High consumer demand makes ancient wheats hot commodities

reposted from May | June 2015, Organic Broadcaster , by Steve Zwinger and Elizabeth Dyck

The ancient wheats—einkorn, emmer, and spelt—are “trendy” right now thanks to demand by increasing numbers of consumers. There is something intriguing about eating grains that were domesticated in ancient times—at least 10,000 years ago in the case of einkorn and emmer, while the more “modern” spelt has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. For a number of reasons, the renewed interest in these grains may be not just a passing fad, but a lasting part of both healthy diets and sustainable cropping systems.

Research shows that these crops, when eaten as whole grain or whole grain flour can deliver significant nutritional benefits. All three ancient wheats tend to be higher in mineral content and protein than many common wheat varieties. The yellow-gold color of einkorn kernels and flour is due to high concentrations of lutein, a carotenoid that reduces risk of “aging” diseases, such as high blood pressure and macular degeneration. Emmer has a lower glycemic index than common wheat and may be of special value for diabetics. Some consumers also report that these grains are more easily digested than common wheat.

However, a couple of cautions are in order: 1) Varieties or landraces [farmer-developed populations] of these grains can vary widely in nutritional content—we need more research to identify those with optimal nutrition; and 2) Despite claims on the Internet, none of these grains are safe for those with celiac disease. Nevertheless, these wheats are likely to have staying power in our diets, not only because of their nutritional benefits, but—as chefs, bakers, and consumers are finding—they also taste really good.

The ancient wheats turn out to be adapted to a wide geographic area and range of growing conditions. Already in 1901, the wheat innovator M.A. Carleton praised emmer’s “ability to make a good crop with almost any condition of soil or climate.” Einkorn, emmer, and spelt also are especially suited to organic management, requiring fewer inputs than common wheat and showing greater tolerance to stress, such as drought, disease, and saline soils. Given rising costs for fertilizer and extremes in weather due to climate change, the ancient wheats look promising as lower risk crops for current and future rotations.

Research on the ancient wheats, ongoing at the Carrington Research Extension Center in North Dakota for over 10 years, has been expanded through collaboration with the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS) and Northeastern universities and farmer organizations as part of the “Value-added grains for local and regional food systems” project (funded by NIFA/OREI). Although more work is needed, results to date can provide guidance to farmers interested in experimenting with these grains.

Growing Ancient Wheats

The kernels from ancient wheats are larger than today’s wheat. Photo by Linda SchusterThe ancient wheats can be grown with field equipment used for wheat or oats. They should be managed as for common wheat in terms of rotation—avoid planting after wheat, barley, rye, or corn (especially when tillage practices leave corn residue at the field surface) to minimize the risk of scab infection. As with all small grains, spring types should be planted as early as soil conditions permit in the spring. Winter types of emmer and einkorn should be planted at the optimum dates for winter wheat planting in your area. Northeastern growers report winter spelt to be considerably more tolerant of late planting than winter wheat, although timely planting is still recommended to optimize plant stand.

It is best to plant seed in the hull, which protects the seed both in storage and the ground. This is essential for einkorn seed, which can easily be stripped of the germ during the dehulling process. Comparison of dehulled and hulled emmer from the same seed lot has also shown a reduction of more than 25% in germination from the dehulling process. However, care has to be taken to avoid bridging in the planting cups of the drill due to hairs and awns on the hulled seed. Running the seed through a debearder, which knocks off hairs and awns and breaks up doubles, can reduce plug problems at planting. Growers may also have trouble metering out enough seed of lightweight (35-38 lb/bu) hulled grain. Double planting of especially large-seeded types, e.g., black winter emmer, may be necessary to achieve adequate stands. Broadcasting and incorporating hulled seed is also an option.

