The University of Wyoming (UW) is embarking on a new age by increasing its focus on economic development and entrepreneurship. One new project is taking this vision even further by trying to develop a new niche agricultural market for the state by producing first-grains, and the key to this innovation is actually ancient.
The idea came to Thomas Foulke from France. He’s a senior research scientist at the University of Wyoming Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. He recently came back from an international trip for the college where he found a cookbook with a word he didn’t understand.
“The word is epeautre, which means spelt in English. So I couldn't find this in my dictionary so I went online and hit the google translate and I found spelt…and I thought, ‘well, what is spelt,”’ Foulke recalled.
Foulke began researching spelt. And found out that it’s an ancestor of the most basic cereal crops, known as first-grains And he started thinking, can first-grains be profitable for Wyoming?
“It's kind of like what happened with beer in the 80s. All of the sudden this craft brew revolution took place and people started looking for these different kinds of beers and especially crops. So now the craft brew industry is actually really vibrant...what if we did this with this grain?”
It turns out that emmer wheat, a relative of spelt, was grown in Wyoming in the early 20th century but Caitlin Youngquist, an extension coordinator for the UW, said it didn’t last long.
“So it very well may have been that it was harder to process and harvest. Also, these ancient grains or these early grains tend to yield lower. Unless you can charge a premium for that product, you just can't make as a good of a profit off it,” she said.
And making it a premium product is how first-grains have been making a comeback even with its challenges.
“So the reason to grow it is similar to an organic product. You often have lower yields but you’re able sell your product at a premium,” Youngquist explained. “And so it provides another niche, another specialty market for producers and another option for them.”
Some studies have also cited health benefits such as regulating metabolism and controlling cholesterol levels, which can be attractive for consumers. First-grains never really fell out favor in Europe because they make up a niche food market and Youngquist said this can happen in Wyoming.
“There's a lot of pride in local Wyoming products and in particular if you are producing something that tastes good…that makes a really good beer or makes a really good bread or bakery product. That's going to, of course, increase your demand.”
This is exactly what Thomas Foulke envisions for Wyoming. A niche market around spelt and emmer products. But an obvious question lingers. Will Wyomingites buy into it?
“We’re going to try to market this,” said Foulke. “Put it into places and see what the feedback is, the uptake from consumers, from brewers, restaurateurs and bakers.”
This is the entire point of the project.
“The university is taking the risk this first year with all of this before we start talking to people and saying, 'Hi, would you be interested in growing this?'”
This summer, 27 acres of spelt and emmer is being grown at three UW research stations: Powell, Sheridan and Lingle. The grains will be harvested sometime in August. And by then, Foulke hopes to have breweries, bakeries and restaurants lined up who will be given the grains for free.
“We’re going to try to get some research back, some feedback from restaurants...from brewpubs. What they did with the seed, their malt or their flour, what kind of products they made, what kind of prices they charged, what the reception was from the public?” said Foulke.
The idea is, eventually the university will step back and Wyoming's first-grains brand, Neolithic, will be handed over to private hands. But under one condition.
“This has to profitable. It’s not going to fly economically and so nobody's going to want to grow it, if it doesn't pay,” said Foulke.
The real test will come this fall when producers find out if anybody's actually interested in spelt and emmer products. Click here to find out more about the project.