Staple foods like grains and beans were first domesticated from wild plants 10-12,000 years ago in various places around the globe. These were the beginnings of agriculture, when people started cultivating seeds in addition to hunting and gathering for food. As people migrated, they carried with them culinary habits, farming practices, and their seeds. For millennia, food choices reflected the agriculture and climate of an area more deeply than it does today.
Grains are the edible seeds of certain grasses, like wheat, rye, barley, triticale, oats, teff, millet, sorghum, rice, and corn. These plants are in the grass family, Poaceae, and at early stages of growth, could be mistaken for the grass that grows in a lawn. Buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa are pseudocereals, foods that resemble grains but aren’t members of the grass family. None have any gluten, which means that they function very differently from ‘true’ grains in baking. Dry beans and oilseeds, also considered grains, complete staple crop pantries, offering fat and protein to complement human diets.
Grains can be planted in the spring or fall, and fall-planted crops can overwinter, even in the chilliest places in the Northern Midwest.Grains were some of the first crops to be mechanized because they are very labor intensive and require multiple stages of handling to be useful as food. Farmers and others who clean and process grains need a range of equipment to efficiently and economically plant, cultivate (weed), harvest, store, and prepare these crops for people to eat. Agriculture is culture, and is strengthened by diversity that reflects different places, traditions, and uses. As modern eaters, one of the most important things we can do to be revolutionary participants in this system is eat a wide variety of grains grown close to us. Different grains affect soil conditions uniquely, and biodiversity is key to building regenerative cropping systems. Just as the human body needs a variety of foods, farms need a variety of plants to keep them and their land resilient, and they need bakeries, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and individuals to buy those wide variety of foods so they can keep growing them.
Different grains do different things. In cropping systems, diversity is key to build regenerative cropping systems. Crop rotations rotate fields through cycles of crops, to avoid attracting the same pests and diseases to a field year after year. Just as the human body needs a variety of foods, farms need a variety of plants to keep them biologically sound. Eaters can support healthy soil by choosing to eat a range of crops, helping assure farmers there is a market for what they grow. To find where to buy these grains, head over to our Regional Grain Map!
For each grain below, you’ll find the following information (where relevant):
What is the structure of the grain? What does it look like?
Where did the grain come from? Who cultivated it?
What role does this grain play in our regional agricultural system? How does it grow? When is it planted?
What makes this grain special? What is it’s flavor profile? What are some notable nutritional qualities? Which organizations are working with it and/or advocating for it?
Photos: University of Illinois Food Science Pilot Processing Plant; Corn Photo: Hazzard Free Farm