Saskatchewan growers keen to see uptake of einkorn

einkorn John Husband inspects a maturing field of Prime Einkorn wheat. (Carol Husband photo)

By Lorraine Stevenson
OrganicBiz staff

John and Carol Husband once thought they’d be finished farming by their age.

But the couple, now in their 70s, say they plan to stick with it. They’re keen to see what may yet come of one particular crop they’ve been growing since converting their Wawota, Sask. farm in the late 1980s to organic.

We purchased small amounts of rare grains to grow in the garden. The ones that did well were continued and multiplied. – John Husband

That crop is einkorn, an ancestor of modern day wheats and originally one of the first cereals cultivated for food.

“We’d probably be retired by now if it wasn’t for einkorn,” John Husband said in an interview.

The Husbands operate Prime Grains Inc., formed in 2000 with other certified organic farmers as shareholders. They have also trademarked their own variety – Prime Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) – and sell it alongside other specialized seed supplies such as buckwheat and Ethiopian barley.

It all began with literally a few handfuls of seed. They were curious to try unusual and lesser known grains after their 1,600-acre farm, about 80 km west of Virden, Man., was certified, Husband said.

“We purchased small amounts of rare grains to grow in the garden. The ones that did well were continued and multiplied. ”

That included a black einkorn. After several years, they had developed enough seed for field scale production. They sent some of it to the University of Saskatchewan for varietal tests in 2002 and 2003.

They also worked with another farmer to develop a de-hulling process to make it a usable grain. At same time, they were learning about the eating qualities and functional characteristics of einkorn, and telling others in order to cultivate local markets.

“Initially, we were the only farm growing it,” said Husband. “The first years were very difficult because no one had ever heard of it. ”

That’s changing now. In 2015, the Husbands along with other farmers grew about 1,500 acres of Prime Einkorn and harvested 500,000 lbs. of grain.

“We’re hoping to double that this year,” he said. Most growers currently are in southeastern Saskatchewan, but they’d like to expand acres across a wider region.

Einkorn is a German word and means “one grain.” According to a citation in Top 100 Food Plants, produced by the National Research Council of Canada, einkorn is a rarely grown primitive kind of wheat that can be traced back to prehistoric times, with both winter and spring forms, and pale red seeds.

Prime Grains Inc.’s website describes it as “a covered wheat which means it threshes with the complete spikelet intact.” Further processing is required to remove the hulls, Husband said.

They’ve found it well-suited to organic production as it is highly adaptable to marginal growing conditions. However, it has a variable yield. It can go as low as 10 bushels an acre, or as high as 50, he said.

It doesn’t necessarily make a good first impression with a first-time grower, he said.

“It comes up as a grass and then sits there awhile, and looks like it isn’t going to be any good.”

Once it begins to heads up, however, it can reach a height of three or four feet, stands well and doesn’t lodge. One of the key things to be aware of at harvest time is the fragility of its heads. “Quite often we get a volunteer crop of einkorn because of that,” he said. “The seeds scatter and they seem to grow right on the surface.”

Prime Grains buys crop back from growers and has it milled into their Prime Einkorn flour which is sold through various venues, including consumer-direct.

“We provide whole flour and grain directly to consumers by mail, and marketers such as Daybreak Organic Mill (in Estevan, Sask.) provide larger amounts of flour and grain,” Husband said.

The most distinguishable characteristic of einkorn flour is its bright yellow colour, due to its high levels of carotene and carotenoid components. It also contains lutein and has a higher level of protein than hard red wheat.

Einkorn is not gluten-free but those sensitive to gluten do report being able to digest it. That, plus its excellent flavour has attracted a small but expanding number of buyers, said Husband. Bread bakers are advised to mix it with regular flour to get better results.

“The gluten is different and it needs to be handled differently,” he said. “Sour dough seems to be the best way to use it.”

Prime Grains Inc. is a member of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture movements) and the Regina-based Farmer Direct Co-op Ltd., a co-operative of Canadian Prairie organic family farms and ranches.

For more information visit the Prime Grains website.