Grains are not a new crop in the Midwest per se, but changing consumer preference for locally grown, high-quality grains to make artisan bread, whole grain dishes and a variety of products from snack mixes to spirits has created new markets for these grains, both as local commodities and as identity-preserved crops.
To meet the demand for these grains, new and existing grain growers must be able to produce crops that often require additional quality testing and need to meet very specific requirements that are not typical of conventional commodity grains. Additionally, many of these ‘food-grade grains’ that are intended to be sold into high-value culinary markets must often be produced as identity-preserved crops, so that buyers and eaters know which specific cultivar they are purchasing or working with. These factors make production of food-grade grains challenging and exciting for growers wanting to take their grain production to the next level.
In the case of safety testing, grain crops to be sold as food must undergo testing for mycotoxins which is fairly straightforward and can be achieved through a number of service labs throughout the Midwest. To determine quality of a crop and its suitability for specialty food-grade use, such as minimum protein or compositional profile for wheat intended for artisan breads, it is important to first develop a relationship with a buyer or customer to understand their expectations and needs, and then to locate a lab capable of providing a verifiable certificate of analysis (COA) on your crop to demonstrate it is suitable for purchase. Guidance on resources and processes to develop a system for production and testing of these crops is provided in The New Grower's Guide to Producing Organic Food-Grade Grains in the Upper Midwest linked in the ‘Resources and Information’ section below.
Major grain crops that are seeing a surge in demand for high-quality food-grade grain include, but are not limited to:
RESEARCH STATUS AND PRIORITIES
There is a wide body of existing research and agronomic support for almost all crops included under the food-grade grains canopy as generic commodity crops. What is often lacking is an understanding of what varieties are needed to enter the specialty food-grade market, how to assess the quality of the crop produced for food-grade applications, and how storage as well as marketing of these crops differs from that of a commodity crop. While most extension agencies will have guides and tools for selection of cultivars and production of commodity grains, for food-grade grains there is an added step of understanding safety and quality testing requirements and building relationships with buyers.
Current food-grade grains research includes variety development for particular markets such as artisanal bread or products and research on agronomic practices for organic production. While there are many established traditional varieties of grains that are well known and valued for certain food products (for example, ‘Turkey Red’ or ‘Red Fife’ wheat in artisan bread), these varieties often require specialized markets to be profitable. Several independent breeders and farmers are working to develop Midwest-adapted food-grade grain varieties to serve high-value markets. Several university breeding programs in the Midwest are also working to develop varieties for flavor, functional attributes and new products. These include University of Minnesota (hard spring wheat and barley), University of Wisconsin-Madison (hard winter wheat, oats and naked barley) and the University of Illinois (soft winter wheat). In addition, some varieties developed in the Northeast, Eastern Canada or Northern Great Plains may also have good performance in the Upper Midwest, and are part of regional testing programs.
Major priorities at UW-Madison include development of improved winter wheats for artisan bread and exploration of hulless barley and oats to create new food products. Variety trial reports can be found here (includes both food and non-food grain trials). In addition, several research collaborations with regional non-profits, and distillers are exploring the production of identity-preserved rye and corn for distillation as spirits. Often there is emphasis on developing markets for grains that have known environmental benefits or that can diversify rotational practices, such as incorporation of oats, buckwheat or winter grains. Links to university trial reports can be found in the “More Information” section below.
PROCESSING AND MARKETS
For growers interested in producing food-grade grains, there are a number of market pathways, from sale to elevators that buy food-grade grains to direct to consumer marketing. Some of the marketing channels Midwest small grains growers are using for marketing is included in this report. There are a variety of potentially profitable business models that growers can develop to market and sell their grains.
While there is no ‘correct’ or preferred path forward in this space, it is important for growers to understand the volume and price they need to be profitable considering the size of their acreage in production. The high prices seen in many local artisan food markets may be appealing, but it is important to look at total volume required to saturate demand – in many cases, more than 10-20 acres of any one given specialty cultivar may meet an entire year (or multiple years) of demand at the high-price end of the market. Larger food-grade buyers may not pay as much per bushel as local artisan mills, but they may be able to absorb larger volumes of grain more regularly and should not be dismissed as a viable option for adding food-grade grains to your operation. For growers that are considering more capital-intensive systems, vertical integration is an option. Many farms are successfully developing on-farm processing and production of value-added food products or consumer packaged goods, such as milled flour, tortilla chips, beer, popcorn or spirits.
Many preferred varieties of food-grade grains are available through regional seedhouses specializing in these grains. The Organic Grain Resource and Information Network (OGRAIN) maintains a list of organic grain seed sources. State seed certification agencies can also usually provide recommendations on sources of specific food-grade cultivars being requested by buyers. These agencies are listed in The New Grower's Guide to Producing Organic Food-Grade Grains in the Upper Midwest linked below. For heirloom, heritage, and other traditional varieties of grains, small quantities of seed may be obtained from small heirloom seed companies or seed exchange programs, though it may require a grower to dedicate several years to increase seed from these sources to a sufficient quantity in order to produce commercially relevant acreage.
Alternative Small Grains: Winter Wheat
Lucia Gutierrez (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Food-Grade Organic Grain Storage and On-Farm Processing
Thor Oechsner (Oechsner Farms)
Harold Wilken (The Mill at Janie's Farm)
Strategic Farming 2022: Small Grains Update
Dr. Jochum Wiersma (University of Minnesota Extension)