UW looks at renewing ancient grains

Posted 6/25/19

A couple years ago, University of Wyoming agricultural economist Thomas Foulke was on vacation in France. Flipping through a French cookbook, he saw a recipe for bread that used spelt.

Foulke …

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UW looks at renewing ancient grains


A couple years ago, University of Wyoming agricultural economist Thomas Foulke was on vacation in France. Flipping through a French cookbook, he saw a recipe for bread that used spelt.

Foulke didn’t know a whole lot about the grain at the time. But when he began looking into it, ideas started to develop.

“One thing led to another,” Foulke said.

The university’s research and extension centers — including the one north of Powell — are now researching the exotic grain’s potential as a cash crop in the state. With unpredictable commodity markets and a host of other unknowns farmers contend within the course of producing the food we eat, diversifying crops is considered by many to be key to sustaining agriculture as an industry.

Bringing a new crop into mass production profitably is a long, complicated process. Farmers are too busy trying to turn a profit on existing crops, and they often don’t have a lot of time and land left over for all the marketing and agronomical research involved in bringing a new crop to profitable production. That’s where the extension center comes in.


When in Rome

The ancient grain category, sometimes called heritage grains, gets its name from the long history of cultivation. Spelt, for example, has been cultivated since around 5,000 B.C. It was a main staple in ancient Rome.

There is no official definition of ancient grains. The list is quite long, and there’s some disagreement as to which grains belong.

The extension center is looking into three types that are commonly agreed to fit in the ancient grains category: einkorn, emmer, and spelt. Modern wheat, which gave the American West its fields of amber waves, is derived from these three types.

As an economist, Foulke’s main focus is determining what crops can be grown profitably, and he thought the grains might have some potential for Wyoming farmers.

There’s a consumer trend in ancient grains, in part owing to their perceived health benefits. According to SPINS, which provides analysis of trends in the natural and organic markets, sales of spelt grew 363 percent between July 2013 and July 2014. And major food companies are taking notice. Around the same time frame, General Mills released a variety of its popular Cheerios cereal that contained ancient grains.

“There’s a marketing opportunity there,” Foulke said.

Other ancient grains have showed similar exponential growth, but it’s from a low base, which tends to inflate year-over-year percentages. (For example, a town with a population of one will have a 100 percent population increase if one person moves in.) The total sales volume remains small.

The crop produces smaller yields than modern wheat, but the inputs are lower than many other crops grown in the Big Horn Basin. And, as with all natural foods, ancient grains fetch a premium over standard grains. There could be money to be made.


Learning curve

However, the positive market analytics is just one reason the extension center has ancient grains on its radar. The other aspect is their agronomical potential.

Whereas Foulke looks at how to turn a profit on a crop, Carrie Eberle, assistant professor of agronomy for the University of Wyoming, looks at how to grow it. Wyoming has a history of growing small grain successfully, Eberle said. 

To determine the best practices farmers can use, the UW researchers started out with 30 acres of spelt and emmer test fields in 2018, located in Powell, Lingle and Sheridan. This year, they expanded the project to include einkorn and over 40 acres of test fields.

The tests examine how well a crop performs in Wyoming’s arid climate. Not all crops respond well in irrigated fields. Eberle said the first year’s tests went really well, but there were a few issues. The emmer crop had a large head on it, for example, and it fell over. 

“There’s a learning curve with everything,” Eberle said.

Even once the questions on how to best grow the grains are answered, there’s are more questions about how to process and utilize the produce.


Mmmm ... beer

The University of Wyoming contacted Wyoming Malting Company to see if they’d be interested in taking some of the grains and seeing what their potential is for brewing.

“If we can make beer out of it, that’s even better, right?” Eberle joked.

Chad Brown, co-owner of the Pine Bluffs-based malter, said they identified some brewers around the state interested in working with the exotic grains. The initial tests ran into some challenges. Unlike durum wheat, spelt is not a free threshing crop, meaning to obtain the grain, a separate process is needed after harvesting to remove the hull. Brown said the larger hulls on the spelt were preventing the grains from taking up water during the malting process.

“We were hoping we could leave the hull on for malting. That was an unexpected challenge,” said Caitlin Younquist, an educator with UW Extension who’s also working on the ancient grains project.

The only regional de-hulling equipment near Powell is at Gluten Free Oats, but their organic certification does not permit non-organic grains to be de-hulled there.

So, the extension center invested in a de-huller, and Wyoming Malting Company continues to look into ways to produce beer from the grains.

Brown assures that this problem isn’t the end of ancient-grain beer.

“We haven’t successfully malted it yet, but we’re not giving up,” he said.


Here’s some grain

UW harvested 20 acres of ancient grains from last year’s experiment. Besides malters, they gave some of the grain to bakeries.

“We said, ‘Here’s some grain. See what you can do with it,’” Eberle said.

The gluten protein in the grains is different from others, adding a different kind of flavor than we get from standard wheat.

Claire’s French Bakery in Cody has been one of the bakeries using the ancient grains. Owner Diane Whitlock said she plans to offer some of the loaves at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in July.

Foulke said milling is going to present another challenge. The small samples the bakers work with can be milled with tabletop mills. If ancient grains are to go into full production, it’s going to require a larger milling operation.

“I don’t want to go around to farmers’ markets and sell 1- or 2-pound sacks of flour,” Foulke said.

Today, mills are larger and centralized, so there aren’t any regional millers that can do the work. As they did with the de-huller, UW officials are considering getting a miller as well. It will be an investment of roughly $150,000, and they don’t currently have the funding for it.

There are other foods that utilize ancient grains. Eberle said they can also make what are called farrow bowls, which are like salads heavy in grains. Spelt, used in such a salad, is a bit like rice.

“I think it’s delicious,” Eberle said.


Will it work?

It’s a long road from an idea to research to large-scale production. Eberle said it can take as few as two years, but it’s often quite a bit longer. And there’s no guarantee it will take flight.

“Alternative crops are notorious for never catching on,” Eberle said.

However, she said they have a really good team working out the kinks. “We’re still playing around with it,” Foulke said.

If it all pans out, they’ll have a self-sustaining, profitable agricultural product to throw into the mix of crops Wyoming farmers can produce.

“This is jobs and income in Wyoming,” Foulke said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Youngquist said she is looking for other bakers interested in experimenting with the test produce to help identify potential markets.