Glenn Roberts, 75: Reviving Ancient Agriculture

An obsession with the true flavor of rice inspired Glenn Roberts’ mission to revive the growing and milling of grains following ancient agriculture practices. He discusses how his early experiences shaped his career, how his work offers solutions to problems caused by climate change, and his fascination with cultural and culinary history.

One never knows where one will end up if one follows one’s curiosity. All we can say for sure is that it will be different from where we are today. Finding a life mission in the resuscitation of the farming and milling of ancient grains may seem somewhat obscure but, there is such centrality to food and how our food system has moved from one based on culinary values to one based on ease of delivery, it makes perfect sense that this would be a vein ripe for deep investigation. Add to this the effects of climate change on the growing of crops everywhere, and suddenly what may have seemed a bit quixotic becomes extremely relevant. 

If the hoped-for expectations of increased life and health span happen, the accumulation of collective wisdom will be at a scale we have not seen before. But what of the wisdom that has been lost due to oversight or outright denial? Especially in the arena of agriculture where, for eons, techniques and seeds were optimized to the seasons and treasured for flavor. So much of this way of producing soil-preserving and flavorful food staples has been pushed to the edges of our knowledge. But it is still there if one knows where to look. With Anson Mills, this is the mission that Glenn Roberts has taken on. 

How old are you?  

How and why did you become so interested in growing and grinding grains?
My mother, Mary Clifton, and her family trained race horses in Ocala, FL, Aiken, SC, and Delaware where my mother was born. I was fascinated with mom’s cooking repertoire and the fact that she never measured anything and was fast, fast, fast, in the kitchen. When I was 12, my surfing buddies, who came over for desserts, never warmed to our grits, but loved our fresh pounded Aiken rice which mom had delivered by a commercial pilot friend every two weeks. We would occasionally run out of that rice and mom would purchase store-bought box rice to make do. This behavior made a lasting impression on my palate and culinary sensibility. It is this multi-generational family rice flavor imprint that drew me to farming heirloom rices and other staples. 

“I became obsessed, acquiring dozens of books about heirloom rice farming and cookery”

How did you learn about rarely-grown heirloom grains?
For reasons I still do not understand, I became obsessed, acquiring dozens of books about heirloom rice farming and cookery. Essentially, I just lucked into a series of fabulous scholars and researchers: Dr. Buford “Merle” Shepard of Clemson University, had worked in chemical free grown heirloom rice research worldwide along with Dr. Gurdev Khush. They both introduced me to Dr. Anna McClung, Rice Genetics Researcher at Texas A&M Rice Research Center. Dr. McClung and I still work together pro bono in the public domain.

What are some of the grains that are most interesting to you now?
The fastest maturing short season grains, legumes and oil seeds. Our research focuses on super fast growing staples to work within the growing challenges of climate change. We grow many fast staples together for combined harvest. This is ancient farming from practices that date to the beginning of domestic farming. We combine up to 14 different staple crops in the field to follow the practices of the African Sun Cycle, the oldest farming system on our planet and one of the drivers of modern resilient farming systems. The staples in these systems have many environmental tolerances: heat, light, shade, drought, pH, cold, etc.

“Do we still have time to engage classic or advanced staple crop breeding to stay ahead of climate change?”

These research activities spotlight the most important question of our time: Do we still have time to engage classic or advanced staple crop breeding to stay ahead of climate change? Many scientists believe that surveying our world seedbanks for fast staples is a short-cut forward because those landraces usually have all the tolerances built into their genetics. Breeding for survival at the current pace of climate change is an extraordinary challenge, but producing farm-scale seed of climate-tolerant ancient staples from our seed banks can be done in as little as 2 years from seed bank to farmer for production to support human survival.

At AM Research, our pro bono contribution continues to focus on the search for fast and productive, already tested by time, ancient staple seeds with all tolerances. Deploying these seeds involves a new generation of Citizen Scientists working in consort with our best geneticists. We all hope we’re not too late.

Do you have a background in botany?
Hell no! Seemingly useless for Anson Mills: degree in chemistry, music and topology, minor German Lit. But the only college course during all that study that I received a best grade: Biochemistry. I should have noted that 60 years ago. I came late to the academic party with the realization over the last decade that I have to learn vertically in any discipline to keep up.

