Jeffrey Bland: Well, here I am at Angelica farms in Angelica New York with one of the most special and really tremendous opportunities to visit with a Sam and Lucia Beer, farmers, in this beautiful valley of Upstate New York. And the only people in the United States that we’re aware of that, are still cultivating this ancient grain Himalayan Tartary buckwheat. And you might say, why are they the only ones, and what happened to Tartary buckwheat, and what is unique about this crop and, why are these people still standing tough against all opposition to a have a portion of their land dedicated to Tartary buckwheat.
Jeffrey Bland: You’re going to learn about that, because that’s why we’re here, from the individual who knows, I call him an expert. Some people say, well an expert is a, a person that’s 30 miles away from homeless slides, but in this case, we are at the Beer home. So he doesn’t have to have slides and be away from home to be an expert we’re on his farm.
Jeffrey Bland: So Sam, wonderful to be here and share this day with you and Lucia and your family and your beautiful environment. So let’s jump right into it. Why is Sam Beer and Lucia Beer the last remaining Himalayan Tartary buckwheat farmers that we can identify in the United States? And what’s about this particular unique plant?
Sam Beer: Thank you first Jeff, for making the trip or coming the distance all the way from Washington state to New York state and then the considerable drive from Buffalo down into the Hinterlands. And we’re delighted that you have made the effort.
Sam Beer: As to our uniqueness, as far as we can tell, we we’re the only farmer/millers of Tartary buckwheat. I think there may still be some growers in Northern Maine, but in terms of the processing, I think we’re the only ones. Our introduction to Tartary buckwheat actually came about by accident. We had been on this farm for several years, first milking cows and then as weekend visitors when we moved our family to Ithaca, New York, while our kids were going to school. And during the summer I’d often grow a few varieties of common buckwheat, to see if any of them performed particularly well. And none of them did. But among the seed packets that I received were two that had been mislabeled and they were quickly identifiable as seeds of Tartary buckwheat rather than common buckwheat. And I looked at them and not wanting to waste them. I said, “Well, I’ll throw them in the ground anyway.” And they didn’t do spectacularly, but they did at least as well as the varieties of common buckwheat that I tried.
Sam Beer: So the next year, I’d replanted the seed that I’d collected, seems the year after that I did the same. What started as a 50 seed packet, eventually ended up being field scale farming. The problem was that because the crop had disappeared from this country, even from this part of Appalachia where it had once been grown, so too the market had disappeared. The next step was, “Can we make a product that would be sellable?” So the farming operation expanded into a very modest milling operation and ultimately to a license from New York state to market our flour and the brand from our seed. And that’s the stage at which you discovered us.
Jeffrey Bland: Well you know, there’s a lesson that I’ve learned over my years of living around serendipity or happenstance, or what we call random events. And as I’ve grown older, I’m less convinced that things happen by random. I think that there are certain divine principles that bring people together.
Jeffrey Bland: And so in your relationship to Tartary buckwheat, I think that there’s some interesting parts of your history that I’d like you to share and that is, being an agricultural scientist of type, not just kind of maybe a garden variety farmer. Nothing wrong being a garden variety for any farmer, but having kind of an agricultural science and having been at Cornell University at that kind of a stage of your career. And then your mind, obviously is patterned towards looking at things maybe a little bit differently in terms of seed generation and optimization of crops. It kind of brings you into this area of inquiry that eventually allows you to start doing these experiments that maybe other farmers might not do. And as you do that, then you start investing yourself and understanding you and Lucia. What is the history of Tartary buckwheat? And Tartary is a district in Asia, for which this particular material has been used for, as a food stuff for over 2000 years. And so you start getting culturally deep into it.
Jeffrey Bland: So I want to honor you because I think it’s a process by which it wasn’t just putting seeds in the ground, there’s a whole intellectual process that underlies this. And if you could summarize for our viewers who may not be familiar with this history, just a summary of how this was grown more polemically and why it’s not growing today? What are the dynamics that have created this opportunity now, for the Beers with the Himalayan Tartary buckwheat.
Sam Beer: I think it’s a fascinating history. It is thought to have developed in Southwest China. It was particularly connected with an ethnic group there called the Yi, but it expanded in all directions, expanded eastward into Korea and Japan, southward into the Indian subcontinent and to Nepal and India, and even areas apparently in South India. Then it made a long, slow trek westward reaching Europe. It has names in several European languages from, Swedish, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and, languages in the Balkans, France, which suggested that it was widely cultivated there. It probably traveled in conjunction with common buckwheat either as a weed and seed lots or, because farmers didn’t particularly care which species grew, that they would plant mixed seed lots and harvest whatever grew. That’s a, that’s a form of early form of crop insurance.
