Turkey Red, a heritage wheat

This week we got a load of a very special wheat called Turkey Red. Darrold was milling and putting up dough as soon as it arrived and we’re very excited about it.

Heritage wheat refers to the varieties of wheat that were grown before the “Green Revolution”, which started in the 1940’s.  It’s something different from what we think of when we talk about “green” today.  It was when wheat began to be hybridized for yield.  All modern wheat varieties are derived from crosses with a dwarf wheat from Japan and, therefore, grows to around only two feet tall.  This development, which was duplicated in other crops such as rice and corn, tripled or even quadrupled yields – but at a cost.  Since these plants can only grow with the use of fertilizer it is important that the stalks remain upright. Because their stalks are shorter, more grain can be produced in the heads without the risk of the crop falling over which is important if fertilizer is needed to be applied. However, because of their short height, they don’t shade out weeds when they grow, so farmers also need to apply herbicides.  The resulting genetically homogenous crops and fields then become more vulnerable to pest and disease epidemics, necessitating the application of fungicides and pesticides.

Heritage wheat, by contrast, is much taller, shading out weeds and it can tolerate much poorer soils because it has a bigger root system to seek out nutrients.  But, if you apply fertilizer, it grows too tall and flops over!

Turkey wheat is a heritage grain, meaning that it predates modern breeding.  Turkey Red arrived in the US in the early 1870’s, brought to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants from Russia, the part now known as Ukraine. It thrived in Kansas, swiftly becoming the primary wheat variety planted throughout the Central Plains.  It did so well that it pushed forward the advancement of milling technology.

Turkey Red was replaced in the mid-1940’s by modern, higher-yielding cultivars.  Higher yield hybrids, in many cases, sacrifice flavor and nutrition for the increase in productivity.

It also is theorized that the changes made during hybridization also changed the protein and gluten structure of the grain.  This change has made hybrid grain more difficult to digest and it is thought to be the cause of wheat-intolerence in many people.

We now are milling whole wheat flour from this heritage wheat and hoping that at least some of the people who have wheat intolerence will be able to eat bread made from this flour.  It is significantly different from Hard Red wheat.  The first thing you notice is that the berries are smaller and lighter in color.  When it’s milled the bran appears to mill finer than in Hard Red.  The smell during milling is different too.  Red Hard has a very strong, but not unappealing, smell while it is milling but the Turkey Red has almost no smell at all until you put your nose right up to it.  One person described it as smelling fresh like a garden or tomatoes. The gluten appears different as well.  When it is being mixed it seems to form a workable dough much sooner than Hard Red.  The resulting bread is lighter but still very flavorful bread with a moist and good crumb.