What are some of the setbacks you encountered in bringing these grains back?
There wasn’t an economic model for ancient grain polyculture after the industrial revolution in the US. The seed didn’t exist in quantities large enough to engage in full farm production for biosecurity. After a quarter century, our largest asset is still ancient seed. Creating that biosecurity has been a huge effort in time and other resources… something we didn’t anticipate. It has taken two decades to develop a viable commercial source for Carolina Gold Rice Seed because we were founded on this mission: we will never monetize any seed we grow. We have been waiting for production farmers to begin ancient staple production in earnest. That time is arriving now. And with this increasing focus, there have been big surprises: just 5 years ago, climate change moved many ancient staple crops from self-pollinating to open pollinated habit. This is a huge concern for every staple crop farmer. Starting four years ago, we realized we would have to grow companion buffer crops between our rice seed and other plots — that wasn’t a concern or even an idea when we started. Today, we plant pollination barriers using landrace sweet corn between our Carolina Gold Rice seed fields. Simply, rice has become open pollinated like corn. Corn will cross easily with any other corn near it. Buffer crop requirements confuse much of our forward projections concerning feeding our fellow citizens. Here is our best thinking right now: What else should we consider that we think is impossible in the field? What if the impossible becomes suddenly possible?

“Anson Mills ingredients are perishable; it is their aroma/flavor profile that is perishable”

Why do you keep the ground grains refrigerated?
At Anson Mills, we start from scratch whole new crop aerobic (the grain is still viable and breathing oxygen) organic frozen landrace grain each milling day. We cold mill fresh to order only at -10°F to -50°F, depending upon the desired final ingredient, all under CO2 envelope to keep oxygen away from our new crop grains. Then we process by hand in the same way, with the same hand bolters and screens that were used before 1850. Then we hand vac pack, then ship. All this happens the same day as milled. Our ingredients warm to ambient temperature in transit and are perfect for up to 3 weeks ambient temperature, 3 months stored refrigerated upon arrival and 6 months stored frozen. Because our base landrace grains are new crop and aerobic, their milled forms have fresh field nuances and floral notes in their aroma/flavor profile that fade when they become anaerobic or dead. Ambient storage accelerates this flavor fade. What results after the fade: provision culture which is the oldest form of biosecurity on our planet. Note: pasta was money a thousand years ago. Provision culture, and the panorama of ingredients within it, is great. But anaerobic staple provision culture ingredients have distinctly different aroma, flavor and reactivity characteristic profiles when compared to their aerobic new crop relatives that we produce… our industrial mills eliminated all those fabulous flavors at the industrial revolution. All mills before 1850 produced new crop aerobic ingredients after harvest until dormancy set in their grain. After new crop milling, the old mills would begin to produce provision ingredients which would keep longer and not require special handling or have what we call today a short shelf life. In short, Anson Mills ingredients are perishable; it is their aroma/flavor profile that is perishable. We put massive effort into preserving aerobic quality in our new crop ingredients. Most mills our size have 3 or so employees; we have over 20 and they are compensated as research technicians, not mill employees, and all of them farm their own ancient grains, too.  

What are your thoughts on the way food, in general, is regarded these days vs historically?
First: There is no denying that our modern-world global “food” system is providing more broadly for humanity than was the case before industrialization. I think this stands on its own, with caveats: 1. We weaponized this massive achievement for security and monetization. 2. We mowed down thousands of local identity culinary regions to support monoculture. 3. We committed to this system and eliminated, sometimes with little regard for the final outcome, staples that will survive catastrophic events, which has the unexpected result in polarization and conflict in order to conserve resources in a very dangerous direction planet wide. 

Second: It isn’t too late. Geneticists worldwide are working in new directions now for place based, identity preserved local foods. They are working at high pace due to climate change. They understand local fast recovery for quick feeding systems which can be pulled from the unique culinary history in each locale. The move toward plant based and diminished animal centric food systems is inevitable in this march toward survival. 

“How old is rock and roll, really, if you consider that drums were outlawed in the Tribes in the late 19th century?”

You come from San Diego, and now you are in South Carolina. How do you find the cultures differ?
My sister — we call her Saint Hollace due to her life commitment to the health and well being of others — noted that my Southern accent faded in less than 48 hours after I arrived for a visit last fall. Holly lives on Coronado Island in San Diego, so the background is totally Top Gun with military jets hitting the sound barrier over the beaches occasionally. Holly noted that I started drifting into adolescent surfer talk 72 hours after I arrived. Her eastern medicine doctor husband, Bob, thought that was hilarious. For me, San Diego means Julius Herford, Robert Shaw, Leonard Bernstein, André Previn, and many more, since I was a music nut from earliest childhood and played french horn in local symphonies when those luminaries were conducting advanced music theory classes.

