Farro is the name attributed to several different types of wheat berry, including the Einkorn strain, which is more nutritional than the standard American wheat strain. Considered an “ancient grain,” farro has become more desirable in the last twenty years in the United States as a healthy and more enjoyable (in taste and texture) alternative to the wheat Americans have grown accustomed to since the agricultural advances of the twentieth century. In fact, American consumers are largely unaccustomed to eating conventional wheat in its berry form, so farro is marketed as distinct not only in its strain but also its preparation.
While less popular in the States than its hybridized counterpart, farro has been a key part of Mediterranean, North African, and Middle Eastern diets for thousands of years, having been found in Egyptian tombs and perhaps being used as currency during the Roman Empire. This long history with fluctuating popularity illuminates the multiple communities that objects belong to, specifically, those organized by physical processes (methods of cultivation, storage, transportation, etc.) and those that comprise their varying existences throughout history.
Growing farro requires land in two senses: a plot of land (spatially) and soil (compositionally). Alongside that land, it is necessary to have seeds, adequate water for irrigation, and laborers to plant, cultivate, and harvest the grain. Owning a plot of land requires a family estate or access to acquire a plot, involving a network of human actors in the form of real estate agents or government officials to allocate the land. Seeds also require distribution: either by purchase from distributors or from generationally passed-down “heirloom” seeds. Acquiring seeds, then, relies on networks of corporations and farmers or a strong community of families and neighbors who farm together or alongside one another. Water also requires infrastructure along these two lines, with personal and communal wells on the one hand, or corporate or governmental water services on the other. These latter systems require pipes made of metals or plastics, pumps, treatment facilities–the list goes on. Wells require wood, stone, iron, and rope made out of natural or synthetic fibers. Irrigation relies on sprinkler systems that require metals, access to an electrical grid or a generator, and fuel. Irrigation can also be done manually, which brings us to a deeper discussion of labor.
Without laborers, farro doesn’t grow for wide-scale human consumption. Of course, the plant will grow independently of human intervention—it comes from nature after all—but with modern humans reliant on agriculture, we can assume that labor is necessary in order to get farro into human bellies. Workers plant seeds; monitor the needs of the plants, watering them and maybe using fertilizers (natural or synthetic) or pesticides; harvest the berries, and husk them of their hulls. Humans require networks of physical support (food, water, shelter) and social support (families, communities, even governments). But humans aren’t the only laborers involved: there are also the microorganisms in the soil that enrich it with nutrients that help the plants grow, and the soil itself that labors to grow the plants. Patel and Moore note, “It’s relatively easy to understand how something like farming mixes the work of humans and soils” (20), encouraging us to reconceptualize labor in a way that accounts for the immense debt humans have to the natural world that works alongside us to produce life-making food, like farro wheat berries.
Transportation brings another host of relationships with the grain. The box I have in my kitchen proudly advertizes that the farro was grown in Italy (although farro is also grown in the US and Canada), so after it is harvested, the grains must be loaded onto trucks, which drive to ports that dock ships awaiting to travel to the distribution facilities in the US—Connecticut, in this brand’s case. This distribution facility transfers the bulk packages of farro (probably burlap or plastic bags) to individual, one-pound plastic bags, which are placed in small boxes made of cardboard (whose composition is 80% recycled material). The plastic bags are a petroleum product, relying on oil as their raw material, which must be manufactured by a plastics company. The cardboard relies on wood pulp, gathered often as a by-product of lumber enterprises, and used paper scraps that are reassembled in a recycling facility. The whole box is glazed with a shiny-finished ink, whose pigments are synthetic.
A modern-day, successful faro harvest is reliant on the seedbed of knowledge that is the agricultural practices of, first, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, and then increasingly more parts of the world, encompassing Europe and the Arabic regions, ending with the contemporary global exchange of knowledge on farming practices. Humans have benefitted from the advances in agriculture since the mid-17th century with the Agricultural Revolution in Europe, the recent 20th-century practices in large-scale farming, and even early farming processes and even the transition from gathering to farming. One particularly important advancement in grain harvesting that revolutionized the farming of farro was the 1786 invention of the threshing machine, which removes the hulls from the wheat berries. Other “developments” have been characterized primarily by their drawbacks, like monocrop agriculture’s accelerated depletion of soil nutrients in progressively greater parts of the world or pesticides and fertilizers’ poisoning bodies of water.
While its importance as a crop has varied across time, we can imagine two types of influence that farro has had in terms of its interaction with other cereals at different points along this history. One is the contemporary American perspective, which has largely phased biodiversity out of farming with massive-scale monoculture. From this perspective, different grains compete with each other against certain traits that American food producers desire in their cereals to be the one sole strain that dominates the majority of America’s breadbasket. With most wheat in the US being grown to be ground into flour for bread production, high gluten levels and large berries are two important factors, which means that farro, as a non-hybridized strain, loses out to the hyper-altered GMO wheat that is scientifically designed to fit the bill. In the wake of this perspective, farro is pushed out of a position to influence much in terms of modern American farming, and therefore would not affect the network of different grains very much if it were removed from production. The other perspective is more traditional, with various methods of crop rotations throughout history allowing multiple types of cereal to exert influence on the farming and food-production practices alongside one another or at different times. The same land might be left fallow for a period, which might influence which seeds are available in the new season, or rotated with vegetables and other grains to make better use of the soil’s nutrients (or replenish them). This perspective views farro and other grains as inherently valuable, and in unique ways.
As a cereal crop, farro has played a historically crucial role alongside other grains for keeping various populations of the world alive. Grains are so important to human survival that it is not impossible to view them as an extension of the self (Belk, 141). “You are what you eat.” Unfortunately, with the practice of monoculture and the absence of a variety of unprocessed grains (ancient and not) from the average American’s diet, most Americans eat low-quality food in order to fuel their bodies just adequately enough to labor another day in their various jobs (see Patel and Moore). Ancient grains like farro remind us to resist the cheapening of our lives through cheap food; incorporating more of them into our diets is not only physically healthier for us but can also, with a little musing, expand our awareness of the world systems that connect us to food, machines, and each other–an opportunity to live a little slower and be a bit more grateful.
Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. A History of the World on Seven Cheap Things (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).
Russell Belk, “Possessions and the Extended Self,” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988) p. 139-168.