If Thomas Foulke has his way, some of the oldest domesticated crops in the world will help grow a new industry in Wyoming.
Foulke, a senior research scientist at the University of Wyoming in the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, is leading an effort called the Wyoming First-Grains Project. The project aims to develop a niche industry around growing “first grains,” which Foulke described as the earliest domesticated cereal crops, among them Emmer wheat, spelt, barely and einkorn.
“People were making bread from wild grains before they even domesticated it,” he said. “There was something about bread and something about wheat that was really important to early humans.”
The idea for growing spelt and Emmer wheat in Wyoming came to Foulke when he was traveling in France as part of a study-abroad program with his department. While reading a book about historic meals in the Middle Ages, he came across a word he didn’t know. Its English translation was “spelt.”
He began wondering why no one grows spelt in Wyoming, and then began to wonder if it would be possible to start growing it.
Spelt is a species of wheat that has been grown for more than 7,000 years. Emmer wheat was cultivated even earlier.
Today, such species are specialty crops gaining a reputation as alternatives to traditional wheat. Their unique flavors and nutritional profiles that have caught the eye of bakers, brewers and health-conscious consumers, who are willing to pay a higher cost.
“We’re seeing people willing to pay a little more for a little better quality,” Foulke said. “They don’t want the standard monoculture. We’re trying to move into the market early and establish a brand and establish a supply chain so that we can provide this to market.”
In 2018, Foulke received support from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, along with $50,000 in development funding from UW’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which aims to empower innovative projects. He created marketing materials around the name “Neolithic Brand,” planted a few acres of grain and went looking for partners.
In conjunction with UW research farms in Lingle, Powell and Sheridan, the First-Grains Project produced about 20 acres of spelt and Emmer wheat last year.
One reason the two crops fell out of favor with growers — and they do have some history in Wyoming — was because most of their grains don’t thresh free of their hull upon harvest like some types of modern wheat. Thus, they need to be dehulled before they’re ready for milling.
“When mechanization came about, because there’s an extra processing step, mechanization bypassed these crops,” Foulke said.
Foulke was unable to find anyone to dehull the products at scale and is planning to purchase the necessary equipment. He also needs to purchase a mill in order to grind the grain into flour, but that will have to come in the future with additional funding.
Meanwhile, he partnered with Wyoming Malting Company in Pine Bluffs, which is working out the process of malting the novel grains. Colorado has more than 300 craft breweries that could be interested in what they produce.
“They have a thick hull, so the normal (malting) processes don’t work very well, and that’s part of the experimentation process,” he said.
He also gave grain to Wyoming bakers to test out, include Alibi Pub and Solstice Acre Breads in Laramie.
Alibi owner Kerri Smith said she uses spelt and Emmer wheat, milled in-house, in several types of bread. She appreciates having a Wyoming producer for those products.
“It’s nice to have somebody local that’s actually growing it in your backyard and not have to source it from California or Oregon,” she said.
She said she enjoys baking with the specialty grains because they’re move flavorful than common wheat, and customers appreciate the difference.
“They’re definitely the loaves that sell the quickest for us,” she said.
At Solstice Acre Breads, Blake McGee plans to use both types of grain this summer, when he’ll sell bread once a week at the Thursday Local Market. McGee works at the University of Wyoming during the school year.
He’s been baking with spelt for a while and used it in a loaf he sold at a pop-up sale this spring.
“Our customers really liked it,” he said.
He said spelt behaves differently than conventional wheat, so there’s a learning curve for bakers. It doesn’t have the same elasticity, he can’t ferment it as long, and it tastes a little nuttier.
McGee grinds his grains in small batches just before mixing it into dough. He plans to use a sifter to make a lighter-colored whole-grain flour and also wants to try make pasta from the spelt and Emmer wheat.
“I’m looking forward to classes being done so I can really dig in to it,” he said.
On the production side of the project, Carrie Eberle, an agronomist at the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Lingle, is planning to grow a series of test crops on research stations this summer to learn more about growing and managing the crops.
Caitlin Youngquist, an agriculture and horticulture educator in Worland, is going to work with five farmers who will be growing the grains on their land this summer and learning as they go.
Eberle said she’s hoping to learn how much water and nitrogen are required for optimal production, and whether the crops respond better with or without irrigation.
“There is some evidence they are supposed to be lower-input, more-sustainable options relative to our conventional wheat crops,” she said.
Researchers learned last year that any herbicides and pesticides approved for use on conventional wheat can also be used on its ancient cousins — a factor that should make life easier for farmers. Eberle said farmers have successfully grown other grains in the state, and she’s hoping the transition to growing a new crop can be smooth.
“Farming is hard. Finding places to sell a crop where you’re actually making money on it is hard,” she said. “If there’s an alternative market, that’s a great reason to grow it.”
In order to grow a sustainable industry, producers need to know they’ll be able to sell the crops they commit to growing. Simultaneously, those who want to use the crops in their own production — beer or bread, perhaps — needs to know they’ll be able to get as much as they need, when they need it. In the middle, Neolithic Brand is pulling the pieces together.
“We’re hoping that by growing them and having a good, clean product and a good distribution system, we can build this market that way,” Foulke said.
As the project grows, Foulke envisions a spin-off company that’s largely self-sustaining and can take advantage of interested investors. More capital will be needed to continue expanding.
“We want to show the state that we can create a business that does all these things together and is profitable,” he said.