Sam Beer: So the plant eventually reached North America, either coming into the maritime with the Acadians or the early English Settlers, or into the Hudson Valley with the Dutch, and then worked its ways through the Appalachians, all the way down to North Carolina. It had a wide geographic range at one point. What’s interesting to me was how modern science and technology upended the traditional world. And in the decades after World War II, modern science took aim at the major food crops, particularly corn, and wheat, and rice, potatoes. Major international research centers were established to breed these crops. The gains in productivity were so immense, that farmers readily abandoned a species that they have grown for millennia and follow the money, essentially, and Tartary buckwheat was one of the casualties of that huge scientific advance. It disappeared within decades over most of the areas where it had previously been grown, including North America.
Jeffrey Bland: And so a lot of people who are listening or watching this might say, “Well, that’s sad losing species diversity, but I never knew about Tartary buckwheat to begin with. So really is it a big loss.?” I think one of the most remarkable things, now I’m speaking as a nutritional scientist, one of the most remarkable things and how it relates to Big Bold Health and health promotion is that it’s one of the most vital nutrient dense products in the agricultural world. It has the highest level of any known plant of Rutin, one of the flavonoids. It is very high in a whole family of interesting flavonoids, that all have immune logical support properties.
Jeffrey Bland: It is in all essence, what we might euphemistically call a super food. And so as we move to a high production form of alternative crops, which might give good yield, we then gave away some of this nutritional density that was found in Himalayan Tartary buckwheat, as a consequence of it being this very vital kind of a plant, that could grow against adverse conditions and have to make all these interesting plant protective compounds, to allow it to grow in hostile environments. So now we lose that for the agribusiness, big acreage of the commercial crops and to the detriment of some of the nutrition values. So lo and behold, you’re rescuing our nutrition value with Himalayan Tartary buckwheat.
Sam Beer: I think that most consumers are unaware of the degree that even the modern crops, their continued development and their exploitation for a lot of interesting nutritional factors, rests on a wide base of genetic variability and also that the security of those crops rests on a wide base of resistance to a number of diseases and pests. The picture-perfect ear of corn is maintained by a large family of ugly cousins. And it’s to our detriment to narrow that base, there are species and varieties that we should be humble our understanding of their value. They have unknown and unappreciated traits that are worth preserving.
Jeffrey Bland: Yeah. I think that comes across so strongly when we met you and even before meeting you, and just in our communication prior to visiting your farm. This is a commitment to kind of the concept, the robustness of the plant kingdom and how diversity is stability in an ecological terminology and, some of the nutritional value that we may have given up in some of these original cultivars for improvement in yield. All of these are interesting trade-offs that are occurring in our mechanized farming of today. So then that leads us to, can we preserve a value-added farming opportunity for people who might want to be in this more artisanal farming? I guess or whatever they’d call it for these other cultivars of which ordinary and Tartary buckwheat would be an example. And how do we make that a commercially viable operation so that people who want to preserve that option can make a gainful living doing so? And that’s part of this experiment that you all and we all are in involved with. I think it’s a very interesting way of thinking about entrepreneurism at the family farm level.
Sam Beer: Well, I think the farmers market movement, is an essential part of that. People are introduced firsthand to an array of varieties and even an entirely new herbs and vegetables of which they were unaware. The other piece of that is a culture of exploration that consumers have to be willing to take risks, take these things home, slice and dice and cook and eat. Be prepared for some strange new flavors. I have a brother who, who was in the Peace Corps in Nepal many decades ago, and so was exposed to a novel cuisine that most Americans of that time hadn’t experienced and was transformed by it. It transforms its own habits. I think, you know, there is a fair slice of the population that’s willing to entertain that idea of a new diet, a transformation of what they’ve always eaten. And I think that’s great.
Jeffrey Bland: Yeah. And you know, it’s interesting, in our conversations we were having earlier, you were characterizing yourself, and I think lovingly so, hopefully, as idiosyncratic. It seems like you’re very openhearted and opened armed, which is part of being open to the experimental trials of making this kind of angry or honorary crop at times, which is Himalayan Tartary buckwheat stand up both literally and figuratively for you. Cause I know it’s been a challenge as to how to actually make it commercially capable of producing a yield that would be meaningful.
