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Published September 07, 2010, 12:00 AM

Health benefits could renew interest in ancient crop of emmer wheat

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

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek Staff Writer, INFORUM

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 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.

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, the report says.

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

Emmer is “considerably resistant to drought” and “very resistant to rust,” a common crop disease, the report says.

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 says.

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.

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 intestine and blocks the ability to absorb certain nutrients, according to the MayoClinic.com 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.

However, 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, says gluten intolerance is an important issue for many of the commission’s customers.

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

“It goes beyond the issue of gluten intolerance,” Schmaltz says of health benefits provided by emmer.

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