Got your attention? Alright, we don’t have lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on the farm, but we do have its precursor, lysergic acid. Deriving LSD isn’t easy, but Walter White could probably whip up a batch for us. The acid is produced by the Ergot fungus that affects certain grain crops, particularly in wet years. This summer has been a terrible one for incessant rain. Corn crops were planted late, and many cornfields are sparse with skips all over the place due to flooding and/or planters plugging with mud. Hay prices will be high, as many fields haven’t even received their first cut yet. But one troubling consequence of the wet weather is toxic grain.
Anyone trying to grow small grains this year (wheat, barley, rye, triticale) is having problems with Ergot infestations. We don’t have any small grains planted, but we do have a few volunteer wheat, barley, and rye in the back fields, and they look awful. Depending on the nutritionist, acceptable levels of ergot in livestock feed should be somewhere between one in one thousand and one in ten thousand kernels. I’d estimate our rye and barley kernels are infected at the rate of one in a hundred. Wheat kernels seem mostly clear of ergot, but there are a few discolored kernels so there are probably some other fungi at work.
A worthwhile side note: Ergot is supposedly very common in all grasses, so it would seem that ruminants would be challenged by this in any grass that has gone to seed. So far, I haven’t found any evidence of Ergot in our perennial grasses, so I wonder what makes them different. Perhaps I’m not looking closely enough, but the cattle aren’t showing signs of ergot poisoning either, so it seems that our perennial grasses have some better immunity. Chalk up another point for perennials over annuals.
Ergot has an interesting history. It can be mildly psychoactive, but consuming it is also risky since it famously causes “Saint Anthony’s Fire”, a burning sensation accompanying decreased circulation in the extremities, leading to loss of limbs, gangrene, and other nastiness. Ergot can also be used to induce strong uterine contractions to induce birth or to promote early abortion. It also stops bleeding. I’m pretty sure I remember Umberto Eco describing its use in medieval concoctions in one of his books, but Google searches are telling me I’m wrong.
What to do? Even though this is an extraordinarily wet year, we frequently have problems with Ergot and other mycotoxic infestations in cereal grain crops. I don’t think we live in the right climate for wheat, barley, or rye. The only good options are to grow grains that reliably produce in our climate (corn and oats can also be affected by mycotoxins, but they don’t seem to be as risky) and to keep working on more robust strains of these affected crops. Since the latter option will take a long time and specialist knowledge, I have given up on trying to source locally or regionally grown organic wheat, barley, and rye. Our rations for the chickens and for the pigs (when they get grain at all) only include corn and oats as the cereal grains. I’d love to have a source for pesticide/fungicide free barley, but it just doesn’t seem possible in NY at present. But who knows… Bad years for crops are good years for plant breeders looking for specimens that produce well despite the challenging conditions. Perhaps this rainy year will give us the next big breakthrough in fungus-resistant cultivars.