Ancient crops may find a new niche in Wyoming
Lingle, WY. | Wyoming Business Council – Researchers at the University of Wyoming are in the first stages of studying the viability of “first grains” as a crop and market in Wyoming. Specifically, they are growing spelt and emmer wheat, two of the first crops that were ever domesticated and cultivated by humans as they transitioned from roaming hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers some 12,000 years ago.
Tom Foulke, a research scientist at the UW Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, is leading the charge on this project. At a recent open-house event at UW’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) in Lingle, he conducted a tour of the growing field and answered questions about the project.
There is evidence of breadmaking with wild grains as far back as 14,000 years ago, he said. That’s 11,000 years before the building of the pyramids in Egypt. Spelt and emmer wheat have been continuously cultivated in parts of Europe and the Middle East since ancient times. They fell out of favor at the turn of the century because the grains did not lend themselves well to the newer, mechanized agricultural techniques. So, although these grains contributed significantly to the development of agriculture in America, the current generation is mostly unfamiliar with them.
In addition to a unique flavor, the grains may offer a different nutritional profile than modern crops, with additional protein. That’s another part of the project’s goals: to determine the exact nutritional value of these grains.
Today, consumers are increasingly health conscious and increasingly interested in the origin stories of the products they buy, Foulke said. It’s that consciousness and curiosity he is hoping will create a value-added market for these unique “first grains” in Wyoming.
“We’re using a business-incubator approach,” he said. “So, we at UW are taking the risk to figure out all the problems that we have.”
Those problems include everything from finding the seed to managing weeds, then dehulling and harvesting issues, and even transportation and marketing.
One of those questions has already been answered in this first year for the project. Dr. Carrie Eberle, a cropping systems agronomist in the Plant Sciences Department at UW, said weed management has been a major challenge for this crop. However, the team recently learned any herbicide (weed killer) labeled for regular wheat can also be used on these grains.
“That’s really very exciting for the project,” she said. “We want farmers to be able to grow and produce this crop in their fields relatively easily. So this means that they have a good set of tools to manage weed populations and diseases in their fields the same way they would with wheat, which is great.”
The idea to grow and market “ancient grains” isn’t entirely new. While quirky and experimental chefs, bakers and brewers across the country have worked them into their products, even behemoths like Cheerios have jumped on the bandwagon – at least in a marketing sense.
Still, Foulke is quick to differentiate “ancient grains” from his “first grains.” Adding the term “ancient grains” to packaging is a rather trendy marketing ploy, but it lacks a clear definition. “First grains”, however, implies only the first cereal crops that started the agricultural revolution, spelt and emmer wheat being two of them.
Research conducted recently at Cornell University shows, “the demand for these unusual grains outstrips supply, and food lovers are willing to pay more for bread, pasta and baked goods made from them.”
In the next five years, Foulke hopes to have answered more of the initial questions and present a proven, value-added industry to turn over to the private sector in the state – from farmers and processors to manufacturers and retailers – bringing jobs and dollars with it.
A new industry means new businesses. A Kauffman Foundation study found new businesses account for nearly all net new job creation.
As agriculture is the third-largest industry in Wyoming, the project offers the potential to add significant value to the state’s economy. Agriculture added $1.72 billion to the state’s economy in 2016. Of that, crops contributed $338 million, and farm-related income totaled $300 million. There are close to 6,000 farmers in the state.
Farmers selling to local and regional markets employ 13 workers for every $1 million in revenue, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To support marketing efforts, Foulke has created a website and brand for this project.
He has also already reached out to several Wyoming companies, including Wyoming Malting Company, to process these grains into products like beer and bread and try out the market for them.
“We plan on malting both of these grains,” said Chad Brown, the owner of Wyoming Malting Company. “We are not sure what will happen during the malting process, but we are going to try.”
He plans to find craft brewers willing to try making a batch of beer with the grains, and he plans to make a whiskey from them in his own distillery.
This project could offer a new way for Wyoming companies to differentiate themselves from what everyone else is doing, he added.
“We are very excited about the potential,” he said. “Everybody is looking for the newest thing, and having the potential for that to be a heritage grain is pretty rad.”
The Wyoming Business Council’s branded Grown in Wyoming and Made in Wyoming programs help companies market their products and expand their reach beyond state and even national borders.