Researchers have had success growing ancient grains, but developing a market for them is a challenge in itself.
The University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources project, called First Grains, is meant to create a profitable, sustainable niche industry using emmer, einkorn and spelt.
The crops are considered “ancient grains” or “first grains” because they were some of the first domesticated cereal crops. Evidence shows the crops were grown over 10,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia during the first agricultural revolution.
The idea for the First Grains program came to be in 2015, senior research scientist Tom Foulke said.
“One of the parts of my jobs is that I take students to France for an ag program,” Foulke said.
Another part of his job is to develop the regional agricultural economy, so when he came across information about the grains in an old recipe book during his annual trip, he saw an opportunity.
“I’m looking at the book and saying, ‘Why aren’t we growing this?’ We are always looking for crops to grow here,” he said. “The question for me came up that maybe there’s a business here, maybe there’s an opportunity, and it evolved.”
Agriculture and horticulture educator Caitlin Youngquist, based in Washakie County, began growing a small amount of emmer and spelt in the Big Horn Basin.
“My interest in some of these first grains or early grains started as I was listening to barley growers express concern about MillerCoors cutting some of their contracts,” she said. “I wanted to look for other crops that could be easily grown with the existing equipment and expertise we have in the basin.”
Foulke and Youngquist are joined on the project by agronomy and cropping systems specialist Carrie Eberle and assistant professor Jill Keith from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, who is studying nutrition.
This year, emmer, spelt and einkorn were planted at UW research and extension centers near Powell, Sheridan and Lingle. Five producers in the state also grew the crops.
The grains were grown under dryland and irrigated conditions, no till and conventional and organic and non-organic to determine which conditions result in the best yields.
While there were already a few Wyoming farmers growing the grains, they aren’t popular among producers because of an additional step needed after harvest: De-hulling. This became an obstacle for UW researchers as well.
“There are de-hullers in the region, but they are all organic,” said Foulke, who explained that because not all of UW’s crops are being raised organically, the machines couldn’t be utilized. “That is what had held us up for the last year.”
Next season, the problem will be solved. Foulke said a de-huller has been purchased and installed at the Powell Research and Extension Center in Powell, Wyoming. Soon, it will be hooked up to a power supply and will be ready to use.
“All of the products, whether for bread or for beer, need de-hulled seed,” he said. “No de-hulling capacity was available in a three-state area. With this new machine, the project can start building the niche industry and take the first steps toward privatization.”
Foulke’s major roll in the First Grains project is to explore potential products and markets and guide the project onto the next phase. Although the first steps toward privatization can be taken, he said it’s likely going to be a long walk.
“There’s a lot of challenges,” he said. “We need to make sure we can push this off as a standalone business.”
If they’re successful, it will create jobs and give producers more options, he said. In order to get to that point, Foulke has to pin down various uses for the crops.
“We’re working on developing different types of food products,” Foulke said. “What we’d like to do is identify which products these grains lend themselves to more than others.”
To do this, the university has enlisted help from Wyoming bakers and brewers.
“The Bread Doctor in Torrington is using some of our grains,” he said. “You can go there and buy those grains already.”
Foulke said they want to go beyond bread — he hopes to find other uses for the grains as well, which could build up the market and draw in more producers.
“In the past, farmers grew it, but there wasn’t a market,” he said.
Getting a better premium for the niche crops is one of his goals.
Although the hope is for ancient grains to become a niche industry within Wyoming’s ag sector, they likely won’t replace major crops.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as big as a lot of cash crops,” Foulke said. “I do think we can certainly develop it to be more of a cash crop, but it will take time.”