Field of Wheat

Traditionally, people building a career in whole grains have studied nutrition, agriculture, culinary arts, or food science, among other disciplines. Today however, aspiring grain professionals have an even more specialized option available to them: Grain School. This University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) program can be taken for credit by college students or can also be taken as an adult education program by farmers, millers, bakers, and other professionals. To learn more about the Grain School, we caught up with Nanna Meyer, PhD, RD, CSSD, an associate professor at UCCS who helped get the program off the ground.

Can you briefly describe the Grain School and where the inspiration for this course came about?

Meyer: In 2014, UCCS transitioned its food service away from a corporate to a self-operated system, started a farm on campus, and tied in academic programs into the campus food experience. We started a local food establishment as part of the retail/residential dining operations called Food Next Door. We were looking for local and regional food, including more diverse and regionally grown grains. We found Colorado quinoa, organic millet, and some wheat and rye but we wanted more diversity, including culinary barleys, pseudo-cereals like amaranth and buckwheat, and heritage/ancient wheats.

Grain School started this way but was reinforced by the Southern Colorado farming community calling on UCCS to lead what we then termed the Ark Watershed Grain Project. This project focused on farm diversification with grains in rotations, whole grain nutrition for health and performance, and community resilience considering Colorado’s drought patterns, needs for more sustainable and healthy eating strategies, and local/rural economic prosperity.

Grain School is an annual event and in its 6th year. Already before the COVID19 Pandemic, we decided to launch Grain School online in combination with a field-based weekend course called Grain School in the Field. Grain School can be taken for credit by university students and as continued education through UCCS Online & Outreach. Grain School has always had a community feel through its public forums. These forums will remain and will hopefully return to an in-person gathering event in the future. 

We understand that your focus is on local and regional grain systems. How might whole grain professionals and enthusiasts outside of Colorado benefit from these courses?

Meyer: Grain School is broad and offers participants from all over the world an opportunity to enhance their knowledge and skills along the grain chain depending on the interest area. We had students from all over the world this year and aim for this in the future, although our focus is to strengthen our own grain economy in Colorado. We focus on diversity, including the biodiversity of grains (and legumes), diversity of culinary traditions, variable direct-to-consumer, retail, restaurant or institutional markets, as well as diet diversity with a particular focus on dietary fiber and the microbiome.

We had students choose a focus area during the courses and dive into a project or receive mentorship from some of Grain School’s faculty. This is valuable for adult learning, for example, students building their own businesses, farmers integrating grains for the first time, and professionals transitioning their careers to artisanship, such as stone milling or malting. We also had students focused on home baking and improving their own whole grain nutrition. The grain chain is so complex and there is so much to learn that courses like grain school provide students an opportunity to take some time for their professional development and expanding vastly their knowledge and skills surrounding a grain-related interest area. While we emphasize regional food systems and focus on Colorado, we help students to explore and connect to their own grain value chains wherever they live around the globe.

Can you tell us a bit about the different types of grains that are growing in Colorado? Are there any unusual varieties or grains that might be hard to find in other parts of the country?

Meyer: I think Colorado is already a leader in quinoa and millet production nationwide. For ancient and heritage grains, Colorado is building some additional markets, including spelt, older landraces of durum wheats, rye, hard white winter wheats, and heritage wheats such as red fife and turkey red wheat. I think we will see the trends in another few years since most of the exploratory work in heritage and ancient grains was based on field trials. In collaboration with Colorado State University, the Colorado Grain Chain, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and others regionally, we are hopeful that the future brings greater grain diversity and that regenerative agricultural principles can gradually pivot some of Colorado’s grain (and legume) production to provide greater access and better nutrition to all Coloradans.

Was it difficult to convince farmers to participate in the local grain economy? What types of benefits might farmers see when they transition to a regional grain system?

Meyer: Initially, it was difficult to convince farmers to participate in grain trials since we started with only a handful of seeds. Thus, much of this work still happens with smaller farms or backyard growers (see Heritage Grain Trials and Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance). Thus, there is a difficult transition from studying these grains in the field with 50 seeds compared with a seeding rate of 100-120 lbs per acre for a small, medium, or large farm. It takes 3-5 years to bulk up seeds to realistic quantities. If seed improvements are also part of the process, and they should be for long-term success, it takes around 10 years until farmers can obtain enough seed for planting. There are also many unknowns, including yield, risk of lodging, brittleness of ancient wheats and summer storms, as well as the suitability of spring grains for fall plantings. Thus, the more experiences farmers can share with other farmers the better.

Grain school has been a long partner of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union because of this reason. Grain school always starts with farming. This exchange, collaboration, and cooperation is needed to make grain chains work. Once farmers experience working with the miller, maltster, or baker within the regional food economy, the hard work was worth it. Grain value chains are simply beautiful, delicious, diverse, and culturally responsive. They bring people of all cultures together over corn and tortillas, wheat, rye and bread, or barley malt and beer. The movement is irresistible. Finally, farmers can be great stewards of land and soil and grains and legumes are integral parts of such regenerative farming systems. It appears that polycultures, integrating grains and legumes, as well as perennial grasses and crops, and some grazing are the only way forward to protect our finite resources and rebuild soil quality. This is not a difficult conversation with farmers.

Speaking with local growers here on the East Coast, it seemed that the mills were really one of the biggest bottlenecks in terms of strengthening the local grain economy. How does that differ from what you’re seeing today in Colorado?

Meyer: It is a similar issue in Colorado. We have a few large mills – and these large mills are also needed considering sustained efforts in rebuilding a regional grain economy and scaling it up. However, the limited availability of regional mills and proper facilities that can safely clean, dehull, and store regional grains is a bottleneck of this movement. There is a great need for cooperation in this space and doing so regionally, especially considering the long distances and challenging topography across Colorado that are difficult to overcome. It seems like each region needs a few mills and each community an artisan bakery and a brewery using locally-grown grains, to say the least. Thus, there is much potential to revitalize grain economies in both urban and rural areas through locally grown Colorado grains.

Here on the East Coast, we’ve heard from some of our contacts that the trend toward more home baking and cooking brought on by the pandemic has really bolstered the growth of local grain businesses over the past year. Is this something you’re seeing in your area as well? Do you think the pandemic has strengthened local grain economies in ways that will make them increasingly prominent/important in coming years?  

Meyer: I am hopeful that the COVID19 Pandemic has brought greater awareness in people to take charge of their own food system and their own health. It has been wonderful to see the interest in cooking and baking at home. The big question is how we can sustain this consumer-driven awareness and continue to expand production and secure markets for farmers while enhancing access to regional grains and boost self-efficacy through grain literacy.

What’s next for the UCCS Grain School?

Meyer: Grain School online 2021 just concluded with around 65 students enrolled alongside university students. We now plan for Grain School in the Field, which is the hands-on counterpart of Grain School online. Our vision is to keep UCCS Grain School online offered in the winter/spring annually to build foundational knowledge and skills and give the chance for community members to access academic content and mentorship. Grain School in the Field will focus on regional grain economies and hands-on learning and will travel across Colorado each year. Our first one is scheduled for Nov 13-14, 2021 in Pueblo, Colorado with a focus on the foodways of corn. Together with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, UCCS Grain School was instrumental in launching the Colorado Grain Chain organization. We work in concert with their leadership to strengthen business-to-business relations and support newcomers in finding their partners along the grain chain. Grain School remains a critical training platform for current and future participants of the Colorado grain chain.

Thank you, Nanna Meyer! (Kelly)

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