straw wheat, click here.
Ward is also growing White Lammas, also known as White May, which was the first wheat brought into English America. Colonists made communion bread and breakfast porridge out of White May until it fell victim to disease and pests in the 1820s and was abandoned. But before disappearing entirely, it was carried from the South to the Pacific Northwest, where it survived on the land as old winter white wheat until 1914, when a U.S. Department of Agriculture plant explorer collected it.
“We have about 300 linear feet of White May wheat in a field at Coastal REC. And it’s doing really well,” Ward said. “In addition, we have 10 acres of Turkey Wheat being grown organically in a field at the Vegetable Laboratory that should yield a few thousand pounds, at least. And this seed will be available for growers this year. This is great news for bakers across America, who respect Turkey Wheat’s superior flavor and qualities.”
Turkey Wheat is one of America’s most important heirloom wheats because it thrives in many climates and under adverse conditions.
RICHARD SCHEUERMAN, historian and author of several books on regional sustainability: Scheuerman, one of two guest speakers at the meeting, is co-founder of Palouse Colony Farm in eastern Washington State. The farm produces a range of landrace grains using restorative agricultural methods. Scheuerman has revived White May and has since shared seed with the CGRF for Ward to grow in South Carolina.
“I stand in awe of the work being done by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and Clemson University, because the realm of sustainability and doing the right thing holds promise for making our world a better place,” Scheuerman said. “Some of our nation’s methods of conventional growing have led to the degradation of our environment. Because of this, I’ve become interested in finding other ways to do things through restorative agriculture. This promotes environmental responsibility and gives us the added benefits of restored culinary traditions that help celebrate heritage and flavor in ways that attach meaning to people’s lives.”
DAVID SHIELDS, CGRF chairman and Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina: Shields summarized new enterprises being undertaken by the foundation. In addition to Purple Ribbon sugarcane, Purple Straw wheat and White May wheat, CGRF is investigating a slew of other grains, many of which are nearly extinct.
Shields focused on a winter rye that goes by many names, including Seashore Rye, Carolina Rye, South Georgia Rye and Florida Black-Seed Rye. This variety was a tall-growing, vigorous plant that had graced the winter fields of the Southeast since 1831. It was used for grazing, windbreaks, green manure and milling.
“It eventually was supplanted by Abruzzi rye and then various ‘improvements’ of Abruzzi over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries,” Shields said. “Seashore rye, however, is less tacky than Abruzzi when milled, and it’s easier to process. It has a singular wholesome flavor, with a touch less astringency or bite than hybridized rye strains. Distillers, brewers and bakers will embrace the return of one of the signature grains of the Coastal South.”
Another rye under investigation also goes by several names – Tall-growing Rye, North Georgia Rye and North Carolina Mountain Rye. “I’ve sent a call out for seed through the Appalachian networks, and we’re seeing what we can consolidate there,” Shields said.
CGRF continues to branch out by expanding its research into new areas such as fruits. Shields specifically mentioned heirloom varieties of mulberries, cherries and grapes. “Not every ancient fruit is worth bringing back, just like not every vegetable. It’s only worthwhile bringing back those that have either some sort of agronomic virtue or some extraordinary taste virtue. And that’s what we have concentrated on in our investigations.”
STEPHEN KRESOVICH, Coker Chair of Genetics and director of the Institute of Translational Genomics at Clemson University: The noted geneticist spoke in detail about Clemson University’s collaborative effort to reintroduce Purple Ribbon sugarcane to Sapelo Island, Georgia, where the first successful commercial production of the towering grass took place in the United States more than 200 years ago.
Thirteen varieties of sugarcane, including the one most closely identified as Purple Ribbon, were planted at an organic farm in Townsend, Georgia, in April 2015 and chopped down this past Halloween. About half of the cane was replanted at the organic farm. The other half went to Sapelo Island, where it was banked over the winter and replanted this spring. The first marketable harvest in both locations will occur sometime in the early fall of 2016.
“The success story isn’t just about getting Purple Ribbon back to Sapelo. It’s really more about how the residents of Sapelo can make useful products from the material – whether it’s syrup or something that goes to distilleries,” Kresovich said. “I was very pleased to hear that the people down at Sapelo have bought a sugarcane mill and that they’re going to start making syrup this fall.”
BERNARD HERMAN, George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: The meeting’s keynote speaker discussed the historical, agricultural and culinary importance of Virginia oysters, Hayman sweet potatoes and Hog Island sheep. A large part of his talk focused on the restoration of oyster beds on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
“The goal is to continue to re-establish live reefs through a variety of techniques,” Herman said. “These reefs have economic value in that they create jobs. But they also have significant environmental value. An oyster filters 50 gallons of seawater a day. Some folks at the mouth of a creek in Virginia have just set out eight million oysters for the coming year. So you can do the math. Oysters are one of the few things we grow as a crop that dramatically improves the environment. They also create areas that encourage the return of other species of animals that thrive within the reefs.”
The meeting concluded with a spectacular bread and spread tasting. Chris Wilkins, co-founder and head baker of Root Baking Company in Charleston, used wheat from Ward’s plots at Coastal REC to bake three different versions of Carolina Gold Rice middlins breads. S.C. Chef Ambassador Forrest Parker created spreads using heirloom produce that reflected the topics and regions that were discussed during the meeting. Included in one of the spreads was dried Eastern Shore of Virginia figs that are listed in the international Ark of Taste.
“Glenn Roberts (President and CEO of CGRF), David Shields, Steve Kresovich, Brian Ward and other members of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation are doing some of the most relevant work found anywhere in this country,” said Parker, who is the chef at the Old Village Post Inn in Mount Pleasant. “The level of research that goes on here – the agricultural archeology – is in some ways unparalleled. In part, it’s because there is such a fantastic history of food in the Charleston area. And to be able to go back and engage with the past and repatriate landrace grains, vegetables and legumes that were previously thought to be extinct makes it an exciting time to be a chef in South Carolina.”
The spring and fall meetings of the CGRF are open to anyone interested in how the foundation continues to rebuild the fundamentals of local culinary heritage through scholarship, research, farming, exploration, pro bono rare seed distribution and feeding people.