Nearly every culture relies on grains as a staple food, and grains provide over 60% of the world’s food energy intake (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Americans consume 29% more grains, mostly in the form of breads, pastries and other baked goods, than they did in 1970 – the equivalent of 122.1 pounds a year (Pew Research Centre, 2016). Do we know what it takes to put pancakes on our plates? What opportunities for student engagement and interdisciplinary learning come alive when we engage in the process of growing, processing, and eating grains together? How does grain become flour anyway?
We connected with a local grain farmer (Cedar Isle Farm) who supplied us with dried grain seeds still on the stalk: oats, wheat, and barley. It was fascinating to see what these grains look like before they become flour, and to notice the differences between them. We worked in groups to process the grain by hand: threshing (breaking the grain apart from hull or chaff that holds it), winnowing (using air currents to clean the seed so that it is free of the inedible chaff), and then milling, using our hand mill. When we have asked children to come up with ways to clean and grind the grain and they come up with their own ingenious processes for threshing (like beating the grain with sticks ), winnowing (blowing on it), and grinding (using rocks to grind the grain into flour). We’ve also let groups use the tools used at the Farm for some of these processes: a threshing box, a simple hand-cranked winnowing machine, and a hand mill. They love grinding grain and we often find that a class is happy to grind several cups of grain using the mill! At the Farm we use the grains in a variety of different ways: granola bars, barley risotto, bread rolls…but the favourite is always making pizza to bake in our cob oven!
Growing Grain: How do you grow grain, which grains will grow well in our climate, and why are grains good for the soil? We have grown a number of different grains over the years, from fall rye to popcorn to Ethiopian teff. Each is unique and fascinating, yet there are great similarities in all grains, giving us an opportunity to learn about domestication of grasses, traditional grains from cultures around the world (including students’ own heritage), flavours and nutritional values of different cereal grains, differences between “whole grain” and “white”. Grains like winter wheat and fall rye can also be grown as a “cover crop” throughout the winter. We plant cover crop mixtures (click here for Cover Crop Mix Info) in the fall to protect the soil from the winter rains and then turn them into the soil in springtime so that they can be a “green manure” and add more organic matter to the soil. The Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) ran a Lawns to Loaves program a number of years ago in which they invited and prepared community members to plant a 10’x10′ plot of grain. The gardeners grew enough grain that they could bring together their grain for a day of grain processing and pizza-making! Grains also play a very important role in the food sovereignty of Indigenous peoples in North America and around the world. From corn to rice, the struggle to protect traditional lands and heritage seeds continues today. Older students may want to research about these struggles from Winona LaDuke, Vandana Shiva, and Sachamama Centre for Biocultural Regeneration, among others.
Processing Grain: What kind of technologies have different civilizations developed to process grains. What technologies do we use commercially today? Students might research different types of mills from around the world. They could work with stones and other materials to try to create their own technology for milling or for threshing and winnowing. Without specialized tools, you could buy grain from a bulk food store and try different methods for grinding (mortar and pestle, Champion juicer with grain attachment, spice/coffee grinder…). Cedar Isle Farm helped us put together a great slideshow of their small-scale commercial grain processing process (below).
Cooking Grains: How can we eat our grains? Explore the grains in students’ diets? What grains did they eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? What percentage of their meals include grains? Grains can be cooked whole as porridge, risotto, or granola bars. Grain flours are great for soda breads, pancakes, bannocks, tortillas, pastries, and yeasted breads. Bringing yeast into the conversation allows for connections to biology and chemistry for groups learning about single-celled organisms and fermentation. Parents may want to come into the classroom to share a grain-filled snack from their culture. Don’t forget that sushi (rice) and tortillas (corn) also use grains!
How Landed Learning students
How grain is grown and processed
by Cedar Isle Farm