Ancient wheat variety begins comeback in northern Michigan

Emmer wheat, one of the earliest known cultivated crops, is once again attracting the attention of farmers and consumers.

Emmer, an ancient grain, dates back 10,000 years as a cultivated crop in Damascus, Syria. Photo credit: USDA
Emmer, an ancient grain, dates back 10,000 years as a cultivated crop in Damascus, Syria. Photo credit: USDA

Recently, Grand Traverse Culinary Oils, a Traverse City, Michigan based purveyor of Michigan grown and processed culinary oils and grains, announced it would plant, harvest and process certified organic emmer wheat during the 2015 growing season. Such an announcement led me to investigate and share information about this ancient wheat variety.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccon), also known as farro (especially in Italy) is a low-yielding awned wheat. It was one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East. It was widely cultivated in the ancient world, but is now a relict crop in mountainous regions of Europe and Asia.” Purdue University states “emmer was formerly grown in the United States for feed on limited acreage but now has substantially disappeared from cultivation.”

Why might emmer wheat make a comeback in Michigan? First of all, emmer can grow in marginal soils and hilly fields. Since these conditions can be found in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, emmer may thrive there, although further testing is needed to determine its viability.

There are benefits to farmers to grow alternative crops, such as emmer wheat. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program wrote, “Diversifying (crops) can soften impacts on environmental resources, spread farmers' economic risk, exploit profitable niche markets and, by creating new industries based on renewable agriculture resources, strengthen rural communities.” SARE’s bulletin, "Diversifying Cropping Systems," provides extensive information for small and medium-size farms.

Should one eat emmer wheat? According to Monica Smith, writing for Michigan State University Extension, “It is most frequently imported from Italy and sold pearled (which cooks quickly) rather than hulled (whole). The cooked grain’s texture is dense and chewy, the flavor delicate and nutty. Rich in fiber, protein, iron and vitamins A, B, C, and E, farro [emmer] is low in gluten and easily digested.”

Also, according to the Rodale Institute, emmer “can be cracked for cereal and milled for flour for baking bread, making pasta or blending into pancake and waffle mix. It is most prized by today’s chefs, however, as a whole grain in soups, pilafs, risottos, salads, stuffings and more.”

For information about “ancient” grains such as emmer, a free webinar is available for viewing from eXtension, America’s research-based learning network. This webinar discusses ancient grains, their origins and attributes, current and potential uses and markets and what is known about growing them. It is for those interested in specialty grains, including farmers, consumers, bakers, chef, millers and other grain processors.

About that experimental crop, that Grand Traverse Culinary Oils is growing? Check back with them in the fall to find out!

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