The Midwest was once considered America’s bread basket. Today, the agricultural landscape is defined by corn and soy, much of which is made into refined foods, animal feed, and fuel. Incorporating food-grade small grains, oilseeds, and dry beans on farms offer alternatives to predominant cropping systems and opportunities for diversified farm income, while reconnecting farmers, makers, and eaters. Looking to our region’s complex agricultural past offers insights into how to build resilience in our changing culture and climate. Together, we can create an improved staple crop system rooted in collaboration and equity.
Grain terminology can be confusing, so we’ve pulled together some of the words and phrases that are central to why diverse grains are important for our region’s farms, rural economies, and environment. This index will continue to grow over time, and you can find the glossary on social channels with #grainsglossary.
We’ve assembled this guide to provide basic information about 16 grains grown in the Midwest. It includes notes on their history, information on why growing them is important for area farmers, suggestions for how to use them, and where you can find more information about them.Learn More
Grain processors are the linchpins of regional grain economies. Without cleaners, mills, and malthouses, grains can’t get from farm to people. These mechanical processes are critical for turning seeds into dinner — or cocktail hour!
When grains come out of a field, they are mixed with rocks, weed seeds, and other plant debris. The first step in making them suitable for human consumption is separating the kernels from everything else. This is often done using the power of air and motion.
Once debris is removed, grains may also need to be dried to temperatures appropriate for storage to prevent spoilage. This is done using more air, and also heat. Grains often need secondary cleaning and size sorting to get ready for milling or malting.
Grain kernels have three main parts: endosperm, bran and germ. The endosperm contains the protein and starch used to make bread and other baked goods, while the germ and bran hold fat, minerals, micronutrients, and fiber. Fat equals flavor, which is why the freshly ground products of small stone flour mills have such an incredible taste.
Flour from the dominant grain system is usually roller milled, which separates grain kernels into many parts and allows for a thorough removal of bran and germ. Refined flour is very shelf stable, because it lacks fat. Stone and hammer mills pulverize grain kernels, grinding the bran, germ, and endosperm together, which is why freshly milled flours from small-scale mills should be used within six months. Many people store fresh flour in freezers for better preservation.
Whole grain and lightly sifted flours are more nutrient dense. Because bran decreases dough elasticity and its ability to rise, millers sift flour to remove some portion of the bran while retaining nutrition. Enzymes in fresh flour contribute to the microbial activity of naturally leavened/sourdough baked goods.
Malting is the process of sprouting and then drying a grain. Just as a grain kernel sprouts in soil when conditions are right, maltsters steep grain kernels in water to absorb moisture and keep them at the right temperature to encourage growth. Once the grains have germinated, growth is halted through kilning, a process of heating sprouted grain.
Malting is necessary for brewing because the process activates plant enzymes that convert a seed’s starches into sugars, making them accessible for conversion to alcohol during fermentation.
Almost any type of grain can be malted, and barley is the most commonly malted grain. The wide range of malt styles needed for specific beers and spirits are made through variations in the malting process. Additional flavors can be created by roasting the malted kernels similar to the process used when roasting coffee beans.
The scale of the industrial malting system is vast and inhibits the growth of alternative models. However, one of AGC’s members, the Craft Maltsters Guild, is building on the work of pioneers in micro-malting, helping make this sector more possible, from the development of locally adapted seed varieties to brewers and distillers’ adoption of craft malt as an ingredient. Learn more about their work and their Craft Malt Certified™ seal program at their website.
After grains have been used in brewing and distilling, they are considered ‘spent’ because their sugars have been exhausted making beers and spirits. However, these grains still host a lot of potential nutritional goodness and carry great flavor. By capturing the remaining fiber and protein, upcyclers are making new food products, ranging from flour for baking, grains for cereals, and ingredients for animal feed.
These groups, like ours, are working across the country to support the development of strong regional grain value chains.