Everything old is new again” is a familiar saying that speaks of all kinds of trends – from fashion to movie remakes. In farming circles, it perfectly describes the slow and steady return of spelt in the United States, an ancient form of wheat that was grown here in the 1800s, but largely abandoned because of low yields and difficulty processing. Sweet and nutty in flavor, rich in fiber and dense in nutrients, spelt is finding its way back into kitchens as today’s chefs, cooks and bakers search for wholesome grains as well as alternatives to traditional wheat, rye and barley that contain proteins to which some are allergic or find difficult to digest. *
Ohio Farm Bureau member Matt Peart is among a small yet dedicated legion of Ohio farmers feeding a specialty market for spelt. He began in 1989 with 60 acres of the hardy crop on his Wayne County farm.
“At that time, I was growing and selling spelt for animal feed,” he said. “People who raised show cattle or horses liked that it helped make the animal’s coat shiny and the taller straw stalks made exceptional bedding for dairy cattle and other farm animals.”
Today, Peart has 500 acres in production. One hundred acres is in soybeans, which are sold for soy milk production; another 100 acres of corn is sold to local dairymen; and a little more than 75 acres is in spelt production exclusively for milling.
Peart’s ability to grow spelt organically is partly by the nature of the crop and some “blind luck,” he admitted. “It grows taller than wheat so it helped shade out the weeds, which is perfect for organic production,” he said.
Planting and harvesting spelt is similar to wheat. It is planted in the fall, overwintered and harvested the next year in July. “One of the challenges with spelt is that the heavy heads sometime cannot be supported by the stalks, causing it to go down,” said Peart, who plants it “heavier” or more closely for support.
The hull that protects the grain is also tougher than the hull that envelops common wheat, so spelt requires special milling. Peart sends his harvest about 10 miles west to Dean McIlvaine’s Twin Peaks Farm in West Salem. In addition to growing spelt, McIlvaine operates a mill modified for processing it as whole berries. The berries are the hulled whole grain form of spelt, used in cooked cereals and in grain salads like pilafs, or ground into flour and sold in bulk in 50-pound sacks. While Peart sends McIlvaine all of the spelt from his harvest, it accounts for only a portion of the million or so pounds McIlvaine has processed in a single season. McIlvaine packages and sells spelt in bulk to local restaurants or bakeries, or ships it to larger mills.
Spelt has a long, strong history in European kitchens (the Germans call it dinkle and the Italians enjoy it as farro) with origins that can be traced back to biblical times. While it has an interrupted history in this country, local growers like Peart are responding to the renewed demand in a big way, making spelt the “new” grain on the block and Ohio the largest spelt producer in the nation.
* Spelt contains gluten and is not a suitable wheat substitute for individuals with celiac disease. For those with wheat allergies or wheat intolerance, consult your nutritionist or physician before incorporating into your diet.
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of “Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate” and hosts “From My Ohio Kitchen to Yours” on the Our Ohio TV series.
Twin Peaks Farm, West Salem
50 pound bags
Call Dean McIlvaine at 330-466-2545
Look for packages of spelt flour, puffed spelt cereal or spelt berries at these and other retail locations:
140 South Walnut Street, Wooster
The Greener Grocer
North Market at 59 Spruce Street, Columbus
Village Bakery Café
286 East State Street, Athens
Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative
94 Columbus Road, Athens
Spelt is on the menu
Northstar Café, Columbus
Lucky’s Café, Cleveland
777 Starkweather Avenue in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood