Borrowing from the Past? Grain Mixes for Climate Resilience

grain mixes climate resilience

Adapting ancient farming practices to modern sustainable agriculture is nothing new – just consider biochar and agroforestry, as a couple of prominent examples.

The latest such loan from the past involves the practice of planting mixes of grain species in the same field. This technique, once widespread, presumably dropped from use with the advent of mechanized harvesting, which favored the modern fashion for monoculture.

However, mixing things up offers a key benefit: out of the mix of seeds planted, something is likely to produce a harvestable yield, no matter the vagaries of the weather in that particular growing season.

For example, one of the most common grain mixes grown in Georgia (the country, that is – the epicenter of wheat diversity) includes both wheat and barley. If the weather turns drier, not much of the wheat will grow, but the more drought-resistant barley will likely still produce a harvest.

Such mixes of grain crops, called maslins, traditionally include more than just two kinds of seed. Other common members of maslins include rice, millet, rye, triticale, and emmer.

The practice – which has never been abandoned in some areas – was “rediscovered” by a doctoral student at Cornell University during his dissertation fieldwork in Georgia. Other researchers at Cornell are now conducting experiments in New York state, testing whether a mixture of wheat and barley is more resistant to barley yellow dwarf virus than either crop grown in isolation.

The researchers were initially puzzled over how the different grains, grown together in polyculture, were separated after harvest. The answer was elusively simple: they aren’t. Instead, bread flour is made from whatever mix of the two grains that results from a particular year’s harvest.

That’s a jarring departure from the highly industrialized food processing industry that’s taken hold in many parts of the world. However, a similar approach was used to produce livestock forages throughout much of the U.S. up through the end of the 1800s.


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