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By George Horvath
Staff Writer 

WESTI Ag Days: Wyoming leads the way with archaic wheat varieties


February 27, 2020

Karla Pomeroy

Carrie Eberle of the University of Wyoming examines one of the Chief Washakie FFA agscience exhibits during WESTI Ag Days last Tuesday in Worland.

Wheat varieties that were first farmed as far back as 10,000 years ago are making a strong comeback in Wyoming. Caitlin Youngquist and Carrie Eberle of the University of Wyoming Extension described a University of Wyoming agricultural research project concerned with "first grains" at WESTI Ag Days in Worland, Feb. 12.

The Wyoming First Grains Project is growing three early grains – emmer, spelt and einkorn – on five farms and three research stations in several different parts of the state. These grains are grown using several different agricultural methods, including dryland, irrigated and no-till farming. Emmer, spelt and einkorn are still traditionally grown and eaten in some parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, but until recently they have seldom been seen in the United States. The situation is changing. Youngquist showed a slide from a 2018 market research report, suggesting a nearly $500 million worldwide market for early grains, with prospects favorable for market growth.

Based on previous research, Youngquist and Eberle outlined several reasons why these grains are potentially valuable in Wyoming. The first is that they seem to thrive in tougher conditions than modern wheat varieties can do. They may also have higher nitrogen and water use efficiency, as well as greater resistance to disease. Their nutritional profiles are excellent. Another reason is that folks with gluten sensitivity may be able to eat these early grains without ill effect. University researchers are currently collecting and analyzing data on all of these and other variables, as well as evaluating the costs and benefits of growing these grains in Wyoming.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (Western SARE).

Youngquist presented advertisements and articles from early editions of the Worland Grit that discussed Worland's "Emmer Products Company" and the breakfast foods it made. While uncommon in the US now, emmer and spelt were grown extensively in the first two decades of the 20th century – and Worland was an important center of emmer research and innovation.

Interestingly, the September 1911 edition of "Wyoming Farm Bulletin" describes a visit to the Worland farms of the Wyoming Plant and Seed Breeding Company. This company was owned and operated by a former University of Wyoming professor of agriculture, Burton C. Buffum, who moved to Worland in 1907 to conduct experiments in breeding and cross-breeding European grain varieties. "We had heard a great deal about the new improved winter emmer which is being put upon the market this year, but never had an opportunity to see it growing," reported the Bulletin. "To say that we were surprised does not express our feelings." The anonymous author goes on to describe Buffum's reported harvest of 90 or more bushels of emmer per acre. "These figures may easily be believed after one has seen the grain growing," the author said. In a similar vein, a November 1911 Billings Gazette article reports about the New York Land Show, in which agricultural exhibits from all over the western US were displayed. In addition to highlighting his nine foot tall Worland-grown alfalfa, the article describes Buffum's work with emmer and other grains. "Here is probably the largest collection of new grains ever shown by one man in this country ... Prominent in this exhibit is the wonderful new variety of winter emmer ... its sweet, nutty flavor and freedom from becoming a sticky or gummy mass make it more palatable than oatmeal or other forms of wheat."

According to the Wyoming First Grains Project website, the use of early grains in the U.S. may have fallen by the wayside due to the growth of industrialized farming, as the 20th century progressed. Modern wheat varieties lose their hulls when harvested, while the first grains keep them. De-hulling these grains requires an additional step.

The University of Wyoming Extension staff also shared some spelt flour that had been de-hulled. "The de-huller is getting installed in Powell at the research station and we hope to have more grain to share soon," Youngquist said. "I am learning to bake with spelt, and have been sharing flour with local home bakers in Washakie County. I love seeing how creative they get!"

In addition to growing these three early grains, the Wyoming First Grains Project is looking into the potential for actual food and beverage production with them. The project's trademarked "Neolithic" brand – a term that refers to the grains' late Stone Age origins – is currently working with Wyoming-based food and beverage producers to explore the possibilities for developing delicious products and sustainable, profitable markets.

From March through May of this year, the project will offer hands-on workshops for cooking and baking with emmer, einkorn and spelt. Workshops will be held in Afton, Lingle, Lusk, Newcastle, Pinedale and Rawlins.

"The Wyoming First Grains Project combines agronomy research, market development, and nutrition research and education. I have really enjoyed collaborating with farmers, researchers, and bakers," Youngquist said.


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