First-grains project seeks to grow niche industries, boost Wyoming farmers and our rural economy
Wyoming has the least number of food processing facilities in the nation.
Given our climate, low population, and distance from markets, this might not seem surprising; however, even Montana and North Dakota, which face similar challenges, far outrank Wyoming.
The Wyoming First-grains Project in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, with support from the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station, seeks to improve this with a novel approach to building food-processing capacity while contributing to rural economies. The project’s ultimate goal is to spin off a profitable, stand-alone company to help create Wyoming jobs and improve producer incomes with premium pricing.
What are first-grains?
We use the term first-grains to talk about those first domesticated cereal crops among them einkorn, emmer wheat, and spelt. These are the first plants domesticated by humans. Sometimes called ancient grains, we are trying to differentiate them from some recent crops and as a way to re-define the discussion about these crops and their nutritional value based on science as opposed to the hype surrounding ancient grains on the internet.
Project rallies collaborators across campus and state
The Wyoming First-grains Project is a research and economic development initiative bringing what we call “first-grains” (see sidebar, page 7) to Wyoming. The project goes several steps further than what we traditionally think of as an agricultural research project involving specialty crops. The project attempts to not just introduce the crop to farmers but build a stand-alone business and niche industry around these crops where none exist – even though we see demand in the state and in fast-growing areas of Colorado.
Malted grains and grains for flour are the first products we want to produce. There are about 25 craft breweries in Wyoming and about 340 in Colorado. This means even if we can tap only a fraction of this market, we are well-positioned to take advantage of Wyoming’s location. We have partnered with Wyoming Malting Company in Pine Bluffs to malt the grain. We are developing co-branded malt products to enter this market.
Research farms, producers grow grains
Our group is moving into the third year of the five-year project. We have been growing spelt, emmer wheat, and just last year einkorn (triticum monococcum), at UW research farms near Lingle, Powell, and Sheridan and in cooperation with several private producers in the state.
These first-grains are called “hulled grains” since their hulls do not thresh free. The extra step and extra expense of de-hulling is likely why they are no longer widely grown. De-hulling capacity also all but disappeared along with the grains early in the last century.
The project received a $50,000 grant from the University of Wyoming Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (part of the Wyoming Legislature’s Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming [ENDOW] initiative) to purchase a de-huller. The de-huller is now at the Wyoming Seed Certification facility in Powell, with which we are working closely on this project.
Farmers, under market pressures, must continually watch costs to stay profitable in competitive commodity markets. So how can they be profitable with these grains if they are more expensive to produce?
If the demand is there (we have anecdotal evidence it is), then we can have some control over price. These will be premium products and as such we can command a higher price for them – at least for a while; our premium could disappear as other farmers start to jump into the market.
Branding would help us remain sustainably profitable. If we brand our products and create quality attributes customers value, then when the product becomes more commoditized, customers will still seek us out and pay a premium for our products. However, the real advantage will be our early lead in the market and our expertise in growing these premium crops.
Growing grains may not be biggest obstacle
Building the business structure is currently our greatest challenge. This project is different from the university’s traditional spin-off concept with patents and intellectual property. The university’s mission focuses on education and economic development. We are trying to springboard off the economic development part of the mission with a more proactive approach.
We call the concept we are pioneering “applied supply-chain research”– in other words, we are applying the knowledge and concepts we teach to overcome obstacles by doing. UW is applying expertise from several disciplines and assuming the early risk to solve production and supply problems and build market share to get the process up and running.
It makes sense for us to band together, to use our expertise and combined efforts to benefit Wyoming’s economy. Some of that expertise comes from students in George Mocsary’s legal practicum class in the UW College of Law. Through their efforts, they are helping us find the legal structure to integrate this with UW and provide a smooth transition to the private sector.
Success is never guaranteed, but we think we have put together the people and resources to set the project up for success. With a little luck, and a lot of hard work, you will be seeing our logo around Wyoming and be able to buy products made with Neolithic brand, Wyoming-grown first-grains.
Much more information on our activities and early agriculture is on our website Neolithicbrand.com.
Wyoming First-grains Project team members
Plant sciences Assistant Professor Carrie Eberle (agronomy)
Agricultural and applied economics research scientist Thomas Foulke, project director
Agricultural and applied economics research scientist Brian Lee (costs and returns)
Agricultural and applied economics Professor Emeritus Tex Taylor (economics)
Assistant Professor Jill Keith, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences (nutrition)
Plant sciences Professor Andrew Kniss, agronomy (weeds)
Mike Moore, director, Wyoming Seed Certification Service (Powell)
Caitlin Youngquist, University of Wyoming Extension educator (agronomy), Worland
John Ritten, director, Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station economics (ex officio)
To contact: Thomas Foulke, Research Scientist, Department of Agriculture & Applied Economics, (307) 766-6205 or at email@example.com.