A very important question was posted by Rich in Oklahoma..."Do you have any experience or thoughts about how heritage wheat compares to the typical wheat grown today from a farmer's perspective? As an example, does it need less or more fertility, is it more or less disease prone, etc.."
I will attempt to answer this question, but perhaps there are some others that will have more to add in the comments section.
We have found that the heritage varieties require less fertility on average to reach their potential yields than compared to the modern wheats. One interesting observation was made this past year when I made the decision to seed an old Red Spring Wheat in to a field that had next to zero in the way of nitrogen. This field hadn't had a legume on it for 15 years (we've only had it for 2 years). It was one of my cleaner fields from the crop of buckwheat that I took off in 08 and I was trying to get a good clean crop of seed wheat from it. I wasn't terribly worried about yield or protein/falling number. It ended up with 13.5% protein and turned into an excellent baking wheat. The yield was actually pretty good considering the horrible drought we experienced this past summer...somewhere around 20 bu/acre. Keep in mind that I had fields nearby that were below 10 bu/acre!
I don't know if I have a solid answer for you on the disease issue. There were a couple reasons that heritage breeds went by the wayside. 1)There were some disease issues in the early part of the 20th century that caused huge wipeouts in wheat crops...rust comes to mind. Of course that led ag. researchers to develop new rust and disease resistant varieties 2) It became profitable to come up with your own wheat variety, register it and sell it to people. The large corporations became so good at it that that is pretty much all we have for seed nowadays. (ie canola, corn, soybeans).
One of the tremendous benefits of heritage breed grains is that they are landrace breeds. Meaning they have huge genetic diversity within their species. My feeling is that whatever seed that has survived to this day has been naturally selected to be as disease resistant as their modern counterparts. Now this is not a scientific claim...just a theory based on my limited knowledge of genetics and simple observation. We have not had any problems whatsoever with disease on either our modern or heritage varieties of wheat.
This genetic diversity is also what makes heritage wheats so valuable to farmers. I can grow a spring wheat up here in Canada...send it to Rich in OK and Rich would be able to grow it as good as I can within 2 years of seeding it. The plants that flourished in the OK climate would be seeded again next year. There is enough genetic material in the field that no matter the growing conditions, the crop would adapt and flourish within a very short time...especially with some selective harvesting and seed production.
I have also definitely noticed a difference in protein and taste. Some varieties seem to be better baking wheats with higher proteins than others and there is a definite difference in taste, colour and baking characteristics between the species. I can make a wheat like Park or Red Fife have a good protein number by planting them in a high nitrogen field like a clover plow-down, but as I discovered this year. Some varieties produce good proteins without this nitrogen fertility.
I question the claims about modern wheat varieties being more productive as far as yield is concerned. I mean they can grow wheat crops now in the 100 bu/acre range, but I am skeptical about whether that is the variety or the fertility inputs used. Perhaps it is like Round-up Ready Canola...a wheat variety that responds best to a certain fertility input that you purchase as a package?
As you can see in the video above. I can achieve some pretty nice yields with organic practices and less modern varieties. This field was the first year after a spring alfalfa plow-down. It was Park Wheat (a 60's variety). It yielded in the range of 50 bu/acre. You can see the same field below being seeded that same year.