Rye is one of a number of wild grain species that grows in eastern Turkey and Iran (the Fertile Crescent). It apparently had co-evolved with wheat and barley for over 2,000 years until its value as a unique cereal grain was recognized.
The cultivation of rye probably originated about 6500 BCE, in the Middle Eastern regions of Syria, Armenia, Iran, Turkestan, and the Kirghis Steppe. It then later migrated westward during the Bronze Age across the Balkan Peninsula and throughout Europe, where archeological evidence has been found along the Rhine, Danube, and then finally into Ireland and Britain.
Since the Middle Ages people have cultivated rye across central and eastern Europe. It serves as the main cereal for bread in most areas east of the French-German border and north of Hungary.
The former Soviet Union and current Russian Federation have long been the biggest producers and consumers of Rye.
Rye was brought to the U.S. and Canada by the English and Dutch who settled in the northeast, and then spread to the midwest and Canadian grain belt. The average production in the United States is about 16 million bushels grown on some 2.3 million acres. Canada grows more rye than the U.S., and a good amount of the grain ends up as Canadian whiskey (good to note!).
About 50% of the rye grown in the U.S. is harvested for grain. This amount is then divided again into about half for livestock feed, and the remainder is used for alcoholic beverages and food. Surprisingly, only about 5-10% of total rye grown in the U.S. is consumed by humans.
The remaining 50% of production is used as pasture or hay for farm animals, or as a cover crop for grain crop rotation.
Rye grows better on light loam and sandy soils than on heavy clay soils. It is also able to germinate in relatively dry soils, and is fairly tolerant to drought conditions. Because it has deep roots, rye is able to increase organic matter, capture nutrients and water, enhance soil health and prevent soil erosion, and reduce weeds without the use of herbicides.
Rye can be grown in a wider range of environmental conditions than any other small grain, and is mainly cultivated where climate and soil types are relatively unfavourable. The plant, which thrives in high altitudes, can grow as far north as the Arctic Circle.
It’s been used as a winter cover crop, especially in organic farming, for generations. Winter rye is the most winter hardy of all cereals, able to grow during the cool temperatures of late fall, even in winter snow, and can resume growth quickly in the early spring.
Rye is useful in rotations designed to control certain hard-to-control weeds. Alternating summer fallow with winter rye and repeated summer tillage after rye harvest is effective against troublesome weeds such as quackgrass, sowthistle, Canada thistle, and wild oats. It has been reported that residues of fall-planted, spring-killed rye reduces total weed biomass by 60% to 95%.
Note: the plant is highly susceptible to the ergot fungus, which if ingested by humans and other animals can result in serious acute or chronic illness known as ergotism.
Rye is a good source of soluble fiber, vitamin E, calcium, iron, and potassium. It is also high in carbohydrates but low in proteins. Rye has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, breast cancer and diabetes. Because rye is harder to refine than wheat, it retains more of its nutrients.
Because of its dark colour, a loaf made entirely from rye flour is often called “Black Bread”. Pumpernickel, a dark brown bread made wholly from unsifted rye flour, was a staple food in central and eastern Europe for centuries. The lighter-coloured rye breads popular in Europe and the United States contain admixtures of wheat or other flours in addition to rye.
Rye grain is used to make alcoholic drinks, like rye whiskey, bourbon, and rye beer. It’s also a base ingredient in many vodkas and gins. Other uses of rye grain include “Kvass”, and an herbal medicine known as rye extract.
Whole rye berries can be boiled as a hearty alternative to a hot oatmeal breakfast, or sprouted and sprinkled into salads. The berries are sweet and nutty with the unmistakable rye flavor.
Like wheat and barley, rye contains gluten, which makes it unsuitable for people with celiac disease. However, research suggests that some people who are sensitive to wheat gluten can tolerate rye or barley. Rye flour is high in gliadin but low in glutenin (similar to Einkorn!). It therefore has a lower gluten content than modern wheat flour.