I first met Sylvia Davatz at a grain growing workshop she was offering at the Northeast Organic Farmers Association’s annual conference. Her enthusiasm for growing grains on a small-scale was contagious and at the end of the workshop, she invited all the participants to make their way to a table at the front of the room.
The table was packed with meticulously labeled jars of rare varieties of heirloom wheats, emmers, sorghum, barley, spelt, and so much more. The beautiful diversity of grain seeds was a sight to behold and everyone buzzed around the table, excitedly accepting Sylvia’s generous invitation to take home some of the seeds she had so lovingly grown. I ceremoniously transferred small amounts of the seeds that most appealed to me from their jars into tiny seed envelopes. Everyone left feeling like they’d won the lottery, with their samples of rare and otherwise nearly impossible to find seeds. We were also filled with a newfound understanding that growing grains in your garden is a wonderful way to diversify the food crops you’re growing, even if only on a small-scale, and that the miracle of seeds means that in just one season, we could multiply those handfuls of seeds many times over, with not only more than enough to replant again the following year, but perhaps also to share with others and eventually add to our pantry for baking and eating.
We often think of the world of fruits and vegetables as richly biodiverse, and many of us have made it a priority to source fresh and locally-produced vegetables, meat, and eggs. Yet when it comes to grains, we often find ourselves limited to the standard bag of white flour or rice sitting on a store shelf, rarely giving much thought to how and where the grains were grown, how fresh they might be, and what varieties they may be. But just as there are thousands of different varieties of potatoes or apples or tomatoes, the same diversity exists for wheat, barley, oats, rice or any other grains. And whereas many regions used to be self-reliant with their own thriving locally-grown grain supply, the “get big or get out” farming policies of the past century drove many small farmers out of business. As wheat production and flour milling became increasingly centralized in the Great Plains, wheat breeding became primarily focussed on developing high-yielding varieties destined for large-scale monoculture, and many of the older heirloom grain varieties began to disappear. Globally there are around 30,000 wheat varieties, but many are at risk of going extinct. China for instance has already lost more than 90 percent of its native wheat varieties, and Mexico has lost more than 80 percent of the corn varieties once grown there.
The loss of agricultural biodiversity and narrowing of our agricultural gene pool has profound ramifications on the resilience of our food system and farming practices, as well as the flavors and nutrient content of what ends up on our plates. While big supermarkets offer us an illusion of diversity, the reality is that our seeds and crops have become increasingly standardized over the past century. Around the world, food is becoming more alike and less diverse. Cultures that used to thrive on diets of locally-grown millet, sorghum, teff, and other highly nutritious grains are increasingly eating white bread and cheap fast food imports, and diet-based diseases are as a result on the rise globally. Traditional seeds and foods around the world are disappearing. This is why the work of growing out endangered crop varieties and sharing their seeds is such incredibly vital work. As Sylvia says in the video, “it is of the utmost urgency” to ensure these older plant varieties do not go extinct. They are part of our heritage and, “once they are gone, they are gone forever.” I think this is why people like Sylvia are sometimes referred to as seed saving heroes, the work they do in preserving our biodiversity is truly heroic.
To visit Sylvia’s garden in Vermont is to be swept away into a magical world of incredible beauty and abundance. There are berries intermingled with flowers and vegetables, beds of wheat and rice, and aromatic herbs. It is clear that Sylvia has found her life calling and there’s a special energy that emanates from people who are doing what they love. Visiting Sylvia and her garden gave me a little window into the source of inspiration and the enthusiasm that she transmits to people in her workshops and I felt incredibly lucky to get to spend time with her in her garden and kitchen.
Sylvia is part of an extensive global network of seed savers and I was fascinated to hear that she has been able to provide grain farmers with rare wheat seeds that had been nearing extinction and are now being grown on a large-scale again, and used for bread baking. I have heard similar stories from seed savers and wheat growers who have brought back varieties on the brink of extinction in Eastern Canada, where I’m from. It’s a profound thing when you bite into a flavorful loaf of bread, knowing the type of wheat used to make it almost disappeared forever but was brought back in the nick of time.
Sylvia’s wheat berry salad is a flavorful and nourishing expression of her belief in the importance of self-sufficiency and thinking of gardening as more than just a source of summer vegetables, but also a source of pantry staple grains and crops that can sustain us through our long winter months. It’s also a celebration of the joyful challenge of sourcing food locally. As she explains in the video, most ingredients come from her garden and are complemented with crops grown by friends (the hazelnuts) and neighboring farms (the feta cheese). The best thing is that the recipe is adaptable to whatever is in season in your area. So feel free to make it your own!
Sylvia Davatz’s Wheat Berry Salad
Sylvia’s wheat berry salad is a flavorful and nourishing expression of her belief in the importance of self-sufficiency and thinking of gardening as more than just a source of summer vegetables, but also a source of pantry staple grains and crops that can sustain us through our long winter months. Read more about this recipe in this Kitchen Vignettes post.
- 1 cup hard wheat berries
- 1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts (or walnuts)
- 3 oz. feta, cubed
- 2 scallions thinly sliced
- 1 Tbsp. minced fresh dill
- 2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- Soak the wheat berries overnight in water (this step is optional but will allow the grains to cook more quickly and make their nutrients more digestible). The next day, drain and then cook the berries in a pot of boiling water, exactly as you would cook pasta. The cooking time can vary so at the 30-minute mark, begin to taste the grains every 5 or 10 minutes. The grains are ready when they are soft, with a nice chew but no crunch (usually after 30 to 45 minutes of cooking). Remove from heat, drain, and give a quick rinse with cold water. Let them drain and cool fully before transferring to a salad bowl. (This is the same process for farro, spelt, einkorn, whole oat, barley, and rye berries so once you’ve made this wheat berry salad, you can experiment with other grains too. Just keep in mind some cook more quickly than others.)
- Add all the remaining ingredients and toss the salad well to mix everything together. Taste and if needed, add more salt, pepper, or lemon juice to suit your taste. Allow the salad to sit for 30 minutes or so before serving, so the flavors intermingle. Enjoy!
Yield: 3-4 servings
Aube Giroux is a food writer, a James Beard award-winning documentary filmmaker and a passionate organic gardener and home cook, who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.