Despite Dr. Atkins’ efforts, Canadians still love their breads, pastries, and pastas— keeping wheat as the most common grain consumed in North America.
However, the ‘breadbasket’ is getting a little more crowded (or at least older) as our common wheat is sharing supermarket shelves with its ancestors. Often and affectionately referred to as ‘ancient grains’—these wild predecessors of wheat are staging a revival of sorts that is creating opportunities for organic farmers. Consumer interests in whole foods and heritage varieties, combined with consumer awareness of food sensitivities, has led spelt, kamut, emmer and einkorn to appear in our diets and in organic farmers’ crop rotations.
Take a brief look into the genetics and breeding of wheat and you will soon realize that it is a little more complicated than most of our domesticated species. Some wheat species occur as stable polyploids having more than two sets of diploid chromosomes. Einkorn wheat is a diploid, while emmer and durum are tetraploids, suggesting a hybridization of two wild grasses long before domestication. Lastly, our common wheat and spelt are hexaploids, suggesting that, long ago, emmer or durum must have hybridized with another wild grass to create the six chromosome sets. For the past century, North American society has focused on main wheat types—pasta (durum) and the bread wheats—however a revival in whole grains is encouraging consumers to expand their tastes.
Einkorn (Triticum monococcum)
Einkorn, along with emmer and spelt, is often referred to as a ‘covered wheat’ as the kernels do not thresh free of the chaff when harvested. Historically, einkorn was cultivated on marginal agricultural land. Even today, einkorn is commonly grown on poor soils yet still produces protein levels (12 to 13.5%) equal to or higher than that of barley. Growing einkorn is comparable to growing spring grains with einkorn maturing later than spring wheat. The majority of einkorn is produced in more arid climates and it is suggested that einkorn would be susceptible to lodging in high moisture conditions. As a result of being primarily produced in lower moisture environments, einkorn’s disease susceptibility is unknown. Einkorn is considered a relict crop that is planted sporadically in some marginalized lands around the Mediterranean and is often used in the making of bulgur.
Emmer (T. dicoccon)
The use of emmer as porridge dates back to the earliest of civilizations but, unlike einkorn, emmer production was more widespread ranging from regions with relatively short growing seasons to those having high temperatures in the growing season. Agronomic practices for emmer would be similar to those of oats with seeding rates ranging from 75 kg/ha (67 lb/ac.) in dryland cropping to 100 kg/ha (90 lb/ac.) in high rainfall regions. In recent trials, emmer yields exceeded those of barley, wheat and oats in years with less than favourable growing conditions. As with einkorn, data suggest that emmer and perhaps many other traditional species are more robust than their more domesticated descendents in that they can better scavenge nutrients in resource-limited conditions.
At present, the production and marketing of emmer grain is quite limited and it is often relegated as a feed substitute for livestock. Despite having protein levels 5–35% higher than oats or barley, initial milling and baking studies indicated that bread quality was not equal to breads made of common wheat. Similar to einkorn, certain select artisan bakeries highlighting ancient grains are using emmer as a feature in their multigrain breads.
Spelt (T. aestivum spelta)
Spelt is by far is the most common of the hulled wheats. There are both spring and winter spelt cultivars, with winter seeding more common for organic farmers. Despite the obvious comparisons with winter wheat, spelt has only moderate nitrogen requirements (25–50% lower) making it an even better fit for organic systems. Spelt has a variable seeding rate ranging from 130 to 200 kg/ha (116– 180 lb/ac.) depending on weediness and available moisture. It is sown at or near the same time as winter wheat. Spelt is sown slightly deeper (at a depth of 3 cm or just over an inch) than wheat allowing a dense root system to develop, thus preventing any opportunity for heaving during freeze-thaw cycles.