On the real nerd side, I lucked into the freakout opportunity to intern and study with Immanuel Velikovsky at General Atomics in San Diego. We delved into the far reaches of celestial mechanics and astrophysics and future vision which turned out later to be Velikovsky’s pseudo-science — something that made me move deeply into peer review mode later in all my endeavors. As a result, it was with great caution that I began my reading and study of South Carolina cultural and culinary history and its many versions.

The most intriguing questions about post 1900 Carolina/Georgia foodways linger today: What happened to the Sapelo Island, GA, Muslim population which was the largest Muslim community in the US in 1900? If Link Wray invented the one and only first rock and roll riff, how old is rock and roll, really, if you consider that drums were outlawed in the Tribes in the late 19th century? If those in our African diaspora communities were the best iron workers, cooks, chefs, and farmers, stone masons, etc., who really wrote that history since most of the current surveys are patriarchal from wealthy white Southern journals? If the best collards prior to 1900 in our African diaspora midlands looked like and were as tender as Boston Bibb lettuce, what else don’t we really know about “local” and “Southern” food? We still, after trying for 2 decades have only one very small local source for that important seed.

Short answer on the difference between San Diego and the South: what drew me to the South was what mom called the “silent” war… suppression of brilliance in so many disciplines and the opportunity to learn from the unprinted word. 

Flavor = Truth

Is this your life’s mission, or is there another quest out there?
Everyone associated with Anson Mills, from my business partners (we’re really women-run, but they let me speak in public occasionally) Catherine Schopfer and Kay Rentschler to our technicians in training are here for one reason only: flavor. If everything about the seed, field and process is simple and straightforward, FLAVOR = TRUTH

You are an accomplished musician. What music are you listening to these days?
Dylan, Mitchell, Cohen, etc, ‘60s jazz, arcane early West Village folk, and rock precursors from the Catawba Nation plus some classic standards: Pines of Rome, plus anything Beethoven, Hindemith, and anything quintet and anything John T Edge tells me to listen to, and Copeland earbuds at the Frick Museum (I’m a Frick, as in Glenn Frick Roberts, but from the poor religious preacher Frick side of the family).

What are some of the other farms and foundations you have worked with?
All the following are research and production seed and/or food farms: Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, Northern California Growers, WSU Breadlab, UC Davis, Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, National Plant Breeders, Slow Food, SFR Seed, Wormsloe Foundation, Sapelo Island, Cornell Rice Lab, Clemson University, MOFAD, Brownsville Community Culinary Center, Texas Rice Improvement Association, Southern Foodways Alliance, Middleton Place Foundation, Monticello, Mt. Vernon, National Colonial Farm at Accokeek, Colonial Williamsburg, Smithsonian, Savannah College of Art & Design, National Botanical Gardens, National Museum of African American History & Culture, New York Botanical Garden, Tehachapi Grain Project, USDA-GRIN, Aberdeen, ID, University of Georgia, NC State University Holland Research Center, Johnson & Wales University, Mellon Foundation, High Wire Distillery, Island Grown Initiative, Slough Farm, U Vermont, etc, etc.

What are you doing for fun?
Now: Trying to keep up, intellectually, with Kay Rentschler. Walking our Scotties and Chi Chi on Lambert’s Cove or in the deep woods on Martha’s Vineyard, and on the West Side Highway Park in NYC or around the SC State Capitol. Wondering, when I do my standard botanical walk (Green chestnuts in season! Wild flowers 24/7/365) around the SC State Capitol, why the Capitol building dome is off-center over the rotunda, after 25 years doing the same thing every time I walk around it. I really do know why: the architect was drunk, but still… Taking in the vastness of the Carolina ACE Basin alone, walking the Sea Island beaches, visiting any farm where they love fabulous tilth, contemplating how to ID the most ancient chickpeas for sun baked vs bronze pan baked socca in Provence, Sicily and Sardinia this summer, firing up my 1000°F deck to torch anything flatbread from ancient grains, legumes or oil seeds.

What are your three life non-negotiables?
Don’t take anything for granted .

Thinking ahead is more than psycho-cybernetics.


Contact Anson Mills


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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.


David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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