Poly crop agriculture and the search for the ‘perfect acre’

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — Harry Peemoeller, senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, US, refers to his good friend, Glenn Roberts, as a Jedi of the grain business.

Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina, US, is a humble and intelligent man who has followed one of the most interesting paths in life to get where he is today. He will talk often of the future of land-race plants (grains) adapting to modern times, expressing the terroir just like wine grapes.

Roberts explains the goal of poly crop agriculture as producing the “perfect acre” in which grasses (wheat, rye and oats) and other compatible plants grow together and are harvested in vertical layers as they ripen. The result: healthy soil, no need for crop rotation or chemical fertilizers, and the best-tasting versions of these plants that nature can produce.

Roberts is pragmatic and sensitive in his approach toward the grain universe and is understanding of the impending crisis that looms.

“We are off 30% worldwide in cereal systems,” he said during a presentation at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) in mid-September. “A geneticist I work with said they started working on this problem in 1993, and they were already late. Now, there are 20 or so plants in the poly crop system. Poly cropping is working.”

During the IBIE session, he noted that the American South produces more rye for wildlife than the rest of the country has grain.

“These plants don’t require much water, and all of the plants harvest in 90 days max — with extreme tolerances,” he said. “Animals like the variety, just like we do. This is an advanced drilling system, but we are still not doing this for people. Poly crop is global, but we’ve lost it in the modern world.

“These plants are dancing with each other. You don’t need chemicals to do this.”

Land-race, or heirloom, grains offer plants that will provide increased aroma and flavor. The proof can be enjoyed at the farms that work with Anson Mills in South Carolina.

“What Glenn is doing in South Carolina is absolutely phenomenal,” Peemoeller said.

The ultimate goal is to continue seeking out grains that will produce healthier and better-tasting foods.

“We have to have food that is just better,” Roberts said.

Roberts grew up in San Diego, California, US, the son of a professional singer and photographer, and a former Southern belle from Edisto, South Carolina, US, who became an accomplished scratch cook and occasional restaurateur. Roberts was a restless, curious boy, who, by all accounts, required steady discipline to stay out of mischief. His mother tried to tame him by putting him to work on weekends as a busboy in her restaurant. His father taught him to fly an Aeronca Champ when he was eight years old, using pillows to prop him up and two-by-fours wired to the rudder pedals. His parents required their children to have musical training: Glenn studied French horn throughout his boyhood and adolescence, performing first in the San Diego Youth Symphony, and later occupying fourth chair in the San Diego Symphony. None of this, however, prevented him from pursuing his real passion: chemistry experiments. Working with explosive gas for a national science contest, Roberts blew the door off his parents’ garage on one occasion and decimated his mother’s kitchen on another.

At 17, Roberts entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a music and science scholarship and graduated four years later. A conventional life track, however, was too narrow to contain his energies: he joined the Air Force to feed his love of flying, and later sailed around the world on private yachts as a navigator and a mate. He took up riding and dressage. He drove long-haul trucks.

Somewhere along the road of diversionary adventure, his overarching interests distilled into the study of architectural history and the history of food. Settling down into a suit and proper shoes, he backed into historic property restoration through the kitchen, working on space design and adaptive reuse in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. His geographic area ultimately narrowed to South Carolina where he took on broader aspects of redesign projects, carrying those through to the hiring of chefs and marketing staff, and to the planning and execution of celebratory dinners at projects’ end. The menus he helped plan were intended to offer period-authentic dishes. But the ingredients didn’t exist. Local growers did not produce them and would not be persuaded to try. In particular, grains of the era like Carolina Gold rice, linchpin of Carolina cuisine, were nearly impossible to source.

Roberts’ career epiphany came on a hot summer afternoon in the kitchen of an historic Charleston property. An elaborate rice dinner just hours away, a grower in Savannah — the sole source for Carolina Gold rice — delivered a bag of rice writhing with weevils. At 7 o’clock in the evening, he found himself at a prep table with two dishwashers, sweating in his suit and tie, and rousting weevils from Carolina Gold — the dinner swirling by without him. He thought of his mother’s cooking when he was a boy. He looked at the lousy rice. He vowed to put Carolina Gold into serious production so this would not happen again.

For the next several years, Roberts grew small-plot Carolina Gold in Charleston and worked with a rice geneticist in Texas to reinvigorate the seed, which, through neglect and inactivity, had begun to display characteristics of its sister rice, Carolina White. To support his experiments in Carolina Gold, whose resurrection now represented an all-consuming concern, he began to research other regional heirloom grains of the era he could move more quickly into production. The research began with corn. In 1995, Glenn explored rural back roads looking for the famous white Carolina mill corn that was revered for its high mineral and floral characteristics and its creamy mouthfeel. He found this corn in a bootlegger’s field near Dillon, South Carolina, US, in 1997 and planted and harvested his own first crop of 30 acres in 1998. Known as Carolina Gourdseed White, the single-family hand-select dated back to the late 1600s.

Roberts passed Gourdseed grits around to chefs in Charleston and Atlanta, and they all went crazy.

The discovery of Carolina Gourdseed White, and other nearly extinct varieties of Southern mill corn, fueled Glenn’s efforts to preserve nutrition and flavor in heirloom corn. But he knew the corn would have to be milled as carefully as it was grown.

Returning to historic documents, Roberts learned about an heirloom that had been bred to blow down in late fall for hand harvest under snow in deep winter. The corn, an 1850 yellow tooth of Appalachian provenance called John Haulk, was known to have made the “finest cornbread and mush.” The fact that it was milled under freezing conditions after full field ripening and drying puzzled Glenn until he froze and milled his own Gourdseed White. The flavors of the cold-milled corn were stunning. With this experiment, Glenn “rediscovered” cold milling and, in so doing, found a way to offset the heat damage grains experience between two stones. He also found a perfect place to store his seed corn: in the freezer. At this point, Glenn possessed a fully realized and madly ambitious plan: to make Carolina Gold rice a viable Southern crop, and to grow, harvest, and mill other nearly extinct varieties of heirloom corn and wheat organically. In so doing, Glenn hoped to re-create ingredients of the Antebellum Southern larder — ingredients that had vanished over time. Grits, cornmeal, Carolina Gold rice, graham and biscuit flour, these ingredients, all milled fresh daily for the table, had helped create a celebrated regional cuisine — America’s first cuisine: the Carolina Rice Kitchen.

Never one for half measures, Roberts in 1998 sold his worldly possessions, tossed his business card, and rented a sprawling metal warehouse behind a car wash in Columbia, South Carolina. He installed four native granite stone mills. Anson Mills was born.

By 2000, he had his first real harvest of Carolina Gold rice, plus 10 varieties of Southern dent corn heirlooms. He was milling grits for chefs in Georgia and the Carolinas. Word got around. A handful of ingredient-conscious chefs across the country began to use Anson Mills products and promote them vigorously to their colleagues. The circle widened. In 2001, supported by the success of Anson Mills’ early efforts, Roberts was able to take on full production of certified organic Carolina Gold rice and a “Thirteen Colony” wheat called Red May.

Today, in addition to its collection of native heirloom grains, Anson Mills grows Japanese buckwheat, French oats and Mediterranean wheat, and Italian farro. Glenn continues to be restless and curious. He works tirelessly to manage his old grains, the land, and their growers, as well as chefs and retail customers. It’s a relentless effort. But he never has to wear a suit.

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