Jeffrey Bland: So tell us a little bit about that experience, because I can almost see this droopy Himalayan Tartary buckwheat that you’ve had to deal with over the years.
Sam Beer: One of the distinctive accomplishments of plant breeding, and the major crops was to shorten the stature of the crop and simultaneously make a stronger stem. If you’re using the stem to feed your livestock and you’re harvesting by hand and with a little sickle, it doesn’t much matter. You don’t mind the fact that the plant is four feet tall. But if you want it to stand up until you can cut it with a combine, then inevitably that extra height is leveraged for the wind and the rain to break the stem and leave the crop flat. That’s what often happens with our Tartary buckwheat. We find fields that we harvest half standing up and half lying down.
Sam Beer: I have no doubt that the crop will look substantially different 50 years from now or even a decade from now. But I think the interesting thing is the humility with which breeders will approach this crop. That the era where you design new varieties, simply so they stand up when you crank the fertilizer to them. And when you use the pesticides to create optimal growing conditions. I think that era is past and that breeders will be much more aware that there’s a range of values and a range of traits that they should be looking at, including and particularly, the nutritional values of the crop.
Jeffrey Bland: I just wanted to have you share a little anecdote that you had told us about, because I think it’s so characterizes this concept of artisanal farming and starting off with an idea and testing it over time and getting it perfected. And it goes back to the story of the first time you combined buckwheat with one of your neighbors on an old piece of equipment.
Jeffrey Bland: And I thought that story was so symbolic and emblematic of the whole nature of a startup and the kind of endurance and tenacity you have. Could you relate that story?
Sam Beer: Sure. Actually, this story related to common buckwheat. My brother and I had borrowed a combine. Quite a relic. It had a gasoline engine, it had a radiator on that engine that leaked so that every time, every circuit of the field required a stop to refill the radiator. And the combine also was of a vintage where the seed came out a spout and was collected in bags. And somebody sat at the top of the combine, tying off bags, and dropping them down a shoot, and then securing the next bag to be filled.
Sam Beer: So, we put our neighbor on top of the combine, on the bagger, and my brother and I drove around the field, stopping each circuit to refill the radiator, and about the third time around we said, “So how’s it going up there?” Well, it turned out we had about two handfuls of seed. But our neighbor was having so much fun up there on top of the combine that he was not going, he never would have revealed that until we had done the whole field. Well we said, “Enough of that.” Pulled out of the field, and I literally didn’t grow buckwheat for about 20 years after that.
Sam Beer: But there was some nagging fascination and subsequently I started looking at different varieties of common buckwheat. And that ultimately led to Tartary buckwheat. The main difference between the two species is the pollination system.
Sam Beer: Common buckwheat has a beautiful white pinkish flower that’s very attractive to bees. Often grown as a honey crop. Tartary buckwheat has very tiny, inconspicuous flowers, and that’s because the plants largely self-pollinate, and they don’t require insects. Although bumblebees and some other insects do visit the flowers. But that self-pollination is really a mechanism that pretty much ensures good weather, or bad, you’re going to get a pretty reliable seed set from the plants. That doesn’t translate into a reliable harvest, but at least you get at the halfway stage in the season. Predictably there are a lot of seeds growing on the plant.
Jeffrey Bland: Yes. So that is a really interesting part of the story for me, because as a nutritional scientist and a person who’s involved with Big Bold Health, and helping people be healthy, I look at the nutritional attributes of Tartary buckwheat, versus common buckwheat. And it’s quite amazing actually, that the level of phytochemicals in the Tartary buckwheat are so profoundly greater, than that in common buckwheat. Some multiple times order of magnitude higher in terms of rutin.
Jeffrey Bland: And so you start asking a question, a kind of an evolutionary question. Why would one species of buckwheat do something, one strain, that another doesn’t? In terms of producing from its genes, such an array at a high level of these phytochemicals? And of course, in plant biology, we know that these phytochemicals have purpose, the plant just doesn’t do all this energy producing thing to make these chemicals just free of charge. It does so for its own defense, and its own survival. So, this is a plant obviously that is accustomed to more harsh conditions, and conditions that it has to make itself on its own.
Jeffrey Bland: And it produces all these things that, for the plant, are essential for its survival. But then as we think of human nutrition, I think it’s a very fascinating coevolution, that those same nutrients, quercetin and rutin, and all these kinds of interesting flavonoids that are high in the Tartary buckwheat are also now being found through the latest human nutrition research as having very profound effects on the defense of the human through its immune system.
