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Spelt: the benefits and challenges of an ancient grain

An ancient grain that’s enjoying a modern revival is being grown organically near Bulls in Manawatū. Theresa Sjöquist talked to Harry Russell-Bowen of Ratahi Farm about the benefits and challenges of growing spelt.
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)ne of the many original species of wheat, spelt (Triticum spelta) is a cross between emmer wheat and goat grass. It’s grown today in precisely the same form in which it was cultivated 9000 years ago in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia. By 2000 BCE, spelt was being grown in Europe, and went on to become a main crop in what is now southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland (where it is known as dinkel), and was in common usage in southern Britain by around 500 BCE. Today, it’s valued for its hardiness and superior nutritional content compared with wheat (see below).

Organic roots

Harry Russell-Bowen is a fourth-generation farmer. He and his parents, Nigel Bowen and Jane Russell-Bowen, grow a range of crops and raise sheep and beef cattle on their 130-hectare farm. The home block was certified organic in 1987, and more land was converted in 2016, all under BioGro certification.

The main crops grown are maize, grain, and mixed pasture (diverse blends of grass, legume, and herb species) grazed lightly by sheep and cattle. The family also grows lucerne blends as hay and silage for organic dairy farm support, and cover crops as green manures.

Spelt experiments

Harry has grown spelt on a small scale for four years and has been selling his hulled product to Organic Flour Mills in Palmerston North. Growing spelt is still experimental on Ratahi Farm; Harry changes various parameters including the amount of land under cultivation, crop rotation, timing, tillage, growing, and harvesting processes from season to season. Last season the main spelt crop was planted in spring following a lucerne pasture.

“There were too many reasons to try spelt,” says Harry. “We were having issues with modern wheat, which is more susceptible to diseases and birds because of its softer hull (husk).”

“We started on a small paddock. The robust size and health of the spelt plant and getting sufficient viable seed to replant, led me to try it again the following year.”

In 2021–2022 Harry grew wheat and spelt alongside one another, and the comparisons were interesting. While the residues of modern wheat take up to a year to break down in soil, spelt residues break down virtually immediately.

“Because there’s a lot more residue post-harvest, there’s more humus going back into the soil,” says Harry. “We work the straw into the first 5cm or so of topsoil and it disappears very quickly after being mulched into the most active soil zone.”

Spelt plant colours are stronger, with pronounced shades of green and gold as it ripens. Wheat is often yellow and turns grey.

Harry is now working towards replacing wheat entirely with spelt in the base crop rotation.

Naturally nutritious

Spelt has a weaker gluten structure than common wheat (Triticum aestivum), but this means it’s gentler on the digestive system, so it can be a good option for people who are sensitive to gluten. Compared with wheat, spelt has higher levels of protein, and generally slightly more iron and zinc. Other nutrients present include manganese, magnesium, potassium, copper, selenium, and several of the B vitamins. It also contains good levels of fibre, helping to regulate blood sugar spikes.

Sowing and growing

Growing predominantly on silt loam, Harry plants spelt seeds mechanically between autumn and spring. He currently tills the soil but is reducing the depth, number of tractor passes, and fallow duration, aiming to do as little tillage as possible to efficiently secure an excellent crop and improve the soil.

The crop doesn’t require irrigation or fertilisation outside of mulching harvested residues and cover crops (such as cereal rye, hairy vetch, annual clovers, millet, and others) into the field. Visual soil assessments are carried out, and soil testing reveals adequate nutrients to grow spelt.

Spelt is a large plant, growing to approximately 130cm, with a comparatively large head, and an extensive root system. By comparison wheat grows to about 80cm.

The height of spelt, the weight of the head and generally greater bulk means in heavy wind and rain it can lodge – lie over horizontal to the ground. “I haven’t yet tried to harvest lodged spelt, but from a conventional perspective most agriculturalists would want to avoid such a crop because of harvest difficulties such as that one.”

Field pests

While wheat growers class birds as pests, the tightly hulled grains of spelt aren’t easily accessible to birds, so losses for Harry have been minimal. Generally he sees snails, slugs, and sparrows doing far more good than harm to the spelt crop and the soil.

Compared with wheat, spelt has good resistance to several fungal diseases.

Harvesting and storage

The spelt crop matures slightly later than wheat and is harvested with a combine harvester, then transported for cleaning, separation, drying if needed, and bagging. Being larger than wheat, the drying process for spelt is also a bit longer. Storage modes are varied and continue to evolve, and Harry must adapt to both season and market.

After mulching, the field is planted in mixed species pasture for three to five years and spelt is rotated elsewhere on the farm.

Challenges and solutions

Apart from a propensity for lodging, spelt presents other challenges including quite low yield, says Harry, along with the time and costs associated with getting it from field to plate. Modern wheat hulls are removed easily by combine harvesters with specifically designed parts and settings. Spelt’s tight hulls – which Ratahi Farm are not currently removing – are instead separated by a seed cleaner. Hulled grain goes to the mill, and last year unhulled grain went to Sentry Hill Organics in Hawke’s Bay for their pigs and chickens.

“When we harvest spelt,” says Harry, “a varying percentage of grains are released from their hulls – sometimes 50 percent but sometimes 25 percent.”

The variance appears to be related to a number of factors including harvest timing, weather, the harvester, and humidity. Hulls could be removed mechanically post-harvest as is done internationally.

Variables are to some extent offset by a small but solid market which is nevertheless increasing, so Harry is considering growing a larger crop.

“The perception is that spelt is great for human consumption, but I’ve noticed the soil is healthier by consuming it too.”

Experience is a teacher

At four years of growing experience with spelt, Harry says it’s both difficult and easy to grow.

“Just because you can grow a strong healthy plant, doesn’t mean it translates to growing at scale. Issues can become exponentially huge at scale and costs can blow out.”

With not much experience growing ancient grains behind him, and a lack of information and infrastructure for spelt in New Zealand, Harry needs to intuit his way (in contrast to the substantial amount of R&D and support for growing wheat). There are other spelt growers in New Zealand, including organic growers in Canterbury, but none growing on a large scale.

“Spelt growing is a good part of a mixed farm,” says Harry, “but you wouldn’t want to be reliant on it. Although the soil always benefits no matter how profitable it is.”

“I have a theory that growing spelt small scale on dairy farms as a winter forage or catch crop, on a paddock before regrassing, would benefit the animals as well as the soil. With more people growing, experience will develop and over time people will learn how to grow spelt for grain. It’s such a learning process.”

A bright future

Spelt is increasingly becoming popular and Harry is positive and optimistic about its future supply and consumption.

“I’m growing an ancient grain, an authentic food, non-hybridised and original,” he says, “and that’s a nice feeling.”

For a spelt bread recipe, visit the Organic Flour Mills website: organicflourmills.nz

Theresa Sjöquist is an author, speaker and freelance writer based at Port Albert. www.theresasjoquist.com

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