Say you don’t have specialized grain-growing equipment, but you want to grow some grains one a relatively small scale. What kinds of crops could you grow, and how? This is a three-part series on grains for small farmers. Many small farmers may think that growing grains requires specialized equipment with small yields for a lot of work. In response to this, I’ve come up with some suggested grain crops that can benefit the small farmer, either because they require less specialized equipment, are a unique crop that isn’t grown on a large scale, or crops that fit a particular niche or serve a useful purpose on the farm.
Some grains have a hull that protects the seed, and is rather difficult to remove without specialized equipment. In terms of seeding, some growers seed after hulling, and some without. But when it comes to eating them, they require hulling. For the small farmer, hulls are a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, there is some level of protection for the grain against insects and diseases. On the other hand, dehulling equipment is necessary to take the hulls off. Often this equipment is particular to the crop, and can be difficult to come by. Some processors are able to do it, but don’t want to mess around with small batches. How to get around all this? Grow hulless varieties!
So what are hulless grains? Think of them like seedless fruit: the hull hasn’t completely disappeared, but through breeding, they are for all intents and purposes eliminated. The risk, of course, is that the grain may be more susceptible to disease, and the embryo is more suceptable to damage (such as through rough handling in harvesting and threshing), which may prevent germination. Also, hulless grain may not keep as long if not stored under appropriate conditions, and may be more susceptible to spoilage or insect attack in the bin. There is some evidence that by removing the hull, plants can put more nutrients into the seed. Other benefits include: increased protein (about 1-2% over hulled varieties); improved digestibility; less fibre; and less handling and storage (no hulls to take up space).
Hulless varieties are still nacent: there has been some concern about the loss of the “hulless” trait, possibly due to the recessive nature of the “hulless” gene, or through out-crossing.
- Hulless Oats: Canada is at the vanguard of breeding for this crop. Plant Breeder Vern Burrows developed AC Gehl, a hairless and hulless variety of oat, which has been highly acclaimed by Chinese oat growers who built a statue in his honor (see page 4 of this article)! Canada has 16 registered hulless oat varieties, which are currently only available from seed growers Quebec and Manitoba. These are being marketed in Canada by one company as “Cavena nuda: rice of the Prairies”, and by others as “Naked Oats”. They have also been the subject of research as a feed substitute for corn for small-scale, pastured poultry growers. The benefits for chicken feed are that they are high in protein and essential amino-acids that the birds require. Why hulless? Because they don’t require dehulling.
- Hulless Barley: Barley is becoming more popular as an alternative to wheat. Barley is a versatile grain: its uses include food, feed, and malt. It is grown in many developing countries instead of wheat because it has a greater food value. See this site for information on growing hulless barley in Saskatchewan. There are several varieties available in Canada.