Jeffrey Bland: So it’s like the immune system of the plant is connected to the immune system of the human through this resilience factor that’s found in these phytochemicals. So as you got into this, the Tartary buckwheat story, was that something that kind of pulled you into saying, wow, it’s a product that has maybe some challenges, but it also has some real virtues as it relates to nutritional value?
Sam Beer: I actually didn’t research Tartary buckwheat extensively until we’d started to grow it. One thing that’s notable is the research from Asia, the home of Tartary buckwheat, often talks about an altitudinal difference. Higher elevations, Tartary buckwheat, lower elevations, common buckwheat.
Sam Beer: There is some cold hardiness difference but also there is apparently a difference in tolerance to UV radiation. High elevations, the air is thinner, less of the UV radiation is filtered out. And so more of it strikes the plant. And the Tartary buckwheat uses some of these chemicals as protectants.
Sam Beer: And it turns out because we share, plants and animals share a lot of the basic cellular biochemistry, that that’s what’s protective for the plant is in fact protective for the animal as well.
Sam Beer: But this was something that I’m still learning about, having grown, become familiar with the plant in the ground. And now we’re realizing, what’s really been extensively studied in Europe and in Asia but not North America, that this is a, really an interesting and valuable plant.
Jeffrey Bland: Yeah. I go into thinking about the nature of how plant science connects to agronomy, which connects to food production with connects to commercialization in the food system.
Jeffrey Bland: And so when we look at Tartary buckwheat, anyone that has had experience with it will say it has a very different taste. It has different organoleptic properties than common buckwheat. And people might say at first exposure, “This taste is very strong. Or it has some kind of a taste that I’m not familiar with.”
Jeffrey Bland: Because what has happened over the years of food production is that we have taken out by interbreeding a lot of these phytochemicals or process them out, when we produce the final product. So that the tastes that we’re exposed to now as a population are very, and I’m going to use this term, kind of a double meaning, bland.
Jeffrey Bland: They are really very neutral. And so we’re used to salt. We’re used to sweet, but we’re not used to a lot of other flavors that come along for the ride. And the natural plants where they’re rich in these phytochemicals, like some of the cultivars that are now being bred out of production in commercial products, are those that impart flavor characteristics and we’re not used to them. So we might consider them at first blush to be unacceptable or to be too strong. And Tartary buckwheat is certainly in that category because of its high density of these phytochemicals.
Jeffrey Bland: A person might say, “Oh boy, this is not so neutral,” like white flour for instance. And I think it’s a learned kind of taste. We’ve got to relearn what our ancestors already knew when they were eating these cultivars as a natural part of their diet.
Jeffrey Bland: They didn’t think it was unusual or strange. They were used to these flavors because it was part of their natural diet that imparted them certain health characteristics. In fact, a factoid that I’m familiar with is if you look at the Victorian period in England where the agriculture was just starting to be mechanized, and so you had the upper class starting to have milled flour, and the lower class eating these thick un-milled breads. And you start looking at all the flavonoids and the nutrients that were in these. You look at the health differences between those that ate the old stuff that was not all processed, versus the new stuff that was processed.
Jeffrey Bland: The health effects on the records that were kept back there in the Victorian era showed very high longevity and low disease rates in those that were still eating the original foods with all those nutrients that were not processed out. So I think there’s lots of lessons that buckwheat, and the difference of common versus Tartary buckwheat tells us about taste, organoleptic properties and nutritional value and retraining ourselves to eat things that are more nutrient dense.
Jeffrey Bland: So, I want to applaud your vigilance to preserve this ancient crop, which has these extraordinary nutritional values. So, I know your wife has worked hard on this.
Sam Beer: I agree with you. Absolutely. It’s a taste education. And you have to be open to it. What we found is you start with a little bit and you get used to it and then you find that you can use a little more and a little more. And what startles you the first time, you actually learn to enjoy.
Sam Beer: I think it’s really important to introduce children to a taste varied diet when they’re young. We know that the children around the world grow up in vastly different cultural backgrounds with different diets and they’re perfectly comfortable with whatever they learned as their childhood norm.
Sam Beer: And so there’s no reason why those who have the capability to introduce their children to a range of foods early on, I think do their children a service when they do that.
Jeffrey Bland: That’s really a great watchword and that’s a news to use. Thank you. That’s really important. We have two Big Bold Health Food Lab professionals, Barbara Schiltz and Michelle Babb, who are working on putting together the food plan and the recipes, and have worked now with consultation Lucia on the Tartary, Himalayan Tartary buckwheat story.
