A Gluten-Free Wave

July 25, 2014 09:52 PM
A Gluten-Free Wave

Consumer demand entices farmers to plant new crops

Long before most Americans had ever heard of quinoa, Ernest New was growing it on his farm near Mosca, Colo. 

In 2013, New planted 130 acres of quinoa, making his one of the largest quinoa fields in the nation. New sells the quinoa direct to consumers, charging $4.99 for a 1-lb. bag of standard organic and $6.99 for a 1-lb. bag of black organic quinoa, plus shipping and handling. White Mountain Farm also sells quinoa seed to growers.

"There has never been a problem selling it," New says. "We can’t produce near enough to supply the market." 

Quinoa is popular, not only because it is packed with nutrients but also because it is gluten-free. Sorghum, rice, amaranth, buckwheat and pearl millet are also gluten-free grains and to some extent are grown in the U.S.

Oats are also gluten-free, but because most oats are grown on farms or processed in facilities that also process wheat or barley, only a small amount of domestically grown oats can be positioned as gluten-free. 

Gluten is a protein found in all types of wheat, barley, rye and triticale. Of the gluten-free grains only sorghum and rice are produced in quantities large enough in the U.S. to be included in USDA’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates. This year, U.S. farmers are expected to grow 360 million bushels of sorghum and 213 million bushels of rice, which are staples in gluten-free diets. 

According to Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group, 3 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, an auto-immune form of gluten intolerance, and must eat a gluten-free diet. In addition, an estimated 18 million to 21 million people have some form of gluten insensitivity.

"These people are having medical symptoms, and when they eliminate gluten from their diets, the symptoms go away," Kupper says. Another group of people believe gluten-free products will improve their athletic performance, help them lose weight and are overall healthier, so they purchase these products even though they do not have any symptoms of intolerance.

"We used to think this was a niche market, but now it’s a mainstream market," Kupper says. "It is estimated that in 2016, the gluten-free market will be worth more than $6.8 billion."

A top-five global grain. Yet U.S. farmers have only just started to take advantage of this market opportunity.

"Only 2% to 3% of the sorghum grown in the U.S. goes directly into the human food chain. But that is an area we want to expand," says Doug Bice, program director for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program’s High-Value Markets. Predominant markets for U.S. sorghum are feed exports, biofuels and livestock feed. 

"The market for white sorghum used in human food is growing globally," says Steve Zwinger, research specialist at North Dakota State University. "Soils have to be really warm to plant sorghum, but once the soils dry, sorghum outshines corn. It is a very drought-tolerant crop."

Globally, sorghum is used primarily as a human food product and ranks fifth in consumption behind rice, wheat, maize and potatoes. It can be made into porridge, bread, beverages, and popped and cooked as a whole grain. Sorghum flour is an adaptable substitute for wheat flour. Per capita consumption of sorghum is highest in Africa at 44 lb. per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s November 2013 Food Outlook.

Jerry VanZee has been growing sorghum on his 1,000-acre farm in Platte, S.D., for close to a decade. 

"For years we grew sunflowers, corn and soybeans. I never paid any attention to sorghum. But sunflowers were hard on the soil," says VanZee, who sold his sunflower seeds to the birdseed industry. Because sunflowers are susceptible to the same diseases as corn and soybeans, VanZee needed an alternative crop. He was familiar with gluten-intolerance issues because his son has three boys and a girl, all with wheat allergies. 

"In 2007 after my oldest grandson was born, I hooked up my daughter-in-law with a mill that makes sorghum flour, and she started making sorghum bread," VanZee says.

Around the same time, he began growing sorghum for the feed industry. "It was good for rotation, but it wasn’t paying much," he recalls.

While shopping in Wal-Mart one day, VanZee noticed a birdseed blend that contained a white sorghum seed. Already familiar with the bird seed industry, VanZee spent the next year looking for white sorghum seed. Once he located Sorghum Partners K35Y5, a white, bin-run seed, he began growing it for the birdseed industry.

"I chose K35Y5 because it was white, and there was a premium paid for the sorghum," he says. "I started getting a premium of 50¢ a bushel more than what I could get for corn, and it’s cheaper to put in." 
This year VanZee planted Sorghum Partners 3303, a food-grade white sorghum that can be used for birdseed or human consumption. Typically, he says, the food industry pays a 50¢- to $3-per-bushel premium over corn.

Ancient grains. University of Washington researcher Kevin Murphy studies four gluten-free grains: amaranth buckwheat, millet and quinoa. He is developing amaranth and quinoa seeds that will grow well in the U.S. 

He cautions farmers not to plant quinoa seeds they buy in grocery stores because nearly all have been imported from Bolivia or Peru. These seeds have been grown at high altitudes and are photoperiod insensitive. Because of this, imported quinoa and amaranth seeds continue to grow reaching full maturity when planted at low altitudes and northern latitudes.

"We think quinoa will really take off in the U.S.," Murphy explains. "Imports are increasing. Demand has increased greatly, but domestic production has not." 

There is no herbicide approved for use on quinoa fields; once there is, Murphy expects conventional quinoa production to soar.

This year, Washington farmers will only grow about 200 acres of quinoa. According to Murphy, the U.S. imported 73 million pounds of quinoa in 2013, up from 2007’s 4 million pounds.

Quinoa grows well in northern states, where temperatures do not exceed 95°F during the critical pollination and flowering periods, Murphy notes. It could also work well in southern regions planted in the fall or very early spring so it can be harvested before heat sets in.

"We treat it similar to barley. It doesn’t need as much nitrogen as wheat, and it does well in either conventional or organic farming systems," Murphy says. 

Amaranth, like quinoa, is a broadleaf plant that can be harvested using a barley combine. Demand is growing, but U.S. production remains minimal.

"Amaranth doesn’t tolerate frost as well as quinoa," Murphy says. "But it is a quick-maturing crop that works well in a variety of rotations."

The pancake grain. North Dakota and Washington typically grow the most buckwheat in the U.S. In 2013, North Dakota farmers planted 12,000 acres, down substantially from 2012’s 26,000 acres due to competition from corn and soybeans. On average, Washington farmers grow 15,000 to 20,000 acres of buckwheat.

Buckwheat is a short-season, heat-loving crop. Nearly all of the buckwheat grown in the U.S. is sold to Asia to be made into soba noodles, groats, tea and other products. In the U.S., buckwheat is manufactured into pancake mixes, but buckwheat flour is becoming more available.

"Buckwheat is being mentioned more often as a gluten-free grain, but it doesn’t get mentioned as much as some of the other grains," Zwinger says. "I don’t think buckwheat will respond to the gluten-free market as quickly as some of the other grains."

Another gluten-free grain, pearl millet is popular in Africa and Asia. In the U.S., Colorado farmers grow about half of the country’s millet. 

"People are asking if millet will be the next quinoa," Murphy says. "First people need to start thinking of millet as something other than birdseed." 

As customers continue to search for healthy gluten-free alternatives, farmers remain optimistic the increase in demand will be the key to developing these new markets. 

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