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In Lower Richland fields, Carolina Gold Rice Foundation resurrects crops lost to time

Eufren Ninancuro, left, and Glenn Roberts, founder of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, talk about the seed crops at Jatun Killa Farm in Eastover.
Eufren Ninancuro, left, and Glenn Roberts, founder of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, talk about the seed crops at Jatun Killa Farm in Eastover. sardis@thestate.com

Glenn Roberts and Eufren Ninancuro stand at the edge of a 15-acre field at Jatun Killa Farm in Eastover enjoying, just for a brief moment, their success.

What was once a hay field is now planted with French Huguenot black landrace buckwheat, an heirloom food crop variety that hasn’t been in production since World War II.

“The last time (this crop) was important in agriculture was in the 1950s,” said Roberts, founder of Anson Mills and president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. “As soon as chemical fertility came, they didn’t need this anymore because it’s a potasssium source for healthy soil. But they put potassium into chemical fertilizer, so they don’t need this. All the reserves were turned into fertilizer. That eliminated this crop.”

This variety of buckwheat is just one of the heritage crops being reintroduced and lovingly cultivated at this farm and others across the state.

The crop restoration efforts are at the direction of Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which is providing some of the grain products that will be used in the Aug. 23 menu at the James Beard House in New York City. All of the foods being used by South Carolina’s four chef ambassadors are grown or produced in the Palmetto state.

Roberts and the foundation are working to “advance the sustainable restoration and preservation of Carolina Gold Rice and other heirloom grains and raise awareness of the importance of historic rice lands and heirloom agriculture,” according to the web site.

By all measures, reintroducing crops like buckwheat has growers and food enthusiasts excited.

“When Tris Waystack’s father grew the first crop of old buckwheat at Longleaf Plantation in St. Matthews, he had lots of people from all over the countryside come by the field,” Roberts said. “Some of them were crying because they hadn’t seen a crop in so long. And modern people never see this. This is not something you’re gonna find growing anywhere – especially in a field this big.”

Cultivated for its seeds and used as a ground cover to replenish potassium levels in soil, buckwheat is a staple in Russia and China, and in Maine and Louisiana here in the States (where Acadians settled). The seeds are ground into flour and popularly used to make soba noodles, or mixed with cornmeal to make a porridge, roasted (as kasha or groats), served fresh as a cereal, or incorporated in a pilaf. “Buckwheat flour makes the best noodles – definitely the best flapjacks,” said Roberts.

On this day, the buckwheat is just days away from harvest. The plant grows in poor soil and is somewhat drought resistant. The field is still green and flowering, even with this season’s lack of rain.

“That’s why it was associated with all frontier settlements – because it is fast growing, easy to mill and made terrific stuff,” Roberts said of buckwheat.

Sharing the story

Ninancuro, the Bolivian born son of a rice seedsman, was raised in a culture where the cuisine was directly tied to local farming. Hired by Carolina Gold Rice Foundation as a seed cultivar, Ninancuro has been on the front lines in growing the buckwheat at Jatun Killa Farm.

He planted this 15-acre field that once grew hay and kept it weed free by hand. It’s part of the seed protocol. Ninancuro “sweeps” the field, pulling out anything that is not the crop and removing it from the field. He also does clean seedbed prep, making sure there are no foreign varieties in the field before the heirloom variety is planted.

The process is hard work and all organic, using natural fertility (bees), and dry land farming (no irrigation system).

“The buckwheat serves two purposes,” said Ninancuro. “We’re using the grain and we’re adding nitrogen (to the soil). This fall we’ll plant the field in rye.”

Ninancuro will keep some seeds for next season, though most will be given away – free – by him or the foundation in the hopes that like-minded farmers will plant and harvest crops that in some cases have not been seen in decades.

In South Carolina, saving heirloom crops is important. Roberts said the state is one of the few places in the United States where First Contact, Colonial and Antebellum cuisines and the foods they ate are known. This rich history makes telling the story of Southern cuisine more interesting, as today’s chefs can actually prepare vegetables and grains that were only spoken of years ago.

Telling the story of South Carolina cuisine will be something the four S.C. chef ambassadors heading to the James Beard House – Ramone Dickerson, Forrest Parker, Orchid Paulmeier and Teryi Youngblood – will strive to do.

“The chef ambassadors are doing the coolest presentation of flavor, maybe in the history of the state, at least in a century,” said Roberts. “This is the first unified effort to represent the state as flavor, with cuisine and a story. ... First thing you do is feed people, then tell the story about the flavors that just knocked them out, and the last thing you do is bring it back to its place-based origin.

“Our cuisine in South Carolina is dependent on the farmer.”

Sowing the future

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation – working closely with researchers from agricultural universities and institutions worldwide – has had success bringing back heirloom varieties that were once thought to be extinct.