Jeffrey Bland: And I think that both of them, both of our Food Lab people have been so empowered by your wife to experiment and start developing the 30-day eating plan that incorporates this. Just as you said, taking a step along the road, you don’t just start off with a full dose every meal of Tartary buckwheat. But rather, you start to blend it into your products and get that nutritional value. And it’s interesting to note that there’s been a lot of studies done on taste receptors and how they can be accommodated based on the exposure that they’re getting.
Jeffrey Bland: So if you have very high salt diets, for instance, it’s well proven that your reception for the taste of salt goes down as you increase salt in your diet. So then if you start lowering the salt in the diet, your taste perception for salt goes up. So what at first might seem like, that’s too low in salt, over time your tongue and your taste receptor for sodium will accommodate that.
Jeffrey Bland: Similarly, for sugar. We’re so used to such high sugar diets now, in particularly in children’s diets that when they get to something that’s less sweet, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s not palatable.” But over time those taste receptors for the glucose receptors in the tongue will start to perceive that lower stimulation and the threshold will change.
Jeffrey Bland: Similarly, for bitter. And we, by the way, understand now that the bitter receptors on our tongue are morphologically or are chemically identical to the bitter receptors that reside in the intestinal tract of our digestive system. And therefore, our intestines are tasting all the time. And when they’re picking up this information of bitter, they’re actually stimulated to release into the blend, hormones that regulate insulin and regulate glucose.
Jeffrey Bland: So certain bitter triggers in our body, our response that more effectively allows us to metabolize our food. So these stories are now starting to once again tie back into the ancient things that we knew thousands of years ago that we have to now re-visit. And you’re helping us to be reintroduced, with Himalayan Tartary buckwheat.
Sam Beer: And being introduced personally. Part of the explorations has been from planting the seed and to putting down the fork.
Jeffrey Bland: Yeah, exactly.
Sam Beer: And what’s great is to have friends and family who, out of personal loyalty, are willing to make that exploration with us. And to share their experiences too.
Jeffrey Bland: Well, we’re sitting here on your screen porch, your sun porch and your beautiful house. And I’m thinking, just reflecting back from your stories and now asking a question which is looking forward.
Jeffrey Bland: So as we look forward, or as Sam and Lucia Beer look forward in their lives, what would be some of the things that you, if you could have a magic wand and wave the wand, that you’d like to see with regard to farming, agriculture, preservation of certain cultivars? And how do you see the future in your idealized circumstances?
Sam Beer: The history of farming is one of, clearly mechanization and tremendous advances in productivity, per acre or per man hour.
Sam Beer: But, it’s really created an occupation which has huge barriers of entry for young people. I know the regional, YMCA camp have introduced gardening to kids and found kids tremendously receptive.
Sam Beer: It saddens me that that enthusiasm isn’t met by a profession that really allows people to pursue that as an economically viable occupation, unless you happen to be born into it.
Sam Beer: To the degree that we can make small niche farming viable. We open up occupations that I think are, can be tremendously personally rewarding but, but also strengthen small towns. This bucolic part of America is also an area that loses a population of young people, that is a relatively stagnant economically. And that’s a systemic problem that I think requires a rejuvenated agriculture. And I think small farming is a part of that.
Jeffrey Bland: Do you think that this farm to table movement that we’re witnessing is part of that returning back to the land concept? Do you think that will have some contribution?
Sam Beer: I think it’s a substantial contribution. Yeah. And those farmer’s markets and all the variants that have kind of, are ramified from the farmer’s market movement are very helpful.
Jeffrey Bland: Well, I’d like to say just for the sake of all of you listening or watching this, that we have been very pleasured and I had been very privileged to spend this time with Sam Beer and his wife, Lucia.
Jeffrey Bland: And what they’re doing here to really create a reality around a concept really, which is the preservation of the family farm and the creation of value-added nutrition dense crops and to preserve cultural diversity and seed diversity.
Jeffrey Bland: I mean, there are many things that together that are all part of the Big Bold Health movement. This is really the essence of making health personal right down into the soil. And Sam, I want to thank you for the time spent and for your years of dedication to preserving this opportunity, moving forward.
Sam Beer: Well, I pursued it for purely personal reasons of enjoyment, but we certainly are gratified by the attention that you’ve paid to it. Thank you very much for that Jeff.
Jeffrey Bland: Thank you.