Harvesting of spelt may be 8 to 10 days before winter wheat and it is usually combined with great care in order to avoiddehulling. Spelt straw is brittle, but of high quality and high quantity. It is very desirable as mulch or for bedding. With the early harvest, many organic farmers can underseed red clover into spelt early in spring or use catch crops like buckwheat or oilseed radish following harvest. Advances in spelt breeding are generating new varieties often selected for disease hardiness. Common spelt is susceptible to leaf rust, fusarium, powdery mildew and loose smut. In cool moist springs, spelt may have an advantage over other grains in terms of staving off soil-borne diseases because of its thick hull.
Initially, Canadian spelt was exported for the European market, however renewed interest has led spelt flour to be substituted for wheat flour in many products. People with allergies to wheat starch commonly report that spelt is easier to digest, however for people with gluten allergies (celiac disease), spelt will be no different than wheat.
Kamut (T. durum)
The origin of Kamut is somewhat confusing and its anecdotal arrival to North America would make good fiction. The very name kamut is in fact a registered trademark of Kamut International, and is based upon the Egyptian word for durum wheat.
Regardless of its origin or history, kamut is making a foothold in the organic grain market. Kamut kernels are twice the size of wheat kernels and are characterized by a hump shape, but it is best known for its distinctive nutty, buttery flavour. Agronomic practices for producing kamut would be similar to those of durum or hard red spring wheat. Unlike other ancient grains, a contract guaranteeing organic production is required to grow kamut. Like all of the other alternative wheats, kamut will outyield other spring wheats when environmental stresses are experienced during the growing season and will have equal to or slightly lower yields in ideal growing conditions. Kamut is a tall growing (130 cm / 50 in.) wheat species generating an excellent quality straw.
Traditional wheat species
Growing alternative grains may not be suitable for all organic farmers especially those not familiar with cereal production. The primary benefits of alternative grains are to capture a niche
market and to grow a competitive crop that can perform well under less than ideal growing conditions. However, there are challenges such as susceptibility to disease, variance in yields and protein content, extra costs associated with dehulling, and sourcing markets.
Spring wheat (T. aestivum)
There are several classes of spring wheat, namely: durum, hard red, hard white and soft white.
• Durum has large, very hard, translucent kernels. The endosperm is used to make semolina flour for products such as pasta and couscous.
• Hard red spring (HRS) wheat kernels are brownish in colour and high in protein (gluten) which leads to good bread baking.
• Hard white wheat has moderate protein levels and is typically grown in more arid conditions. Its flour is used in bread, especially flatbreads, such as tortillas and pitas.
• Soft white wheat grows well in more temperate climates and its low protein content makes its flour ideal for pastries.
Spring wheat works well in organic rotations because of its competitiveness with weeds and because of its value as a cash crop. Generally, spring wheat is seeded at 100–160 kg/ha (89–143 lb/ac.) at a depth of 5–8 cm (2–3 in.) having only moderate nutrient demands.
Winter wheat (T. aestivum)
The majority of organic wheat grown in Canada is spring wheat, but many organic farmers work winter wheat into their rotations quite well. Winter wheat is grown over a wide range of environments (similar to those of spelt) and is used primarily for flour with moderate to high protein levels.
Winter wheat is considered a heavy feeder in terms of nutrients and therefore it works well after a late summer plowdown of a hay or clover crop. Similar to spelt, winter wheat seeding rates are quite variable depending on soil moisture and date of seeding— increased rates where more moisture
is available and when seeding is done later in fall. Winter wheat, like spelt, is harvested in mid-summer allowing for a catch crop, like oilseed radish, to be planted after the wheat harvest. Winter wheat produces a high quality straw that, if not used for livestock, can be disked into the top 10–15 cm (4– 6 in.) of the soil along with manure followed by the seeding of the catch crop.
The greatest benefits in growing the more common wheat species are having disease-resistant varieties available; a certified weed-free seed source; established markets; and tried and tested agronomic practices.
Organic farmers are constantly looking for new niche markets to capture the ever-changing health trends of consumers. Renewed interest in whole grain breads, coupled with sensitivities to common breads, has launched another level of value-added crops to an organic farmer’s rotation. The alternative wheat species have distinctive characteristics that will attract artisan bakers and consumers, and they feature a robustness and resilience in their growth ability that separates them from our common wheat.
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