Regional crops that fed our ancestors and provided a sense of place are disappearing, but some growers and researchers are dedicated to the continuation of these old favorites, refusing to allow them — and our food roots — to disappear.
Whether indigenous or introduced, wild-harvested or cultivated, these food crops at one time held great importance in their various localities. Interest in less commonly known specialty crops is increasing, even while their growing popularity is sometimes accompanied by controversy.
This article will examine four of them.
New England Roots
It goes by many names: Cape White turnip, Westport turnip, Eastham turnip. These names — all taken from New England locales — are used in lieu of its official one: the Macomber rutabaga. Traditionally a part of southern New England Thanksgiving celebrations, this rutabaga is a New England notable, although rutabagas — a hybrid between turnips and wild cabbage — are not native to the United States.
“It’s very similar to parsnips,” said Chris Clegg of Four Town Farm in Seekonk, Massachusetts. “It is not nearly as bitter as purple top rutabagas or bland as yellow rutabagas,” and is quite popular in the region.
Most people prepare the dish as a holiday meal rather than for everyday use. The extremely short season this rutabaga is in demand, combined with the lack of knowledge of the crop outside of this small region, contributes to only a small number of farmers growing the crop.
Clegg selects the best plants — no disease and the mo
st attractive shapes — for seed, which can last for several years when properly stored.
He has multiple storage locations, including some refrigerated seed, to protect against loss.
His Macomber rutabagas are bred to be the best for his growing conditions, and he says he isn’t taking any chances.
“My sales are very consistent from year to year, so I think the market is saturated,” said Clegg. “They are difficult to sell out of season, and it is a very short season. Eighty percent of my sales are for the weeks prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.”
Growing a specialty crop, particularly one rooted to the food traditions of a given community, is vastly different than growing a commodity crop. When specialty crops begin to become commercialized, the risk of losing their identity and variability is often at odds with the desire to develop a crop suitable for widespread production and introduction outside of its home range.
Go Wild For Rice
Native wild rice is an annual aquatic grass with roots that grow in the soils beneath shallow waters. Wild rice species are found in very specific habitats in limited areas of the United States. Texas is home to a speci
es that only resides within the state. Two species — Zizania aquatica and Zizania palustris — are found primarily in the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, as well as in parts of Canada and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts where conditions are favorable.
Wild rice paddies play important roles in conservation, providing wildlife habitat and a food source for numerous species of birds, mammals and fish. These wild rice beds protect water quality by binding loose soils, tying up nutrients and acting as windbreaks.
Natural wild rice-growing areas are being endangered by development, pollution and the pursuit of recreational activities, and work to re-establish and protect these habitats is ongoing in some regions. Michigan’s largest wild rice bed is a mere 700 acres. Historically, numerous 4,000-acre beds were common in the state’s coastal marshes, now dredged and unsuitable for the plant.
Harvesting wild rice is labor-intensive. For every 100 pounds of harvested seed there will be about 40 pounds of finished wild rice. The crop is gathered in late summer, when the seed is gathered by hand from canoes. The grain is then dried in the sun and parched over a fire, de-hulled and winnowed.
One reason this wild food is disappearing is, perhaps ironically, the cultivation of the plant. Cultivation isn’t simply creating a viable market crop, which in turn could offer some protection to the remaining wild rice stands or increase interest in restoration of historic beds. Instead, it involves taking the wild rice and altering its traits to fit the demands of modern farming.
This altered rice is offensive to Native American tribes, to whom the plant and the customs and rituals associated with it are sacred.
“The reason [Native Americans] are here is because of wild rice,” said Barb Barton, endangered species consultant and author of Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan. “All cultures have wild food traditions associated with them, and now they are all disappearing.”
Cultivated wild rice paddies have been established in the Great Lakes region, but the majority of the wild rice found in stores today is grown in California.
In order to make wild rice a viable farm crop, the wild rice plant has been bred to mature at one time for ease of harvest, to produce higher yields, for shorter plants, to resist disease and to have seeds that are viable when stored dry. These traits have resulted in varieties that can only survive in cultivated rice paddies. If these cultivated plants crossbreed with wild natives, the survival of the wild rice plants in their natural habitat is at risk.
There is, however, a market demand for wild rice. Chefs are extremely interested. There are only a few remaining stands that produce enough rice to meet this demand. Instead, cultivated wild rice fills the gap. Domesticated varieties are less intensive to harvest and process and therefore sell at a lower cost per pound than the native wild rice that makes it to the market.
To the Native American tribes, the main purpose of the wild rice plant isn’t to make money, but rather “to feed your family and elders in your community, and have it available for ceremonies,” Barton explained.
Wild rice grown in its natural habitat, hand-harvested and processed via traditional means, retains its intrinsic values as a nutrient source, its role in conservation and its role in religion and in community. That value is of the kind that doesn’t carry a price tag. Ideally, natural wild rice habitats would be abundant and would allow for the sale of rice not needed by the foragers, keeping its identity intact.
