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John Letts and his evolutionary heritage seeds


Maria Kalenska and John Letts

I was lucky enough to meet John in Oxford in 2017 when I visited the local distillery

At that moment, I still did not understand what an unusual person was standing in the courtyard of the distillery with bags of flour and ears of wheat taller than his own height. My attention was drawn to a copper spacecraft for the distillation of alcohol, similar to a rocket from Soviet cartoons about the future.

Later, when I approached John, we had a long conversation and could not stop. The conversation turned into a university lecture on archaeobotany and ancient wheat slots. When we parted, I made a recording on the voice-recorder so as not to forget what we heard from John. It was knowledge “from the fingertips”, information that you will not find in books, newspapers and magazines. It was the birth of something new, which took place here and now.

John stood at the origins of the Heritage grain revolution.  He actually became her ancestor. He grew up on a farm and from childhood wondered why we fertilize our food with such substances that are harmful to us. This question led him to the profession of archaeobotanist, and then to the English thatched roof, where he opened, layer by layer, a 500-year history of changes in wheat grain. The grains he found were dead, but the genetic research they enabled was priceless.

As a result, after 15 years of work, he had a genetic mix of approximately the 16th century. The found grains allowed him to pick up analogues in the genebank with whom he could work.

Today, his grains are grounded into flour, which gives great taste to bread and is used to make gin.

But the most important, he continues research that allows to change the ways of growing wheat and cultivating the soil, which do not deplete the soil, carefully use resources, and the grain itself and the bread from it turns out to be more useful for humans.

Since then, we have met with John many times: in our bread-baking school with Mykola Nevrev (John gave a lecture on heritage grain to our students), in his new fields, located on the land of the famous British-American Astor family – the family of the first female MP Lady Nancy Astor who often came into confrontation with Sir Winston Churchill himself. By the way there is a famous story characterizing this “high” relationship:

when Nancy Astor, Britain’s MP, told Sir Winston Churchill that: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee”, Churchill famously replied: “Nancy, if I were your husband I would drink it” :-))

So there, together with the heirs of Lady Nancy Astor, John is building a whole grain world in which you can learn how to bake bread, plow with oxen, harvest wheat without a machine and learn more about heritage grains and their benefits for humans and society.

John’s biggest dream is to come to Ukraine, research the old roof and recreate Ukrainian old wheat varieties with local farmers. And I promised him that we would do it.

So, to be continued…

Maria Kalenska and John Letts


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