Several weeks ago, I was conducting an interview with Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies regarding their app for selling soybeans to animal feed producers in Asia. During our conversation, Schott mentioned that soybeans grown in North Dakota have a higher crude protein that buyers wanted. Schott’s desire was to have farmers recognized for this quality and receive a premium for their product. During our conversation, the concept of terroir occurred to me.
Terroir, aside for being the buzz-word for wines, is the concept of a sense of place. It is the unique environmental qualities of the soil, weather, variety selection and farming practices that make a product distinct from others. Not only is this concept applied to wine, but it has been applied to cheese, coffee, chocolate, tea, hops and wheat. Commodity Grains, a company in Oakland, California is applying the concept of terroir to the pasta it produces but under the label of “Identity Preserved” (which I will describe below). The company lists the pasta variety, where it is grown and the specific farm. It may sound like a gimmick, but according to Dr. Stephen Jones at the Washington State University Bread Lab, wheat varieties and growing conditions do contribute unique flavors. When conducting tastings with bakers, chefs and random people, they notice differences in milled 100 percent whole wheat describing such flavors as “nutty”, “earthy” and “chewy.” The concept of terroir in pasta is also being applied to wheat grown in the Abruzzo region in Italy with a pasta line called “Primo Grano” or first grain.
Perhaps terroir is just a clever marketing tool as some believe. There are instances when a seed or plant originated in one area but was perfected in another area of the world. Take the case of the Zinfandel grape. We never knew its origins until recent DNA testing revealed that it is most closely related to a grape variety from Croatia called, Crljenak Kastelanski, before that we thought it was the Primitivo variety from Italy. The only knowledge we had was that a Boston nursery advertised a grape variety named Zinfandel in 1830 and it made its way west to California during the Gold Rush. Today some of the best Zinfandels are produced from Sonoma County and the Lodi area of the Central Valley. In the case of wheat, a variety called Red Fife originated in the Anatolian region of what is now Turkey and was planted by Dave Fife in 1842 on his farm in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. It is renowned for being a fine milling and baking wheat. Most bread wheat grown in Canada owe part of their genetic lineage to Red Fife.
Although they originated in another region and perfected in another, there is some genetic variability that allows it to grow and adapt under a variety of growing conditions. More specifically, it is called a landrace or what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) describes as “a plant with historical origin, distinct identity and lacks formal crop improvement, as well as being genetically diverse, locally adapted and associated with traditional farming systems” (more in the case of Red Fife, but I would argue that Zinfandel could apply). The term landrace when broken down, is “land” or the ground the crop is grown on, and “race” which in biology means “distinct population within the same species.” The FAO further defines landraces into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary landraces are crops that developed through what is termed as in situ grower selection and not subjected to formal plant breeding. They can be either autochthonous or grown in an original location developing its unique characteristics through grower selection; or allochthonous, an introduced crop locally adapted and has developed its unique characteristics through grower selection in another region (such as the case with Red Fife). A Secondary landrace is a crop that has been developed in formal plant breeding but is maintained through repeated in situ grower selection and seed saving. Due to their adaptation, farmers will use these selections with other improved varieties due to factors such as lower cost, hardiness to local conditions, disease resistance, and culinary preferences. Although this defines landraces in a broad context, what if this concept could be applied to other crops? While there are landrace crops still grown around the world, farmers are planting cultivars for such factors as high yield, drought and disease resistance, and other factors for commercial production.
There is another program that perhaps could be a step-up from landrace and could be used as a marketing tool to not only preserve crops with their own unique characteristics but give farmers the recognition for their product. It is a USDA designation called Identity Preserved. It is described as, “a voluntary service that provides participating companies with independent, third-party verification of the identification, segregation, and traceability of their product’s unique, value-added characteristic.” The Northern Food Grade Soybean Association is trying this program for its soybeans grown in North Dakota. According to Ken Bertsch, N.D. State Seed Department Commissioner, it is a program that “preserves the genetic and/or physical identity of a product by providing traceable identification of a field crop from planting, production, storage, handling and delivery of the product.” The program has requirements such as having seed source verified, planting after other crops (specifically after GM crops), inspections for genetic and varietal purity and keeping those soybeans in a separate area of a handling facility. While it may be labor intensive for farmers with added extra paperwork or confuse consumers with another label on the package, it is one more thing for farmers to be recognized for their products and meet consumer demand. This could work in conjunction with landrace seeds as consumers are growing aware of where their foods come from.
The difficult parts are these types of tools is consumer awareness, scalability and whether people are willing to pay a premium for these types of products. As far as price, consumers are willing to pay extra for organic foods or products with the “Non-GMO” label. As far as scalability and awareness, it is up to the agriculture industry if they want to implement programs such as these for the potential of being recognized for producing a unique or superior product.