By Robert Turner
The French ate bread as a staple in their diet for hundreds of years. Until the 19th century, it gave them the bulk of their necessary calories and filled the bellies of the working poor, and it took as much as 50 percent of their income. Bakers and bread making were so important in France that the industry was overseen by the local police. In fact, some historians suggest that one of the big underlying reasons for the French Revolution was a couple years of poor wheat harvests that led to a dramatic rise in bread prices.
During the bread famine, bread prices rose to as much as 80 percent of the household income, and upon hearing about the uprising, Marie Antoinette supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.” This phrase passed down to us, was probably not uttered by her; however, the statement was used by others to show how disconnected and oblivious the aristocracy was to the suffering of the masses.
Our little farm in Arden operates a CSA program that feeds 65 households the bulk of their vegetable needs for the summer. As an experiment in self-reliance and community resilience, I wanted to see if our farm could produce the necessary food calories that come from grains like wheat. Vegetables are good, but each one of us still needs about one million calories per year.
I didn’t want to mess this up and have our CSA members coming at me with pitchforks and torches wanting to form a new CSA. With some research I discovered that there were two new winter wheat varieties that had been recently developed by scientists at NC State (hybrids, not GMOs) that might be hardy enough to grow in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The wheat varieties were called Nu East and Carolina White, and I bought nine 50-pound bags of each that would cover an 8-acre field. Because they were still new seed varieties, only one place—Foundation Seed in Raleigh—had them.
I spoke with Jennifer Lapidus from the Asheville company Carolina Ground, who had the equipment to grind the wheat, and Brian Dennehy from City Bakery who could make the bread. So just for fun, I ran the numbers. If everything went well, and the weather cooperated, we might get as many as 50 bushels of wheat per acre, which would come to a whopping 36,000 loaves of bread from that little 8-acre parcel of land where I planted it. We planted it last October, expecting to harvest it in July. Then the rains came.
Asheville had the wettest May on record, and the rains flooded large areas of the field. It hurt the crop so much that we couldn’t justify asking my friend to bring in his combine to harvest it. In mid-July when the weather was dry, I went after that wheat with a weed whacker (technically a gas-powered string trimmer). I didn’t have an old-fashioned sickle, so I may be the first person in human history to harvest wheat with a weed whacker. After it dried, I threw out a large plastic tarp and started beating the wheat against the ground and the tarp to loosen the seeds.
I guess by now you’re wondering how far this stubborn idiot is going to go with this whole thing. Well, that’s about as far as I could go. I didn’t want to give up, but this was getting ridiculous. What was I going to do, bring a couple buckets of wheat seed to Jennifer so she could grind it, and then ask Brian to bake me a half loaf? I determined that it was about a $2,000 loss and left it at that. I learned an important lesson about crop failure and, as farming goes, I got out of it pretty easy. So much for my grand scheme of 36,000 loaves of bread.
Oh well, let them eat cake.
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees (February, 2019). To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.