Interview with Olivier: Part I
Last week I spent an afternoon hanging out with Olivier, a farmer who grows ancient varieties of wheat and other grains, some of them existing since the time of the Gauls, in a little village outside Romont, Switzerland. I took the train out, he picked me up at the station, and we rode out to his farm to discuss wheat, bread, seeds and capitalism.
Olivier: So here we have a ton of pasta. I prepare packages of 400 grams. The pasta’s made by a friend of mine who does organic cultivation next door, and uses my flour for the pasta. I don’t have a mill at the farm, but he has a big machine that he bought for making pasta, and a mill, we can go see it, it’s part of the process.
(a huge racket made by pouring out the dried pasta into a big plastic bowl for measuring) And there you go, this is great. We have a finished product, and there’s no middleman, nobody between us and the consumer.
(speaking to the farm intern who sat with us at the kitchen table filling up bags of pasta while we talked) So you put the bag there on the scale, take the scoop and measure out 400 grams into each bag and staple it shut, okay?
Student: Okay, great!
Olivier (to me): Anyway so I was saying there, there are 200 varieties of ancient wheat. We grow various kinds, and with them we arrive at a mixture of these different varieties to have a genetic potential that’s diversified. Mixtures are going to be more balanced because there are different sorts of wheat, each of which is going to contribute something. So it’s a question of letting nature do its thing. I don’t select, I don’t go looking for the stalks of wheat that I like –
Me: So wait, you don’t keep specific seeds from the year before — ?
Olivier: Exactly, I keep everything, all of it, seeds from the planting across the board. I’m not looking to make a particular selection myself. Let nature do the work.
Me: Letting it evolve on its own.
Olivier: Exactly. Of course, back in the day people chose seeds from certain stalks of wheat to keep, and that gave us the now established varieties. So now, I let it go on its own. The natural conditions are imposed — by the soil, by the environment, which is going to create a space that reinforces the conditions for growing, and for us. We live in this space, so we eat what grows in the region, which corresponds to our conditions of life. It’s a logic, a natural logic. That’s why I don’t intervene.
(taking one of the bags of pasta the intern was filling) That’s a good bundle, 400 grams. Pass me the stapler please? Voilà, finished.
Me: And you sell this in shops?
Olivier: Not at all. Not interested in being controlled. The best way to kill agriculture is with the law, specifically laws on hygiene. European laws are dismantling everything how it once was. (holding up the bag) You see, no labels, but there’s no need, this’ll keep for a year.
Me: You started talking a bit before about the story of how you got into doing all this …
Olivier: Right. And like I said, you need to know the story of where you came from in order to know where you’re going. The roots.
I did a class on the cultivation of ancient grains. I didn’t know anyone was doing that. When I saw the red stalks, it was superb. The guy doing it said to me, we do a bit of wheat, some corn, come back this summer and you’ll see my fields and my seed collection. When I went I was bowled over. There was a light breeze, bright sun, the wheat was beautiful. I arrived at the fields and it shocked me.
Me: And before you weren’t growing wheat?
Olivier: I was, but I was doing conventional varieties, before getting into this. With this, the wheat called to me, rather than me going to the wheat.
Me: Does ancient wheat look different than conventional?
Olivier: It’s has a different energy (laughs). The height, the color, the feeling. You can smell it. I can feel the difference, and it’s a question of having to do it — not that I “can” do it, but that I must, I don’t have a choice. It’s not something you can really explain. At the beginning I did 40,000 square meters, the guy gave me a bit of seed and I was growing it for myself. Then people were like, oh can I have a taste, that interests me, and then they started talking. And I had a friend who loved baking, and one day she said to me she had to stop because she had developed a grain allergy. She went on a diet and things started improving, but every time she had a slip it was catastrophic. We got to discussing the old grains I was growing, and she tried my flour with her recipes and there was no problem. After that she started sending me clients. They come get the flour and make bread with it, and when the bread is baked and they try it they’re so happy: “It’s so good, the crust crackles, it smells wonderful.” And it’s liberating for them, because they can eat normally with their families again.
