Emmer wheat grows in popularity

RUGBY, N.D. -- One of the world's oldest crops may be finding new life after a century of obscurity. Emmer wheat, which dates to prehistoric times, once was popular on parts of the Northern Plains. But the crop became little more than a historica...

Blaine Schmaltz
Blaine Schmaltz of Rugby, N.D., takes a closer look at a head of emmer, an obscure crop that he thinks has a promising future. (Agweek photo by Jonathan Knutson)
Jonathan Knutson / Agweek

RUGBY, N.D. -- One of the world's oldest crops may be finding new life after a century of obscurity.

Emmer wheat, which dates to prehistoric times, once was popular on parts of the Northern Plains. But the crop became little more than a historical footnote after the arrival of new, better-yielding wheat varieties in the early 20th century.

Now, health benefits associated with emmer -- particularly its potential value to people with gluten intolerance -- could lead to a resurgence of the crop, at least among farmers in arid climates, emmer advocates say.

"I'm not saying it will fit into a lot of (farmers') production models. But I think it's a crop that some farmers should take a look at," said Blaine Schmaltz, a Rugby, N.D., farmer.

The certified seed grower wasn't familiar with the crop until six years ago, when he was asked to begin growing emmer for a small bakery in the western U.S.


Schmaltz is among an estimated half-dozen farmers in North Dakota who collectively grow fewer than 1,000 acres of the crop. In comparison, the average size of just one North Dakota farm is about 1,240 acres.

Emmer is so obscure today that Jim Peterson, marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission in Bismarck, is unfamiliar with it.

"It's not something our customers are asking about," he said.

Long ties to the region

Though few of the region's current farmers have heard of it, emmer was known by many area producers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

European settlers brought emmer to the region because it was hardy and could feed both people and livestock, said Steve Zwinger, a research specialist in agronomy with the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Carrington.

Zwinger has planted small test plots of emmer to evaluate the crop and increase seed supplies.

A 1911 U.S. Department of Agriculture report dates emmer's arrival on the Northern Plains at 1875 to 1880 and notes that the crop soon came to be of "considerable importance." Emmer yielded more than wheat, though less than barley and oats, in tests conducted from 1907 to '09 in Dickinson, N.D., the report says.


The oats and barley comparison was important because emmer sometimes was used to replace those crops in livestock feed rations.

Emmer is "considerably resistant to drought" and "very resistant to rust," a common crop disease, the report said.

The crop "thrives best in a dry prairie region with hot summers" but also "will withstand to a considerable degree the effects of wet weather," the report said.

But emmer has a drawback that the report mentions only indirectly. Emmer hulls must be removed mechanically after threshing, usually by milling or pounding, if the grain goes for human consumption.

In contrast, the hulls of modern "free-threshing" wheat are fragile and come off during threshing, saving work after harvesting.

Nonetheless, emmer's ability to hold up in poor soils and dry weather once made it attractive to some area farmers, Zwinger said.

The attraction began to dim in the early 20th century, when new, better-yielding varieties of free-threshing wheat were introduced.

Over time, the yield advantage of free-threshing wheat varieties became even more pronounced, and emmer's popularity fell steadily.


Zwinger said he wonders what would have happened if researchers also had investigated emmer and introduced new varieties of the crop.

Health benefits

Health-conscious consumers, especially ones intolerant to gluten, could return emmer to prominence, say advocates for the crop.

Gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, is a digestive condition that damages the surface of the small intestines and blocks the ability to absorb certain nutrients, according to the website.

People who suffer from the disease react badly to gluten, a type of protein found in most grains, including wheat.

The National Health Institutes website advises people with celiac disease to avoid wheat, including emmer, spelt and einkorn.

But emmer advocates say there's anecdotal evidence that its gluten structure causes a milder reaction than modern wheat in people suffering from gluten intolerance.

Peterson, with the North Dakota Wheat Commission, said gluten intolerance is an important issue for many of the commission's customers.


Emmer advocates also say emmer and other ancient wheat varieties are high in fiber, protein and minerals.

"It goes beyond the issue of gluten intolerance," Schmaltz said of health benefits provided by emmer.


Don't expect supermarket shelves to be filled with emmer products anytime soon.

"There's a significant amount of energy that will need to go into getting this where we want it to be," said Troy DeSmet, president of Nature's Organic Grist in Forest Lake, Minn.

The company, which he launched in January, specializes in several ancient grains, including emmer.

Part of the challenge is that preparing emmer for sale is expensive. The grain must be cleaned after harvest, separated from the hull, then cleaned again, and that leads to higher costs for consumers.

Farmers also will need a price that's high enough to persuade them to grow the crop in spite of lower yields and extra handling requirements, DeSmet said.


As a result, emmer products will cost significantly more than modern wheat products, although it's difficult to say how much more, he said.

Selling emmer products online should help to hold down their cost, he said.

Nature's Organic Grist is not a gluten-free company, but DeSmet is emphasizing emmer's health benefits, including its potential appeal to people intolerant to gluten.

Its nutty taste also is a plus, he said.

"It's a different product. It's a unique product. It's not durum wheat. It's not spring wheat. It stands alone," he said.

But he stressed that the market for emmer is so small, at least for now, that farmers shouldn't begin growing large amounts of it.

"This is really one of those crops that need to be nursed along," he said.

Arid climates


In his six years growing emmer, Schmaltz has planted it on a wide range of cropland, ranging from some of his best land to land with low fertility to land newly removed from the Conservation Reserve Program.

Schmaltz, who grows 16 different crops, said he's had good results with emmer in all situations.

Even so, he thinks emmer will hold most appeal to farmers in dry climates with lower-fertility soils.

"Would a farmer want to raise it in the Red River Valley? Probably not. But I think it can be attractive to farmers in arid climates," he said.

The Red River Valley is known for its rich soil and relatively plentiful rainfall.

Zwinger said his research has found that yields of emmer and modern wheat are comparable when rain is scarce.

His research also finds that modern wheat can yield as much as 30 percent more than emmer in good growing conditions.

Production pluses

Schmaltz and Zwinger said there are a number of agronomical benefits to emmer.

They said the crop:

- Will germinate in soil with relatively little moisture.

- Germinates at a fairly uniform rate.

- Can compete well against weeds.

- Can be fed to livestock, giving farmers another option in how to use it.

- Can generally be planted later in the growing season.

- Can stand a long time without shelling out, though it also can break down and lodge over time.

- Can be stored after harvest at higher moisture levels.

- Has a greater degree of drought resistance.

Schmaltz, who now sells emmer to small bakeries on the east and west coasts, said he wasn't quite sure what to think of the crop when he began growing it.

"This started out as an experiment to see if it could have economic benefit to my farm," Schmaltz said.

Important questions, especially on the marketing side, must be answered before the full answer is known, he said.

"But I really think this crop can offer a production option for farmers in arid regions," he said.

Emmer wheat
(Top) Emmer wheat, which dates back to prehistoric times, is beginning to regain popularity based on health benefits, including a potential value to people with gluten intolerance. (Herald photo by John Stennes)

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