“You can’t make a wild food a commodity,” said Barton. “It is not a domesticated crop where you have a monoculture. When you start to take these wild foods and then turn them into a money-making venture … there is always a loss.”
Regional Crops: Plum Crazy
Beach plums, or Prunus maritima, are native to New Jersey as well as other locales along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Maryland. Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agent Jenny Carleo and Joseph Goffreda, director at the Rutgers Fruit and Ornamental Research Extension Center, where 1,000 or so beach plums grow in the orchard, have been working to promote this crop to growers and eaters alike.
While the beach plum evolved on the sandy coastal soils, “Anywhere you can grow a peach you can grow a beach plum,” said Carleo. Interest from New Jersey farmers is “growing slowly, as we are getting more information year after year on how to grow this other commercial crop.”
The highbush blueberry had a similar history in New Jersey — a native wild plant that was bred for traits to make it a desirable crop for farmers. The success of the blueberry — now a staple food in our diet — is hard to ignore. It’s the goal of the Rutgers program to usher in the same results for the beach plum.
Rutgers University introduced a new beach plum variety, “Rutgers Jersey Gem,” in 2017. It is a cross between a beach plum found on the dunes of Long Beach Island and a named variety, “Premier.” Scions are available. They are currently seeking a fruit tree specialty nursery grower to propagate the plant for widespread sales.
Carleo has surveyed customers who have tasted beach plum products, with positive results. Over 90 percent of tasters indicate that they will likely try beach plum products again. Wild-harvested beach plums, as well as those grown on several farms in the South Jersey region, are made into value-added products that “pretty much sell out every year,” she said.
Beach plum genetics need to be improved to make the crop suitable for orchard growing. Breeders are trying to select for better growth habits, simultaneous flowering, annual production and enhanced taste and quality. Propagation occurs via root cuttings due to extreme variations with sexual reproduction.
The existing native beach plum stands seemingly aren’t in any danger from the breeding of cultivars suitable for orchard commercialization. In fact, promoting their fruits might help to save wild stands as they gain increased recognition as a native coastal plant valuable for food and the environment.
The beach plum isn’t the only native fruit tree with potential for commercial production. There are other native plums, such as the Sand Hill Plum, Prunus angustifolia, which is native to much of Kansas, that might someday be common in grocery stores.
Regional Crops: Mayhaw Madness
“The mayhaw, being a native fruit tree, growing in swamps and flatlands near practically every rural settlement in much of the South, plays an important role in southern culture,” said Johnny Smith.
Located in Singer, in southwest Louisiana, Smith’s J & D Mayhaws is dedicated to finding the best of the best of the wild mayhaw trees and cloning them via grafting so their fruits can be propagated by orchard growers. It takes seven or eight years for a mayhaw to fruit when grown from seed, and collecting wild seedlings is time-consuming and they are often less fruitful than anticipated.
“A wild mayhaw seedling is often called a ‘chance mayhaw’ because there may be one chance in 100, or one in 1,000, that it will turn out to be a remarkable tree,” said Smith. “By grafting, I know what I’m getting.”
Wild mayhaws are selected for propagation based on fruit size, color, quality, ripening, reliable harvest dates, the ability to hold the fruit on the tree until fully ripened, yield and disease resistance. Smith also hybridizes new cultivars.
The fruit is traditionally made into jelly. Juice is extracted by steaming and pressing berries and is typically sold frozen by the gallon. Demand for the fruit is increasing and cannot currently be met by existing suppliers.
“The fruit is simply not available — at any price,” said Smith. “We harvest anywhere from 1 to 25 gallons per tree,” with production varying based on age, weather and individual cultivar. “The wide variety in production between cultivars is another reason to graft select varieties.”
Large orchards are being planted in the region in an attempt to satisfy some of the demand. Some mayhaw trees are viable outside of their native moist and swampy habitat, but most favor the hot southern climate.
Regional Crops: Risks of Commercialization
The renewed interest in heritage and regional foods is bringing crops such as the Macomber rutabaga, wild rice, beach plums and mayhaws into the spotlight, allowing us to enjoy and preserve important parts of our food culture. Increased exposure to these important foods does carry risks, though. Selective breeding for storability and shelf life could decrease flavor, as it has for tomatoes and other common produce items. They could also lose their luster and regional uniqueness if they one day become so commonplace that they end up in chain restaurants or grocery stores.
Foods with real roots — ones that have an identifiable place in our history — deserve to remain a part of our lives. Balancing their preservation with our quest to domesticate them may be the best way to move forward while keeping an eye on our past and working to enrich our future.
Barb Barton’s books, articles, music & information on wild rice:
Rutgers Beach Plum information