On a hot mid-August morning, Elizabeth DeRuff is out early, harvesting wheat with 25 volunteers in Healdsburg, California. The sounds of sickles cutting long, glossy stalks of Sonora and Hourani wheat mix with the murmurs of volunteers, who have come to participate in Honoré Farm and Mill’s sixth annual wheat harvest and threshing.
DeRuff is an ordained Episcopal priest and an “agricultural chaplain”—a role that is not uncommon in the United Kingdom, but rare in the U.S. She’s also the founder of Honoré, a nonprofit organization with a mission to reconnect and strengthen people’s relationship to the land through the ancient practice of grain cultivation, and to help her community “reflect reverence and the regenerative capacities that are present both in the wheat fields and within us.”
“I love the moment when I’m walking up to the wheat field at dawn. I just think the awe of standing with your feet on the earth with the smell of the soil . . . and the quiet … I feel that I am more receptive to God,” said DeRuff. “It’s just an awe-inspiring experience.”
Named for St. Honoré, the patron saint of bread bakers and flour merchants who lived in 7th-century France, Honoré grows wheat on small plots throughout Northern California through a volunteer educational program. Today, the volunteers are harvesting grain from an eighth of an acre on Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniel’s HomeFarm.
Honoré also provides flour to Episcopal churches at a discount to bake communion bread for their services. In the Christian tradition, Jesus used bread as a symbol, and called himself the Bread of Life. The Holy Communion (or Eucharist) commemorates Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, wherein bread (or a communion wafer) symbolizes the body of Christ, while wine or grape juice symbolizes His blood.
“I started to think about the wheat on our altar not so much as a sacrament, but more as a biological process. I thought, ‘Wheat [is] coming from the industrial food supply, is that really the symbol of life that we call it?’” said DeRuff, who once tracked a communion wafer and found that the grain had traveled 4,500 miles.
Instead, Honoré is creating a network of farmers, millers, bakers, and churches that grow, mill, bake, and serve communion bread made with local flour from ancient wheat. Annually, heirloom wheat seeds are distributed to member churches to bless on their altars. The seeds are then saved to be planted for next year’s community harvest.
DeRuff sees her role as serving the land and the people working it. “Chaplaincy is the work of empowerment and advocacy for either people in hospitals or schools, and I feel like that is my work for the land,” says DeRuff. “Farming is really, really hard work, and desperately difficult financially. That burden weighs heavily on a lot of farmers.” She says she has been able to bear witness to that pain and suffering and to offer encouragement and confessions to many farmers.
Ancient Wheat for Modern Times
The wheat grown for today’s harvest has historic and religious connections to DeRuff’s work. Sonora wheat was introduced in North America by Spanish and Italian missionaries to make communion bread, and in addition to being disease resistant and drought tolerant, it grinds to a flour that is prized by bakers for its sweet, earthy flavor and nutty texture, and also by brewers for its fermentable and maltable wheat berries. Honoré plans to mill the wheat to make into the flour it sells to support its mission.
The seeds for the Hourani wheat harvest were grown more than 2,000 years ago at the Masada fortress in Israel and discovered by archeologists in the 1960s; more recently, some of the seeds traveled to the USDA seed lab in Aberdeen, Idaho, and then on to The Bread Lab, where it was saved for Honoré. Most of the Hourani wheat harvested on this day was for seed; just a small amount was to be milled and baked into bread, and tasted for the first time. (Just days after the harvest, an intense lightning storm and historic wildfires will burn across the area, but the wheat will be spared.)
“We want to put forth a new vision that is actually very old” said DeRuff. “That wheat is actually a health food; it’s the original superfood. It’s what has fed our civilization for thousands of years.”
DeRuff points to the recent history of industrialized wheat, including the way it’s currently milled (which strips away the nutrients and fiber) and farmed (with pesticides and fertilizers). Honoré uses low-till farming practices that DeRuff says decrease water usage, improve soil health, and draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in the ground.
“Most people don’t think about flour or bread this deeply,” said DeRuff. “And when you hear the story and taste it, something gets lodged in people, and they start to wonder, ‘What has happened to wheat?’”
Like many enterprises, COVID has had a big impact on Honoré, and DeRuff says people started buying its flour at unprecedented levels after the pandemic began. “We could see through COVID how brittle and fragile our industrial food supply is, because people couldn’t buy flour,” she said. “It was really the small farmers and millers who were able to step up and provide.”
As the last stalks of wheat are harvested, and the community sits down to a prayer over lunch, DeRuff says, “The lasting effect that I hope people take away from this is a deeper appreciation of wheat, the education around it, the connection they have with the land—and each other.”
Video and stills by Mizzica Films.