According to an industry trade group, sales of alternatives to modern wheat are growing at double-digit annual rates.
If you've spent much time in the baking aisle at the grocery store, you may have noticed the increasing prominence of "gluten free" or "ancient grains" on labels.
One example is teff, a tiny grain with a mild, nutty or earthy taste. Its flour is the key ingredient for injera, the signature, spongy flatbread found in Ethiopian restaurants.
Wayne Carlson became a convert to Ethiopia's staple grain while doing public health work in Africa in the mid-1970s.
"I came to know teff because I was eating it all the time and hosted by teff farmers,” Carlson said.
Bringing teff to Idaho
In the late 1970s, Carlson returned to the U.S., married and settled in southwest Idaho. Then he hatched the idea to introduce teff grass to the Inland Northwest.
"Geologically, it is very similar to Ethiopia,” Carlson explained. “Ethiopia is placed on the East African Rift Valley, which is very much like the Snake River Plain."
Neither Wayne nor his wife Elisabeth are farmers or want to be. So they convinced actual farmers in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada to grow teff on contract for them and they mill it. Until last year though, there wasn't a single Ethiopian restaurant or bakery in the entire state of Idaho to sell the milled flour to.
"The way we started was Wayne went through the Washington, D.C., telephone book and looked for the names that were Ethiopian,” Elisabeth said.
And that's how the business slowly grew for several decades, serving the far flung Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrant community. The Teff Company has outgrown four different mills. The first was a little stone grinder in the Carlsons' basement. They currently occupy a remodeled brewery complex in Nampa, Idaho.
The Carlsons say the teff flour coming off their packing line now could well land in an upscale natural foods store or a commercial bakery.
"There are people who are interested in new grains, nutritious foods,” Elisabeth said.
What’s driving the ‘ancient grain’ movement?
Recent moves by national corporations underscore broader market interest. This fall, Whole Foods Market began stocking the Carlson's teff. Separately, General Mills added an "ancient grains" version to its Cheerios cereal line. It contains small additions of spelt, quinoa and Kamut.
"Are you a believer now?," Wayne asked his wife good-naturedly.
Elisabeth replied with a hearty laugh, "I guess I'd have to say, yes. I don't think I anticipated it could grow as it has."
A marketing flier for The Teff Company says, "Move over quinoa, there's a new grain in town." There is in fact a whole suite of unfamiliar grains now competing for shelf space and consumer attention. You could also try amaranth, sorghum, millet, spelt, einkorn or emmer (farro), some of which are locally grown and some even touted as "superfoods."
"The ancient grain movement I think is largely driven by the desire for gluten free foods,” said Frank Morton, a seed grower from Philomath in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Besides going gluten free, people are showing interest in whole grains for the taste, health benefits or heirloom, non-industrial heritage. But the food commands premium prices.
Only some of the trendy alternatives to wheat are gluten-free. Those include quinoa, teff, millet and amaranth. Spelt, emmer (farro), einkorn and Kamut are varieties of wheat, which some wheat-sensitive eaters can tolerate, but these cannot be labeled "gluten free."
Data on plantings of these specialty grains in Western states is scarce, partly because production is still very limited compared to commodity crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's authoritative Census of Agriculture recorded a small amount of sorghum grain acreage in Washington and Idaho, but did not find enough teff, quinoa, spelt or emmer to merit listing them individually.
Research agronomist Rich Roseberg of the OSU Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center estimated that farmers and ranchers planted about 7,000 acres of teff in Washington state and 4,000 acres in Oregon each year since 2010. He based his estimate on seed sales and communications with county extension agents.
Roseberg said the majority of the teff acreage in Washington and Oregon is grown for livestock forage. "Horses in particular seem to prefer it to other grass hay," he observed.
In Idaho, Roseberg figures more of the teff production is grain for human food. Roseberg credits Carlson for being ahead of his time. "Mr. Carlson for a long time was the only one interested in it," Roseberg said by telephone from southern Oregon. A newer regional producer to emerge is Camas Country Mill in Junction City, Oregon.
Teff contains lots of calcium, iron, protein and fiber, which are nutrition selling points shared with a number of the other specialty grains.
A South American native in the Pacific Northwest
Morton has been breeding quinoa plants for about as long as the Carlsons have been pioneering teff. He said he has six varieties ready for prime time.
"They are now going out to farmers and they're being tested from Port Townsend, Washington, to Pasco and all through Oregon,” Morton said. “Somebody soon is going to begin producing quinoa commercially in the Pacific Northwest."
It's taken so long, Morton said, because he had to adapt the quinoa to the local climate. Researchers from Oregon State University and Washington State University worked on this too. The original quinoa varieties from the highlands of South America could not tolerate our hottest summer days or rain at harvest time.
When cooked, the slightly crunchy, high protein quinoa seeds have a resemblance to cous cous.
"With quinoa, I'm wondering if it has peaked or not," Washington State University Professor Stephen Jones said. "Teff is growing. People can't get enough of it."
So what’s the next up-and-coming crop?
"Millet could be a sleeper here," Jones said. "It tolerates drought, which could be important."
Neither Jones nor Carlson are fond of the term "ancient grains" to describe the category. "It's not 'ancient' if it's been planted every year for the last 10,000 years," Jones scoffed.
"Teff was never really a relic. It was never bypassed by history," Carlson said. "Teff has always been the mainstay crop for millions and millions of people. It's just that they were geographically isolated in northeast Africa.”
“So all we've done is said to the rest of the world, 'Hey look, there's this really good stuff there. Why don't you incorporate it in your diet?’”