TETON, Idaho — Jade Koyle is the top U.S. supplier of an ancient grain that was a food staple for Neolithic man but has only recently come to modern society’s attention.
His specialty crop, einkorn, is touted as man’s first wheat — found in the pyramids of Egypt’s pharaohs and in the gut of the 5,000-year-old mummy discovered in Italy’s Schnals Valley, known as the Iceman.
Koyle attributes einkorn’s recent comeback to the health food craze and mounting interest in flour options for consumers with gluten sensitivities. Though einkorn contains gluten, Koyle explained it’s a different type than modern wheat, and gluten-intolerant customers from throughout the world tell him they can digest it with ease. With just 14 chromosomes, Koyle said, einkorn is also genetically simpler than modern wheat, which has 42 chromosomes.
Koyle contracts for the production from 500 certified organic acres in Idaho and the Northwest, selling about 150,000 pounds of flour or seed per year.
Caldwell organic farmer Kurtis Funke is raising 25 acres of einkorn in his fourth season of supplying Koyle. Funke said it took time to learn the tricks of raising the crop, which yields him only 85 to 87 bushels per acre.
“It is integrated into our rotation as a little higher-value grain crop,” Funke said.
To provide a clean field, he plants it following beans or alfalfa. It requires less fertilizer than other crops and is prone to tipping if it grows too tall. It’s highly resistant to common rusts and other diseases — more than 300 accessions of einkorn are kept at USDA’s Aberdeen small grains facility to breed disease resistance into new wheat varieties.
On his own farm in Teton, Koyle will raise 4 acres of einkorn for seed this season and has another 50 acres making the transition to organic ground.
“Ancient grains in general are growing in interest,” Koyle said, adding he plans to test a few other ancient grains. “This last year there was a tipping point where some of the large cereal companies started looking at it.”
Koyle explained the largest companies have tested einkorn’s attributes but are skeptical that the producer base could meet their scale. Nonetheless, Koyle worries too many U.S. growers are entering the market, given its current size.
“There will probably be an initial oversupply here this year or the next that will cause some problem to the market,” Koyle said.
Koyle has yet to turn a profit on einkorn.
He learned of Einkorn in 2009 through a friend while living in Provo, Utah, and had a Wyoming farmer plant his first crop in 2010. The crop was a failure, as the seed, purchased from Germany, was a fall variety mistakenly planted in spring.
Koyle had a bit of seed remaining, however, and his father in Gooding, Idaho, and a Canadian grower both harvested successful fall crops for him in 2011.
Koyle and his wife, Julie, hired Jenni Schlegelmilch to assist in developing and posting content to their websites, including a weekly original recipe featuring einkorn. Schlegelmilch explained einkorn flour behaves differently than wheat, and the site offers tips, such as ratios for making dough and how to get it to rise.