Anyway all that is an issue of cell recognition — when you have an autoimmune disorder, your system rejects what it does not recognize as food. But someone can eat something for years, and then bam, they develop an allergy at fifty, seventy years old. And why? When people come here and they say they’re intolerant, allergic, I say to them “You’re not sick. You’re normal.” Your body has the best capacity of knowing what is good or bad for it, that’s all it is. When you’re eating nothing but chemicals, and it says Stop, it’s this reaction of developing this or that symptom that tells you to stop eating what you’re eating.
What I’ve understood is that six years ago they changed the bakery director at X (one of the big local grocery chains — I won’t name names here because I haven’t verified the information yet and don’t feel like getting sued for libel). The new head is someone who thinks like this (draws the outline of a tunnel in front of his face) and he decided to always have the same level of gluten in the flour. So they go to buy pure gluten in France, but it’s a low-quality gluten, and they add it to the bread they’re making. And the customers don’t know. And that’s why in the past five years or so there are more and more people reporting gluten intolerance. It’s insane.
Me: But why would they add in extra gluten?
Olivier: Because to make a ton or two tons of bread at the same time you need a very elastic flour. With a lower-gluten wheat, the strands of gluten tear, like ligaments that rip all by themselves, or like a meat that you have to gnaw on to be able to chew. The standard thing is to take the dough, roll it a bit, and put it in a machine with a lid that closes down around the dough, and then they inject pressurized air, which makes big boule. The bigger the boule the better it meets the selection criteria. But it’s really the opposite — with this sort of criteria, you get bread that you can’t digest anymore.
With the cultivation of (conventional) wheat, they make it so the molecules become larger. With a wheat, the molecules are smaller at the surface, and as we go into the seed the molecules become larger. With the treatment of wheat, nitrogen, ammonia, we make the molecules even larger. With an intensive selection process we increase the size even more. And what you get is something that our body no longer recognizes as nourishment. We’ve selected for mechanical criteria, for machines, instead of the criteria of our bodies. We select in relation to the capacity of a machine. It’s like you take carrots that don’t have any taste, that are disgusting, and you grow them anyway because they’re nice and straight and have the same shape, perfectly homogeneous. I’m talking about abusive selection here.
Me: And all that’s before we even get into playing around at the molecular level, adding built-in pesticides –
Olivier: Oh no, it’s all happening at the same time. A modern wheat, cultivated organically … the flour is fantastic. We need to stop there. I’ve still got a part of my land growing conventional wheat, and there we use one herbicide, but nothing on the rest. I’m transitioning progressively.
Me: How long ago did you start?
Olivier: Six years ago. Seven years ago there was nothing (in the way of ancient wheat). Now I’ve got a whole load of different varieties going. And I’m still learning.
Me: So what percentage is still conventional wheat?
Olivier: Mm… 40% conventional, 60% the old varieties. If we don’t plant this wheat today, it’s going to disappear forever. Some people say to me, “But yeah, what’s the use,” but I tell them, if I’m doing this today and I transmit it, in 10,000 years these wheat varieties might still be around for future generations. If I don’t do this today, if I take the easy way, all this will disappear. In 10,000 years it’s no longer there.
Me: Not even 10,000 years. More like a couple generations. I have a colleague who works on seed politics in Latin America, she’s Colombian –
Olivier: Oh god, in Colombia it’s catastrophic when it comes to this whole issue.
Me: Absolutely. The push to criminalize seed saving, banning the use of indigenous varieties –
Olivier: And who’s behind those laws? (I point my finger at myself, he laughs) The Yanks. (laughs again) No, that’s not fair. Really it’s the multinationals. But all these financial issues, they’re not really just financial. I’m sorry about that. I worked there (in North America) and I was really into it, I’m part of the generation whose grandparents lived through the war and the Americans were god for having liberated Europe. Then the manipulations that took place, economically, politically, it’s a bit different. I’m not trying to insult you, we’re just speaking candidly. Politically in Europe, the heads of the American government, the ones directing things, they’ve got a reputation here that’s absolutely catastrophic.
And on that uplifting note, I’m going to take a break from transcription (which is interesting but a little tedious) and come back later with the second half.