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Published February 28, 2019
Similar to the growing market for craft beers, Thomas Foulke sees an opportunity to create a niche market for first-grains in Wyoming.
Wyoming’s agricultural sector is in need of diversification, Foulke says. And he sees that opportunity in first-grains, or what some call “ancient grains.”
Foulke, a senior research scientist in the University of Wyoming Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and project director of the Wyoming First-Grains Project, says getting farmers to plant first-grains creates one such opportunity.
“An opportunity exists to bring first-grains to Wyoming and the Front Range, to develop a niche industry around them,” Foulke says. “This would create opportunities for farmers to enhance their incomes and bring new jobs to the state in malting, brewing and baking.”
The Wyoming First-Grains Project is a “hatch” project that began in 2018 and is supported by the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. This research and economic development project seeks to build a vertically integrated niche industry around first-grains, and a spin-off company to take the concept out of UW’s hands and into the private sector.
Foulke recently garnered $50,000 of development funding from the newly created Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) at UW. The IIE calls on innovators from throughout the state as it works to instill entrepreneurial thinking to empower the leaders of tomorrow. Adding needed programs and curriculum that draw together all UW colleges, business services and entrepreneurship competitions, the IIE serves as the university’s front door for the state’s entrepreneurs.
Dubbed the “Neolithic Brand” in marketing materials, the project has the catchphrase, “One Step Away From Wild.”
Ancient grains are those that have been little changed by selective breeding over thousands of years. Most were grown as far back as 12,000 years ago. These include einkorn wheat, barley and Emmer wheat. It is Emmer wheat and spelt that are the two ancient grains being grown at UW research farms in Lingle, Powell and Sheridan.
“These two grains will be used for malt for beer,” says Foulke, who says UW has partnered with Wyoming Malting Co. in Pine Bluffs. “Craft brewers produce malts. We want them to experiment with this and come up with their own beers.”
The objective is to develop this niche industry and a profitable and sustainable core company to support it, Foulke says. This includes grain processing and handling; product development for first-grain varieties and agronomic expertise to grow these crops in Wyoming; and the business infrastructure to support it.
“Not only are we learning how to grow crops on our research farms, but we are developing a market and a supply chain where they will go,” Foulke says. “What we want is to eventually target the wholesale market.”
Foulke says currently there is only one other malting company using spelt, and it’s located on the East Coast.
“We will be first to market with these beers” that use spelt, he says.
As the project gains traction in the market, Foulke says additional product research and development will be required to build on earlier product streams.
“For example, one early product is naked grains for craft bakers who prefer to mill their own flour,” Foulke says.
These naked grains can be enhanced for restaurants with milling and mixes -- such as biscuits and tortillas -- that can capture an untapped value-added market. Pancakes, dumplings, noodles, pasta and, of course, breads are other products that would benefit.
“I think we’re ripe for a revolution in the world of flour and bread where people look for different sources beyond white and wheat bread,” Foulke says.
Thus far, the first-grains project has signed up three bakers and eight brewpubs/breweries in Wyoming to take out naked grain and malt as testers and promoters for the current year.
For 2019, the First-Grains Project has applied for a $50,000 Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (WSARE) grant that will be used in collaboration with six farmers to grow first-grains to expand production. If the WSARE grant is secured, the partner farmers will be given seed for the acreage agreed upon for them to plant. Farmers will be reimbursed for their costs.
“We will get the resulting grain, which we will process into malt, in partnership with Wyoming Malting, and flour. For 2018-19, we are giving out ‘free samples’ to some craft brewers and bakers to try our products and develop products,” Foulke says. “Starting with the 2019 fall harvest, we will be charging for our products like everyone else. The idea is to build the Neolithic brand name with awareness and customer acceptance for our products.”
The project is purchasing a dehulling machine that will be operational for this year’s harvest. The dehuller will be located in Powell. The machine is needed because first-grains largely do not thresh free of the hulls during the combining process. Once harvested, the crop will be delivered to the Wyoming Malting Co. and to the partner bakers.
To scale up the business rapidly, additional funding is needed for infrastructure, buildings, another dehuller, trucks, storage, loading equipment and business development. Depending on the ongoing success of the project, an additional $300,000 to $500,000 will be needed, Foulke says.
While he is invested in the project, Foulke says he has no plans to leave UW if this project takes off.
“I’ll be a success if I can help foster and create jobs in the state,” he says.
For more information about the Wyoming First-Grains Project, call Foulke at (307) 766-6205 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.