To avoid lodging in ancient wheats, planting rate and N fertility rate need to be lower than those for common wheat. A rule of thumb for fertilizing these crops is to apply 50-75% of that needed for common wheat. Current data for spring types in North Dakota suggest a seeding rate of 100 lb/ac for hulled emmer, einkorn, and spelt. If planting under conditions of high fertility and moisture, the rate should be lowered to 65-75 lb/ac for emmer and 75 lb/ac einkorn. Spelt, which is less susceptible to lodging, should remain at 100 lb/ac. Experimentation with winter types of emmer and einkorn, which has largely taken place on Northeast farms, suggests that planting rates of 60-75 lb/ac may be sufficient, but more research is needed.

Dehulling Ancient Wheats

Unlike modern wheat, the seed of the ancient wheats usually retains its hull through the combining process, requiring special equipment to remove the hull to produce food-grade products. The ancient wheats vary in their ease of dehulling: a rule of thumb is that spelt is most easily dehulled, emmer is more strongly retained in the hull and more susceptible to breakage, and einkorn can be difficult to dehull without damaging the seed. However, more research is needed on dehulling efficiency in ancient wheats—initial studies in North Dakota show that varieties and landraces can differ by 10% or more in terms of dehulling efficiency. Disease incidence, harvest conditions, and humidity conditions when dehulling can also affect dehulling efficiency.

Lack of dehulling infrastructure in the U.S. has proved a bottleneck for growers. However, in the last several years, options for growers are increasing.

Larger-scale impact dehullers, which dehull by flinging the grain at high velocity against a hard surface, are manufactured by several U.S. companies, e.g., Codema and Forsberg. These dehullers were designed for other crops, such as oats and sunflowers, but can dehull spelt and emmer. (Further experimentation with einkorn is needed). A range of dehullers are available for import from Europe, including abrasion types that rub the hull from the seed. These options are suitable for growers willing and able to make large capital investments—the cost for a dehuller and the equipment needed to remove empty hulls and undehulled kernels from the dehulled seed (which usually includes an aspirator and a gravity table or other separation device) is likely to range upwards of $20,000. Larger-scale growers also have the option of sending their grain to a dehulling facility. However, because currently there are few dehulling facilities in the Midwest, growers need to factor in transport costs when assessing this option.

A third dehulling option, which is better suited for smaller-scale growers and those who want to experiment with production and test markets before investing in expensive equipment, is to modify or use existing equipment or to build a dehuller. Several growers report success in dehulling ancient wheats using burr mills in which one or both of the burr plates is replaced with rubber—essentially turning the mill into an abrasion dehuller. Debearding and roller machines can also be used to dehull. Finally, a couple of small-scale dehuller prototypes have been built for which design and construction information is available. (See “Additional information” box.)

Yield Potential & Markets

Research in North Dakota on spring types shows that einkorn, emmer, and spelt in the hull yield comparably to wheat (Figure 1). In the Northeast, research also shows winter spelt in the hull to yield similarly to winter wheat. More research is needed to determine the yield potential of winter emmer and einkorn varieties and landraces. When assessing yield potential for food-grade seed, it is important to remember that that no ancient wheat can ever be 100% dehulled—a percentage of seed (perhaps 10-40%) will remain in the hull depending on the crop type and the dehulling system used. Moreover, in experimentation with emmer, even when 100% of the kernels were extracted by hand, the hulls accounted for ~20% of the yield weight.

2013-2014 Organic Spring Grain Yields
Central North Dakota Trial Means (6-Site Average)


Fortunately, the ancient wheats in the hull make excellent animal feed, and the empty hulls excellent bedding. Currently, the market demand for dehulled seed, and the many products that can be made from that seed—including whole berries, flour, bread, other baked goods, crackers, matzo, pasta, breakfast cereals, malts, distilled liquors—is unmet. Organic retail prices for whole berries of these wheats range from $1.30-$7 per pound (with emmer and einkorn fetching the highest prices). Given the nutritional value, tastiness, and sustainability of these crops and with further consumer education and product development, there is excellent potential for the current market to grow.

Additional Information

see mosesorganic.org for the original article (May | June 2015 Issue) with additional links.

Steve Zwinger conducts organic research at the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center. Elizabeth Dyck coordinates the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN).