A Bright Future for Ancient Grains?

1/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

Cornell Study Evaluates Heritage Crops for Organic Growers

ITHACA, N.Y. — “Small-grain crops provide multiple benefits to organic systems,” says Mark Sorrells, a professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University.

However, the profit margin from small grains has sometimes discouraged organic growers from incorporating them into their systems.

With increasing consumer interest in value-added organic products using specialty grains, there is a potential niche for growers of organic grains; however, information on the most suitable species and varieties for production and processing is limited.

Sorrells recently secured $2.3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study how to make organic “ancient” grain production economically viable.

The project, which will last four years, includes researchers from several states, a number of co-operator farmers, farmer-based organizations and marketing groups.

The project will evaluate how well suited heritage wheat and spelt varieties and landraces of emmer and einkorn are for growing in organic systems; identify the best management practices; and, by working with engineers and growers, design efficient dehulling and milling equipment.

Sensory testing, as well as identifying local and regional marketing options for producers, will be another important part of the project.

Einkorn (Triticum monococcum), emmer (Triticum dicoccum), and spelt (Triticum spelta) are traditionally grains of the Middle East. Einkorn was cultivated by Neolithic man from around 10,000 B.C. Emmer was cultivated about 7,000 B.C. It is thought that spelt was cultivated around 5,000 B.C. and it is still grown widely today for its health benefits.

In North America, emmer and einkorn are only just being rediscovered, although they are still grown as a staple by people in some countries. Organic growers in the Northeast are interested in them because they can grow in harsh conditions and have some desirable dietary attributes.

Spelt is higher in protein than other grains. Einkorn, even though it does contain gluten, is tolerated by some people who are gluten intolerant. Einkorn also has higher protein levels than hard red wheat and, due to its sweet flavor, can be used as a whole grain or in flatbreads. In addition, it is able to grow in poor soil and harsh environments. Emmer similarly can be used as a whole grain or for pasta or bread.

“These grains present a new economic opportunity for farmers in the Northeast,” said Julie Dawson, a research associate with the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics.

Unlike the modern grains, these grains require dehulling, which can be an issue. Producers who are able to dehull grain and sell directly to bakers or retail outlets can receive much higher prices than if they were to sell modern wheat retail.

With the help of a team of Cornell University engineering students, a small-scale grain dehuller has been built and is currently being tested prior to building a production-scale model.

“A mobile grain-cleaning unit has also been assembled and this is being tested by farmers,” Dawson said.

Useful material for further study has been identified from the first season of field data obtained from studies performed with wheat, emmer, spelt and einkorn at the Freeville, N.Y., and Willsboro, N.Y., research farms associated with Cornell University, at Penn State University’s research farm, and at the North Dakota State University research farm.

“We have a number of historic wheat varieties in our studies because organic growers are interested in seeing whether compared with the commonly used varieties they have better tolerance to weeds, better nutrient use in organic systems or better end-use quality for artisanal products,” Dawson said.

Historically, the Cornell wheat breeding program has focused on breeding soft wheat, as this was the main market for growers in the region. Bakers are seeking local flour as consumers are looking for breads with local ingredients. The trials have therefore included hard wheat varieties that have done well in similar climates in other states, Canada and Europe.

The Extension portion of the project has included field days at research sites and on farms, workshops at farming conferences, consumer flour preference tastings with breads, working with local millers to build the processing infrastructure and with Greenmarket of New York City and Grow New York City to improve direct marketing opportunities for farmers.

So far good progress has been made with this aspect of the project.

“We have also enlisted several local millers, brewers, distillers and bakers who would like to increase the quantity of locally produced organic small grains in their products,” Dawson said. “They are working with us to test quality attributes for processing and baking, in addition to the taste of the final product.”

Some people claim that heritage wheat varieties have better taste, but there is little science to support the claim. With assistance from Harry Lawless, a professor in Cornell’s Department of Food Science, a sensory analysis study is being performed.

A major frustration is the limited availability of seed for some of the varieties.

“We would like to move more quickly on quality tests and sensory analysis but are limited by the amount of seed we have from observational nurseries and trials,” Dawson said. “There are also significant seed shortages for farmers who would like to plant larger acreage of organic grains, as untreated seed of the best current varieties often is unavailable regionally.”

Sorrells has secured funding from Northeast SARE to address some of these issues related to the production of quality seed. That farm-based project will involve training organic growers in New England, New York and Pennsylvania in grain-seed production and include a workshop in collaboration with Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) and the New York Seed Improvement Program.<\c> Photo by Julie Dawson

 

Grain

Organic winter wheat trial at the Cornell organic research farm in Freeville, N.Y.


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