I love going to the farmers market and buying fresh produce, bringing it home and eating it as close to immediately as makes sense. But I would not like to be on the other side of the equation – the farmer who has poured so much resource and labor into producing a very perishable crop. So much depends on picking it at just the right moment and then selling it before it turns into compost.
I’m not ready for that kind of pressure. So, as we make our preparations to sustainably farm part of our 44 acres, Doug and I are looking for crops that are a little more forgiving on the perishable spectrum.
Flax fits the bill, and we just planted a small bed this spring to explore its properties.
Flax has a long history of partnership with humans. If you check out this cool, interactive flax timeline , you’ll learn that it was one of the first crops to be domesticated in the Fertile Cresent around 7000 BC, when agriculture was just catching on. The Babylonians started twisting flax fiber into thread for weaving by 4000 BC.
Flax is a multipurpose plant. Its tough stalks make the fiber of linen, and its seeds are a power-packed food source. Renaissance painters started to use linseed oil, which is made from flaxseeds. Flax’s tide began to take a turn for the worse with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which sidelined what had been the huge flax linen industry. And when was the last time you used linseed oil?
But flax is on the comeback trail. It’s a vegetarian’s dream food – high in protein but more important it fills a key nutritional role.
The standard Western diet is heavy on omega-6 type polyunsaturated fatty acids, but we come up short on the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil is touted as the gold standard remedy. Luckily some great vegetarian sources of omega-3s also exist, such as olive oil, walnuts, eggs and best of all, flaxseed.
Unfortunately, these vegetarian sources tend to be the poor cousins of the two essential omega-3s, namely eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid
(DHA). The good news is that the body can synthesize these essential omega-3s by converting the vegetarian versions. In fact, a vegetarian diet is thought to increase the efficiency of this conversion rate out of necessity. Apparently, moving away from a classic Western diet to a more vegetarian one removes some hormonal inhibitory pathways for the conversion.
The American Dietetic Association recommends that vegetarians include a good source of omega-3 fatty acid in their diet in order to balance out the excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet, and they list flaxseed oil as the richest source of omega-3.
So we are taking flax for a little test drive in a freshly-tilled, 25 foot by 5 foot section of ground to the south of the barn. We sowed three kinds of flaxseed, Foster, Omega Blue and some food grade Red Mill, and mulched them in with hay from our mow (see my post Stacking Hay While the Sun Shines .
Because we planted them into soil that has a very vital weed seed bank, we have also started a few flaxseeds inside at the same time so we can identify their sprouts.
Supplying local, sustainably grown flax seed is a niche we hope to fill. It’s nutritious, and it stores well. (And it has delicate, blue flowers.)