In these blogs, I have written about the Cereal Project but just in snippets. I thought I’d do an overall piece now that the cereals are maturing.
A cereal is a grass which has seeds we use for food. Most grasses have seeds which are too small for food. A few in nature though have larger seeds, and arable agriculture began with these 11,000 years ago. Over the millennia, plant breeding has improved the seed heads until they are now the staple foods of the world. In our diets, they give us: bread (including naan and chapatis), rice, corn on the cob, popcorn, corn syrup, biscuits, cakes, pies, breakfast cereals, beer, and many other products. They form at least a third of our daily diet.
I belong to a walking club, and on our hikes through fields I became aware that most of us can’t tell one cereal plant from another. We are townies, we get our cereals from supermarkets when they have already been processed. So, I thought, let’s grow small amounts of cereals in the community garden, watch them month by month as they mature, and compare them.
The three biggest cereals by tonnage globally are: maize, wheat and rice. Others are barley, rye, oats, sorghum, millet and teff. The Project has all these except sorghum and millet which are both subtropical crops. I did consider getting them, but my idea, originally for six cereals, had become eight, then nine, then ten. So I omitted them. Perhaps just as well, considering the trouble I had growing rice, also a subtropical.
We got seeds from Living Fields, an educational charity in Dundee, who I found on the internet. I told them what we intended doing and asked them if they would supply seed. And they kindly sent some. I felt there were gaps in what they sent and asked a friend, Jim, for additional seed. Jim has a family firm in Saskatchewan called Prairie Garden Seeds, and he obligingly sent us some more. We bought rice seed online and sweetcorn from Smallholders on Woodgrange Road. The Project has ten cereals in all. They are wheat (3 types), maize (2 types), rice, barley, oats, rye, and teff.
The three wheats are:
· Emmer wheat, which is a heritage wheat, dating back 11,000 years to the early days of arable farming in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.
· Red Fife, a Canadian wheat, popular until around 1900.
· A winter wheat which came by accident from our birdseed feeder. Seeds spilled by hungry birds grew, and I potted a few up for the project.
We have two maize:
· Sweetcorn, a tall maize with added sweetness bred in.
· Dwarf maize, multi-coloured. Half the size of sweetcorn but with decorative cobs.
Teff is an Ethiopian cereal, made into a flat bread called injera. It has the tiniest of seeds and I am curious how it will grow.
All the seeds grew without any problems except rice. We had a Japanese rice which I sowed at home in a heated propagator in late April. They grew to a few inches and then all died. I don’t know why. I still had some seed, so tried sowing them under water in a small tray to simulate a paddy. Only one seed germinated. I cossetted this one seedling, thinking it rather pathetic. Fortunately, the plant, perhaps feeling sorry for me, put up lots of shoots. So not quite a crop, but enough to save face.
All the cereals above have alcoholic drinks made from them, which says a lot about the uniformity of human nature across the globe. Most barley is grown for beer, though in Scotland it is for whisky too. Nearly all the maize in the UK goes for animal feed. In the US, 70% of it is either fed to animals for meat production or made into biofuel, mostly for vehicles. Food is political, and farmers follow the money.
We decided to grow the cereals in cardboard boxes, as these are free, and why add to the plastic mountain? I got most of the boxes from the library. All have held out through the spring and early summer weather. I have learnt, though, not to move the boxes, as with the weight of soil they are liable to collapse.
To this date, early July, the three wheats, barley, oats, and rye have all grown well and have maturing seeds. Being hardy, they were the first seeds planted, in March. The less hardy were planted in May, so they are behind the March plantings. Of these, the dwarf maize is the front runner, being in flower. The sweetcorn is still intent on reaching an elephant’s eye, and has no sign of flowers. The teff is prolific, with a full head of green hair, but is yet to set flower or seed. The rice is a clump of grass growing from my makeshift paddy.