Idaho farmer experiments with ancient, landrace grains

ATHOL, Idaho — A few years ago, Luke Black’s mother found an old tin in his grandfather’s barn. It was filled with wheat.

She kept the tin, and then told her son about it two years ago, asking if he wanted it.

“We call it Grandpa’s wheat, we don’t really know what it is,” Black said.

For Black, it’s a connection to his grandfather. They were “super close,” he said.

Black hopes to eventually get enough of the seed growing anew, to cultivate it on 8 acres of the land his grandfather originally farmed in Rathdrum.

He got it to sprout, but thinks he needs to be more “delicate” with it, raising it indoors to get a good stand.

It’s likely a heritage grain, Black said, but it’s even more significant because his grandfather raised it.

That’s Black’s approach to raising grain on his Lone Mountain Farms near Athol. He has 23 grains planted in a variety trial. His ultimate goal is to raise his own landrace version of wheat, he says.

Landrace grains are ancient races of grains.

Black began planted his experimental grains last year. He expects it to be several years before getting enough to plant several acres.

Black says he searches for rare and unique ancient, heritage or landrace grains online. He’ll try anything once, he says.

“Most of the time online you can only buy these things in either less than 1,000 grams, or an ounce is about the max you can get,” he said. “Some of them are crazy expensive. … Honestly, I can’t even pronounce half of them.”

If one performs well, Black cuts the heads off, threshes it and then plants it in the fall in an effort to build his seed stock.

He’s particularly excited about raising black emmer, which is an “extremely rare” grain sought by breadmakers.

Black says he already has customers lined up for his future grains.

“It’s coming back — the small scale farmers like me growing grains for small bakers that do craft bread,” he said.

Black works with Don Scheuerman, co-founder of Palouse Heritage Grain and the Grain Shed cooperative in Spokane, to find and raise grains.

Scheuerman said he was drawn to Black’s “aggressive” approach to grow out grains to see how they grow in northern Idaho.

Their shared interests sparked a friendship.

“Everybody dealing with landrace grains, their learning curve is very high,” Scheuerman said. “It’s very important to have a good collection of comrades-in-arms that you’re part of … you need good, strong, strategic alliances.”

Scheuerman said Black has “a great deal of vision” in applying cutting-edge technology to farming, which he said will be key in developing the landrace grains.

Black and wife Emily also raise market garden vegetables, chickens, barley, oats and wheat on 10 acres. He’d ultimately like to expand to 50 acres.

“We could grow everything else except grain on about 2 acres,” he said.

His biggest need would be affordable small-scale grain equipment, he says.

A full-time computer programmer, Black plans to turn his operation into a high-tech farm. He’s currently building a solar-powered wash station for vegetables.

“We started farming because we wanted to get outside, but it’s grown into a passion,” he said. “It’s really nice to grow out things that are rare and unique, and to tell the story behind it. Bringing back these heritage or ancient grains, it’s fun to tell that story.”