MOUNT PLEASANT — Charlie Tennessen has been around farmers his whole life, but when the 48-year-old software developer saw an opening in the heritage grain market, he went for it.
As people grapple with gluten intolerance, many consumers are turning back the clock — way back — as they eschew modern, mass-produced grains in favor of older varieties that are hard to find in stores.
Enter Charlie Tennessen.
With his wide-brimmed hat, suspenders, cloth shirt and canvas pants, Tennessen looks as though he stepped right out of a 19th-century daguerreotype and into his field of turkey red winter wheat on his 5-acre plot just east of the Interstate in Mount Pleasant.
“Although it hasn’t been scientifically proven, there has been plenty of testimonies from people who say they were sick as a dog until they started eating these heirloom grains, turkey red being one of the most prominent of them,” he said as he moisture-tested Wednesday’s harvest.
Turkey red is a hearty winter wheat that is commonly believed by historians to have been first brought to the United States by Russian immigrants who settled in the Midwest and Great Plains in the 1870’s.
It wasn’t too much later before turkey red became the dominant wheat crop, painting Wisconsin’s early settled landscape in midsummer amber hues and propelling Kansas to become the granary of the burgeoning country.
Tennessen said he learned about varieties of wheat between 20 to 30 years ago when he became interested in home baking.
“I started grinding my own wheat, just grabbing stuff out of my uncle’s combine and the more I read about it the more I started learning about it,” he said.
Tennessen said he has customers waiting to buy his wheat, including a bakery in Madison, and a number of grocery stores in the area he said who are interested in buying whatever he has left. In addition, he said, he is saving enough seed to plant another crop in fall.
“After I get it cleaned, bagged and tested I’ll talk to customers and try to spread it around as best I can and interest more farmers next year to do more,” he said.
According to Tennessen, a farmer in Kansas found “a bucket’s worth” of turkey red growing on an Amish farm about 20 years ago. That farmer, he said, developed that strain into 100 acres of the wheat that now supplies growers and bakers alike, all across the country.
After a decade growing the wheat on his property, Tennessen today has 11 acres of turkey red on two plots that he rents straddling Interstate 94 in Racine County.
“I now have a marketable quantity,” he said. “We’re going to market some turkey red in southeastern Wisconsin.”