In addition to the eponymous rice, the foundation has helped return the Bradford watermelon, Sea Island guinea flint yellow corn, African runner peanuts, purple ribbon sugarcane, Sea Island peas, and benne to farm fields and consumers.

Ninancuro and Roberts do not believe in monetizing seed. The seed for crops grown at Jatun Killa and other Carolina Gold Rice Foundation seed farms are free to interested farmers.

“This is a 30-acre seed effort,” Roberts said of the acreage at Junta Killa that will eventually be devoted to heritage crops. “And in our world at Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, seed doesn’t cost anybody anything. We pay to have it grown.

“For the chef ambassadors (cooking at the James Beard Hosue in NYC), everything is contributed, so the food isn’t monetized. That is a very powerful ethos to put around flavor and heritage stories and the entire idea of the social interaction that it took to get here,” Roberts said. “In the background there are a lot of horror stories, in the foreground there’s a bright future. Every farmer will want to do this.”

In that bright future, farmers and consumers can look for the hopeful return of more “new” old foods, some of which include

Seashore rye: Greg Johnsman of Geechee Boy Mills on Edisto Island and David Shields, board chair at the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, USC professor and head of the Slow Food Ark of Taste for the South, are searching for this historic rye that was popular in making rye crackers and cakes as well as rye whiskey and beer.

Scot’s bere barley: Richard Scholman of Seattle and Palouse Colony Farm in Edington, Washington, are producing Scot’s bere barley – “the first great barley grown here,” said Roberts, noting it hasn’t been present on the East Coast since the Civil War.

English May wheat: Once popular but unavailable on the East Coast since around the 1860s.

A companion to the English May, the newly resurrected purple straw wheat, is white flour wheat that was a Colonial introduction, popular until the 1970s before being retired.

“Putting it back into production a half-century later is easy,” said Roberts. “Those types of things excite me because – as David Shields says – who doesn’t like cake, biscuit and whiskey?

“There’s an old Strom Thurmond quote: ‘All Southerners love corn. Especially that which you can drink.’

If you go

South Carolina Heritage: SC Chef Ambassadors at The James Beard House in New York City

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 23, 167 West 12th St.

Tickets: $130 for James Beard Foundation members, $170 for general public.

Reservations: (212) 627-2308 or www.jamesbeard.org

Carolina Gold Rice Foundation

Learn more about the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s projects at www.carolinagoldrice foundation.org

Feeding New York

In addition to products grown for the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation – arancini, Carolina Gold rice, Sea Island peas and benne – all the other food items for the James Beard meal will come from South Carolina sources. Some of those are listed here; those foods coming from multiple sources are not.

Rainbow trout: High Valley Farms, Pickens; www.highvalleyfarmsc.com

Peaches: Titan Farms, Ridge Spring; www.titanfarms.com

Bradford watermelons: Nat Bradford, Sumter; www.bradfordwatermelons.com

Pecans: The Nuthouse, Ridge Spring; www.ridgespringnuthouse.com

Barrel-aged gin: Charleston Distilling Co., Charleston; www.charlestondistilling.com

Rum: Copper Horse Distilling, Columbia; www.copperhorsedistilling.com

Bourbon: High Wire Distilling, Charleston; www.highwiredistilling.squarespace.com

Tonic: Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., Charleston; www.jackrubycocktailco.com

Tippleman’s Burnt Sugar: Bittermilk LLC, Charleston; www.bittermilk.com

Bourbon: Virgil Kaine Lowcountry Whiskey Co., North Charleston; www.virgilkaine.com

Moonshine: Carolina Moon Distillery, Edgefield; www.carolinamoondistillery.com

Earl Grey Tea: Charleston Tea Plantation, Wadmalaw Island; www.charlestonteaplantation.com

Buttermilk: Hickory Hill Farms, Edgefield; www.hickoryhillmilk.com

About this series

We will follow the four S.C. chef ambassadors — in print and in videos — as they prepare to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City Aug. 23. Find previously published stories and videos at thestate.com.

Aug. 3: Meet the chefs — Ramone Dickerson, of 2 Fat 2 Fly and Wing City in Columbia; Forrest Parker, UndiscoveredCharleston.com; Orchid Paulmeier, of One Hot Mama’s in Hilton Head; and Teryi Youngblood of Passerelle Bistro in Greenville

Today: Glenn Roberts, of Anson Mills and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, and Eufren Ninancuro operate a seed farm in Lower Richland and will be among S.C. farmers supplying the food that will be prepared.

Aug. 17: A closer look at the dishes that will be served at the James Beard House lunch and dinner

Aug. 24: By the numbers: The grocery list, plus live video from James Beard House.

TODAY AT THESTATE.COM

VIDEO: Individual profiles of the four chefs, and Glenn Roberts talks about South Carolina’s culinary heritage

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