Roy Pfaltzgraff is holding a bundle of Snowmass wheat that produced excellent yields on his northeastern Colorado farm this past year. Spread out nearby are samples of several heritage wheat varieties. The heads are smaller, the stems long and lanky, and overall the plants are less productive and more difficult to grow and harvest.
“You can really see the evolution when you lay them side-by-side like this,” he said.
It’s mid-afternoon on a hot summer day in downtown Denver, and Pfaltzgraff — whom neighbors and friends call “Little Roy” because his dad is named Roy too — is standing at a booth inside the Taste Marketplace, a pop-up market promoting trendy foods and beverages, hosted by a group called Slow Food USA.
Pfaltzgraff and his dad own Pfz Farms, south of Haxtun, comprised of 2,000 dryland acres rotated between at least ten different crops that include sunflowers, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, buckwheat, millet and flax.
In response to consumer demand, they’ve also started growing heirloom wheat.
“This past year we grew five acres of einkorn,” he said, referring to an early wheat strain domesticated from the wild 10,000 years ago in the Turkish region. “We mill flour from the grain and sell it at the Four Seasons Farmers Market in Wheat Ridge.”
Einkorn, emmer and the famed Turkey Red — Russian forerunner of today’s hard red wheat— have sparked the interest of consumers seeking novelty and variety in their food.
“We’re making an effort to reach out to these new specialty markets,” Pfaltzgraff said, adding, “Dad knows it won’t be good when I walk in the door and say, so, I’ve been thinking…”
In this case, he’s thinking about more than just a premium market for his crops. He sees an opportunity to connect with consumers, address their questions and teach them more about the production side of the business.
“Farmers are really good at producing, but we are horrible at promotion,” he said. “A lot of people have questions and no place to ask them. So they turn to the Internet, and I can guarantee you, whatever they learn, it’s not going to be good.”
Tall and burly with sandy blond hair and a friendly face, Pfaltzgraff seems right at home striking up conversations with passing urbanites who stream by him on the hot pavement.
Most of what he wants to share is directed at improving the image consumers have of modern-day farmers.
“The interesting thing about agriculture is there are millions of ways to farm and not any one of them is all right or all wrong,” he reflected. “We’re learning so much about how to improve soil health and recharge our groundwater. As for all the concern about GMOs, I really think that term will eventually disappear. Newer technologies like CRISP-R (which is considered gene editing rather than genetic modification) are giving us new opportunities we didn’t have before.”
Just down the block at TAG, a popular restaurant along Larimer Street, Mona Espinosa, a baker from Boulder known as “The Grain Lady,” is hoping to sow interest in heritage grain. She and fellow workshop instructor Nanna Meyer are passing around samples of grain bowls, muesli and freshly made whole-wheat pasta.
In the audience is Bob Quinn, a farmer from Montana, who grows specialty grains like kamut, an ancient wheat that originated in Central Asia. About 80 percent of what he grows is exported, mostly to Europe. “It’s really popular in Italy,” he said.
He’s thrilled that domestic consumers are showing more interest in unique and specialty grain and how it’s produced.
“We don’t grow any commodities on our farm, just good food to feed our families,” he said. “This is the future.”
Espinosa thinks so too. Two years ago she started the Noble Grain Alliance with Kelly Whitaker, a high profile Boulder chef who grinds all the flour he uses at his popular restaurant Basta.
“I’ve been a passionate baker for a dozen years, making pizza and bread, but I had never really examined the flour, the main ingredient,” she recalled. “I had never asked myself whether I could get it locally. Or what is white flour versus red flour. Or is there potential to get more flavor out of it?”
When she was ready to start experimenting with ancient grains, she couldn’t find a local supply.
Around that same time, Meyer, an associate professor of health sciences at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, had just started an annual five-day grain school and was also wondering why Colorado wasn’t growing more heritage grain.
“We both came to the same conclusion: we have to bring back a local grain economy,” Espinosa said. “And we knew we couldn’t do it unless we got some seed in the ground.”
They began distributing ancient varieties like Sonoran White, Turkey Red and Red Fife to backyard growers and conducting Front Range production trials.
“In Boulder County, some farmers who were farming sustainably and using crop rotation were already growing some of these grains as a cover crop,” Espinosa added. “So we thought we would try to incentivize them to do it as a cash-crop as well.”
Their project has elicited interest all the way up the food chain to Ardent Mills, the country’s largest flour miller, based in Denver. Espinosa visited the company to discuss the potential for doing more with old varieties.
“The Boulder Farmers Market is awesome, but it kind of exists in its own little bubble,” she said. “The infrastructure has really been the giant missing link in all this. If we can have somebody like Ardent Mills encouraging producers and giving them the support to try something new, what more could we ask for?”
“In the end, if scaling up can help take care of farmers and make the product more affordable for consumers, that benefits everyone,” she added.
Colorado State University has one of the most advanced wheat breeding programs in the country and has already achieved success developing specialty products, most notably the hard white wheat Snowmass, which is grown under contract for Ardent Mills. CSU is continuing to develop that line, with the latest variations, Snowmass 2.0 and Monarch, being grown out as foundation seed this fall for wider commercial release next year.
In all, 56 different varieties were included in CSU’s production trials this summer. An interactive database to help growers make their fall planting decisions is available at RamWheatDB.com.
At a series of CSU “wheat decision” meetings held across the state in August, agronomy specialists said they were aware of consumer interest in ancient wheat but skeptical about whether it was economical for most producers to pursue.
“One seed producer in Kansas tells me he grows some Turkey Red every other year, and when he gets in the combine to harvest it, he remembers why he doesn’t grow it every year,” said Rick Novak, director of Colorado Seed Programs at CSU.
Typically it’s tall, coarse and riddled with disease, Novak said.
Consumers need to remember that nothing in the original wheat plant has been removed through modern breeding techniques. Rather, traits have been selected over time to allow it to perform better under regional growing conditions, he said.
Tyler Benninghoven, the new seed and trait specialist for Colorado Wheat, said many consumers lack understanding of how wheat is bred and why and probably underestimate how costly it is to go back to growing the old varieties.
“For farmers to go after that market, it has to cover the extra costs it takes to produce it,” he said. “Somebody has to be willing to pay the difference at the farm gate. I don’t think we’re at that point yet.”