GOLDEN WAVES OF GRAIN
A Washington family grows heritage crops in a spectacular setting.
Every single day during my primary school years in Endicott, Washington, my school bus passed by the Palouse Colony Farm’s beautiful undulating hills. I was just fascinated by the place. The farm sits along the Palouse River at the end of a steep gravel road that runs down a pine-covered rocky bluff. The grassy slopes of the bluff abound with deer, pheasants and waterfowl.
My family descends from the first settlers in the area, German farmers from Russia’s Volga region who had immigrated to America’s Pacific Northwest in 1889, setting up the Palouse Colony in the sheltered canyon of the Palouse River. From seeds they’d brought, they raised golden fields of wheat and barley.
I grew up in the 1960s, and I can recall my Grandpa Karl Scheuerman and other family elders telling tales about mysterious happenings and the harsh living conditions endured during the early days of the colony. The northern lights scared the first settlers, as the multi-colored sky seemed to announce the end of the world. And once, fearing a whiteout blizzard, the teacher at the colony’s two-room schoolhouse sent all of the children home early, tying them together to save them from straying off the road toward the precipitous bluff overlooking the farm. I moved to Seattle once I reached adulthood, but I often thought fondly of that old family lore and my happy childhood memories of the area.
During my many fall hunting trips to the Palouse, an idea took shape: What if I could grow the same grains that had fed my ancestors? I visited the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum near Tacoma. While there, I learned that significant amounts of what was recorded as white, red and yellow wheat and some barley were raised during the 1820s and 1830s in the Pacific Northwest. Through additional research—including a journey to the National Agricultural Library in Maryland—I identified the early grains my ancestors had grown: White Lammas and Sonoran Gold wheat. In 2014, my brother, Don, our cousin Rod Ochs and I started Palouse Heritage, a small heritage grain business. Our good friends lent us farmland where we grew Sonoran Gold wheat and Scots Bere barley, two of North America’s oldest cereal grains.
A portion of the original Palouse Colony Farm was put up for sale in 2015. Since the 1990s, the land had been owned by a goat farmer who had the ground in pasture. Don, Rod and I pooled our resources to buy 20 acres of fertile river bottomland, the original barn and another house where the German immigrants lived while adjusting to life in America. Our land includes 5 acres of the rugged bluff overlooking the farm that supports native bunchgrass, glorious wild sunflowers and other shrub-steppe species. It’s been my lifelong dream to own this property.
We rolled up our sleeves in spring 2015, removing weed-infested fence lines and fixing some of the original outbuildings. Thanks to the help of neighbors and longtime friends in area farm supply businesses, we have assembled a rainbow coalition of used farm equipment including a red tractor, box drills, faded green weeders, a cultivator, and a rusted disk that may have predated the advent of paint.
That first summer we raised a bumper crop of Sonoran Gold. This type of soft white wheat is thought by agricultural historians to be the first cereal grain grown here in the American West. We have yet to buy a combine, given the expense, so we rely on a kind neighbor for custom harvesting. For the second year of production, we also obtained seed for heritage malting barleys and for White Lammas wheat. We teamed up with Washington State University agronomists Stephen Jones and Steve Lyon for some considerable detective work, and we learned that a conscientious USDA plant explorer had introduced White Lammas to the Pacific Northwest in 1916 when he took a sample of the grain with him to the area.
Today, we grow 11 varieties of landrace, or ancient, grains that we sell in the form of artisan baking flours at palouseheritage.com (our website) and to local bakeries. We also turn our grains into culinary malts used for craft beer brewing.
One meaningful aspect of our work has been rediscovering how our ancestors lived when they first came to America. In addition to growing grain, they also established a shared commons for grazing and substantial gardens. They tended long, narrow fields to conserve soil in three-crop rotations of fall wheat, spring barley or oats, and rye. Their Turkey Red, the first hard red bread wheat in the American West, revolutionized U.S. culinary history.
We revived this beautiful grain at Palouse Colony Farm in 2016.
Some of our immigrant forebears first lived in simple homes dug into the sides of nearby slopes to provide winter shelter. Many of these were later converted to immense tworoom concrete cellars to safeguard a cornucopia of canned produce and crocks holding sauerkraut, pickles and tiny watermelons. Two of these cellars are still visible on the land. Our forebears raised potatoes and cabbages, tended dairy and beef cattle and draft horses, and planted an orchard that still yields apples. They grew sunflowers, using the seeds to make cooking oil. They used the sunflower stalks to create a kind of syrup. Every spring, bushy heirloom hop vines burst forth in clusters along the base of the river bluff. The summer buds provided yeast for sourdough breads.
These days, the entire family often gathers at the farm: my wife, Lois, and I; daughter Mary, her husband, Charles, and their sons, 7-year-old Zachary and 6-year-old Micah; son Karl, his wife, Sara, along with their daughters, 5-year-old Annalise, 3-year-old Emily and 1-year-old Macey; and daughter Leigh. Don lives on the property, and we pile into the three bedrooms in his old house when we spend the night. Zachary and Micah help me collect apples from Don’s garden to stock our fruit stand. They also gather potatoes, carrots and beets that we use to make borscht.
Our 93-year-old mother, Mary, lives close by in Endicott with my sister, Debbie. Andrew, Debbie’s son, also lives in Endicott, and he helps us with the farming. Don’s daughter, Nicole, often stays at the farm, too. When the family is together, we make sauerkraut from cabbage that we raise in the garden. The Palouse Colony Farm is special to everyone in our family, and Don, Rod and I are very honored to be stewards of this magical place.
Don Scheuerman operates a tractor, one of the farm’s donated pieces of equipment (above). A rod weeder, used to loosen dirt and uproot the weeds, awaits its next job (right).
The Palouse River’s sheltered canyon has been home to the Ochs and Scheuerman families since the late 1800s.
Don Scheuerman’s daughter, Nicole Scheuerman, finds a serene fishing spot along the Palouse River.
Crimson Turkey wheat makes ideal sourdough bread. (Right) Richard Scheuerman; son-in-law, Charles Rhoden; and grandsons Micah and Zachary harvest White Lammas wheat.