Bookmonger: 'Harvest Heritage' follows grow of Northwest agriculture

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 12, 2014 

And now for a topic that is near and dear to me: food.

Actually, the title I'm covering this week is about where food comes from - "Harvest Heritage" traces how agriculture developed in the Pacific Northwest.

The book was a joint project between Seattle Pacific University professor Richard Scheuerman, who originally hails from the tiny Eastern Washington town of Endicott, and Alexander C. McGregor, a pioneer descendant, historian and president of a Colfax-based farm supply company. Together they piece together the history of food in this region, touching briefly on Native American foodways and moving on to the provisioning of the first explorers, the farming by fur traders, the fast-paced advances in agriculture throughout 19th and 20th centuries, and issues of environmental stewardship and food security concerns today.

Granted, some of this is hard for the agronomy novice to digest. Fairly in-depth discussions of hybridization and the classes of grains may be a horticultural wonk's dream - the authors' careful tracing of developments shows the intensive involvement of hundreds of farmers, botanists, agronomists, extension agents and more. But these sections left my head spinning until I decided just to relax and enjoy the poetic names: Beloturk durum, hard red Saxonka, Pacific Bluestem and White Velvet winter wheat - to single out just a few of the hundreds of varieties of wheat alone. (There are also delightfully evocative names for barleys, oats and ryes.)

And speaking of poetry, I was struck by the frequent mention of 19th century poems and songs that extolled the nobility of the enterprise of farming. (Does the high tech industry inspire a comparable body of verse in our age? I think not.)

The stories behind the subsistence gardening and the subsequent establishment of all-out farms at the early forts in the area are fascinating - likewise the tales of pioneer homesteading and the agricultural activities that were undertaken to prove up claims. (You can find details about beverage concoctions made of parched grain or roots. There are anecdotes about packing mule trains with food supplies, and the ages-old art of broadcasting seed by hand.)

Time and again, politics figures into the discussion - from President Abraham Lincoln's active interest in improving conditions for farmers to grow and market their produce, to Russian President Boris Yeltsin's heartfelt acknowledgement of food relief provided by the offices of Washington Governor Mike Lowry and Secretary of State Ralph Munro to eastern Russia in the 1990s.

And these are accompanied by a rich array of illustrations - maps, old photos, exquisite lithographs and historic sketches of equipment and farming and milling techniques. There are marvelous ink drawings by contemporary artist Robert Smith and stunning photographs by John Clement, who specializes in images of Eastern Washington.

And don't miss the remarkable chart in the appendix that plots out the work undertaken at Puget Sound Agricultural Company farms in South Puget Sound in the mid-19th century.

And we consider 21st century grocery shopping a chore? "Harvest Heritage" offers readers an essential perspective on food.

FIND THE BOOK

"Harvest Heritage," by Richard D. Scheuerman and Alexander C. McGregor

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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