Every couple of months I get a newsletter from a local nonprofit
called the
Land Stewardship Project.
In the
current issue (pdf) the cover story deals with the decline in vigor and resilience
of commercial seed stocks, the market reasons behind it, and what one group
of farmers is doing about it.

Farmers who produce organic wheat, oats and other small grains
are often frustrated with the inability of modern varieties to
compete with weeds and to resist diseases and pests. Before World
War II and the advent of chemical agriculture, a tall wheat or
oat plant that had lots of leaves was the norm. That kind of plant
produced plenty of biomass in the form of straw, adding fertility
back to the soil after harvest. And the leaves helped shade out
weeds. But chemicals seemed to make this kind of plant architecture
old-fashioned. The nutrients produced by the taller varieties could
be replaced with petroleum-based fertilizer. Weeds could be sprayed,
making shading unnecessary. Breeders began producing small grains
that were shorter, so they could put more of their growth energy
into producing grain. They were quite successful at it.

In recent years, questions have been raised as to whether this type
of selective breeding is sustainable in the long run. The newer,
higher yielding small grains are like thoroughbred racehorses:
they have high output in the right conditions, but they require
just the right balance of good weather, fertilizer and chemical
applications. And these varieties tend to be bred to resist one
disease; if a different ailment strikes it, an entire crop can be
lost. In addition, farmers like Podoll complain that as research
becomes more centralized, there are fewer varieties available
that are adapted to particular regions and climates. Podoll is
particularly mindful of that as he wrestles with the wet cycle
that’s been wracking his part of the state since the early 1990s.

As fewer and fewer of us live on farms, as the connections between
us and our food grow longer and more anonymous, it’s disturbing to
see the risks taken with the crops on which we depend. The assumption
of chemical dependence – on fertilizers, weed-killers and pesticides –
has led to weaker plants and a higher risk of crop failures.

The research programs discussed in the article remind me of the
growing popularity of
heirloom varieties for home
gardening. To help keep (and develop) great-tasting, resilient
strains of wheat, corn, oats and more, maybe more home gardeners
should grow grains, too,