Growing ancient grains: Value-added production

CEWM-MR-1-Ancient grains 1by Tamara Scully
The Organic Growers’ Research and Sharing Information Network (OGRIN), in conjunction with the Northeast Organic Farmers Association-NY, (NOFA-NY) and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), held a recent workshop on growing and processing grains. Farmer Elizabeth Dyck, founder and coordinator of OGRIN, addressed several dozen attendees interested in small scale grain production, and grain processing opportunities.

Ancient grains, such as emmer, eincorn and spelt, fell out of favor as more modern varieties, easier to grow and process, were developed. As local mills closed down, locally-adapted grain varieties, such as Red Fife Wheat, became less common. These grains have flavor and other properties — such as protein content — which make them favored by bakers. The demand for these grains is growing, and outpaces the small farming community’s ability to provide them.


Growing the grain

Dyck introduced small farmers Kit and Cathy Kelley, of Washingtonville, PA, saying “they have made the difference between people in the Northeast having good small scale grain to grow, or not.” The Kelleys have been growing small grains and conducted trials with Dyck’s organization for several years.

The 39-acre organically-certified White Frost Farm began with a family history routed in grain processing and farming, and a desire to “capture our heritage,” Cathy Kelley said. Today, the couple could sell much more grain than they can produce. They grind and sell flours, and offer wheat berries, make pancake mixes, and sell baked goods made with their grains.

“Our scale is so small, we can’t fulfill all of the needs,” Kit Kelley said. Most of the demand is coming from metro areas, not rural communities, he said.

The couple has found that winter grains, rather than spring-planted, work best for them. In the spring, ragweed has been an issue, and pollen can taint the grains, causing flavor changes. However, they plant both in winter and spring, to guard against crop failure.

They have conducted trials over the past four years, “trying to find wheat that would be more adaptable to our climate and to our soils,” Kit said. Trials have included both modern and ancient grains. The Kelleys are currently running a trial with black emmer.

Some issues seen with the grains have included lodging, where the grains all fall over in the field and the crop is lost, and or tillering. Both modern and ancient grains have lodged in the trials. Small grains tiller more readily — or send up multiple shoots from a single plant — which can be an advantage, increasing quantity for harvest. Heritage wheats are also taller than modern varieties.

One quality sought after in grains in the falling number. This number represents a cellular event, where starch begins to convert to sugar. The falling number impacts flour stickiness, with lower numbers being stickier, and indicating a low-quality flour.

“The longer you leave wheat in the field, the more your quality is going to suffer,” Dyck said.
Vomitoxin is a concern. Moisture at the time of flowering is the main culprit, Dyck said. Fusarium does not always create vomitoxin, but great-looking grain can also harbor vomitoxin. All grain must be tested. While food grade grain acceptable levels are minimal, feed grain can have slightly higher levels. Distilling destroys vomitoxins, so that is a possible market for grains with higher levels, she said.

Scout fields pre-harvest to see problems, and “adjust the combine accordingly,” Thor Oechsner, of Farmer Ground Flour, said. If dealing with fusarium-infected kernels, he advises that growers “turn the air up quite a lot and blow those fusarium infected kernels out the combine.” Infected kernels are lighter than healthy ones.

The readiness of the crop for harvesting impacts its cleaning. Too much moisture will prevent dehulling, and not enough will crack the kernels. Storing the crop requires a moisture level of under 13.5 percent.

When harvesting with a combine, adapt concave spacing, cylinder and fan speed for best results, 50 percent of the spelt, but only 10 percent of  emmer, was dehulled. Combine settings, Kit said, are the “first line of defense as far as cleaning.” Appropriate screens will do the job best.

“You can’t just go out and combine,” Dyck said.

Hands on information on maintaining a combine, and adjusting it for use during harvest, was demonstrated by Oechsner and Joel Steigman, of Small Valley Milling.

Steigman cautioned against trying to get “everything you can in the bin,” because the processors aren’t interested in the extraneous materials. The combine needs adjustments to keep litter out. Steinman emphasized that old machines, cleaned up and adjusted properly, do a great job on these grains.

Oechsner advised participants to change only one thing at a time. Identify a problem then change one thing and recheck before adjusting anything else. Keeping records on settings, and on what adjustments helped and which didn’t is an invaluable practice, he said.

Equipment Issues

Dehulling ancient grains requires more than combining.

Very good, large-scale dehulling machines exist, Dyck said, but for farmers or processors looking to do so on a smaller scale, large machines are too expensive, and not needed. Adapting combines, refurbishing old grain cleaners and modifying dehulling equipment are all some of the ways farmers have been working to make value-added ancient grains a viable crop.

Robert Perry, of NOFA-NY the Value-Added Grains Project, has been working on adapting grain cleaners and on developing prototype grain dehullers which can be used by small scale grain growers. He demonstrated both an air screen cleaner, as well as a dehuller, during the workshop.

“This grain is so valuable, you want to get as much of that seed as possible. Hence the dehuller,” Dyck said. “It’s not a dehuller, it’s a dehuller system.” that is needed.

One difficulty when dehulling is broken hulls, which can be controlled by adjusting the speed. Dehullers work either by friction, or by impact. After dehulling, a blower is needed to help clear the grain from the empty hulls. A gravity table can help to separate out the clean grain as well. Other small farmers present at the workshop shared their own innovative dehulling systems.

Brian Baker, OGRIN’s economist for the Value Added Grains Project, addressed the audience, emphasizing that the economics of scale works in favor of creative solutions to dehulling and cleaning these grains. Hulls, he said, have value themselves, as poultry litter, bedding and even in pillows.

“When you are dealing with fixed costs, the volume you run through that machine makes a huge payback,” Baker said. Some of the same technologies used in dehulling rice and oats, which also have hulls, can be adapted for emmer, einhorn and other ancient grains.

Milling the grains into flour can be accomplished on tabletop mills for very small growers. Some farmers are importing small scale mills from countries where these ancient grains have continue to be a part of the diet, Dyck said.

For more information, contact OGRIN at www.ogrin.org, 1124 County Rd 38, Bainbridge, NY 13733.

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