What’s old is new: Heirloom grains’ popularity soars amid push to eat healthy, cook at home

At Anson Mills, the producer of heirloom grains like Carolina Gold Rice and emmer wheat, has watched sales grow every year since the South Carolina company was founded in 1998. The coronavirus has significantly accelerated demand today for age-old grains that have been passed down for generations.

Similar to countless other heirloom ingredient suppliers, Anson Mills has seen sales turn “literally vertical,” Glenn Roberts, the founder of Anson Mills, told Food Dive. “We’re looking at demand we’ve never seen before.”

What was once a destination for chefs cooking in fancy restaurants before many of them closed because of the pandemic, Anson Mills has become a popular place for home-confined cooks.

Earlier this year, wholesale was responsible for 95% of its revenue with home cooks making up the rest. But with wholesale establishments largely closed, home sales at one point in April made up nearly all of the company’s revenue. In recent weeks, home demand has subsided and more wholesale users have reopened their businesses, pushing that total closer to 40%. By fall, home use will be around 30%, a sign that many consumers who turned to heirloom ingredients during the pandemic will continue to use them. 

Each day, Roberts gets between 150 and 200 calls from consumers, nearly a third of which he answers himself, asking to know if his product is clean, how it was produced, where it was grown and how it is raised in the field by farmers. Anson Mills doesn’t offer its heirloom ingredients, some dating back thousands of years ago and not present in agriculture after 1850, in retail. Instead, they are mailed directly to consumers at home.  


 Sales have turned “literally vertical. We’re looking at demand we’ve never seen before.”

Glenn Roberts

Founder, Anson Mills


“There is a lot of sophistication. There is a very big learning curve in people who are being quarantined and looking at their own creativity,” Roberts said. “People who normally call with very low-level questions are calling with pretty high-minded questions, and they’re home cooks, they’re not professional chefs. We’re used to dealing with the most demanding professional chefs in the world. Period. And [home cooks] ask quick questions and they want a real, honest answer.”

Until eight weeks ago, Anson Mills used to process grain 2 1/2 days a week and farm the rest for one shift a day; now they have extra workers to help pick and process the grain six days a week for three shifts, he said. 

Demand “has increased during [COVID-19] and we’re looking at it continuing to increase,” Roberts said.​

A sense of nostalgia

The exact definition of an heirloom grain, such as farro, einkorn, emmerspelt and heirloom wheat​, can vary from grower to grower. Even the term can be used interchangeably with other words like heritage or ancient. But as the name implies, heirloom grains go back several generations, and in some cases, tens of thousands of years.

What is generally agreed upon, however, is that heirloom seeds have a feeling of nostalgia associated with them because of their age. They’re typically organic, able to reproduce the same seed from year to year when planted and lower in gluten than modern day wheat, making them more digestible for many consumers. The seeds also haven’t been genetically modified, a stigma that has dogged many foods that routinely use the controversial ingredient. 

“We have a lot of customers that are deliberately searching for heirloom seeds much more so than in the past,” Parker Garlitz, director of marketing with the Sustainable Seed Company in Utah, told Food Dive. “The events of the last two months have probably accelerated that to some degree.” 

Eli Rogosa, founder of the Heritage Grain Conservancy, a nonprofit in Massachusetts that restores and disseminates ancient wheat species on the verge of extinction, can’t consume modern versions of wheat because of their high gluten content — a factor she attributes to the fact that the grain has been bred to be dependent on agrochemicals to survive​She’s also adamant that heirloom grains, which she can consume, have a deeper, more robust flavor profile and easier-to-digest gluten.

“The [heirloom] grains are more delicious, more nutritious,” she said.

Competition looming from other grains

Mark Sorrells, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, told Food Dive while there will always be a market for heirloom grains, it will likely remain a niche segment in the overall ingredients space. 

For all its advantages, its smaller scale production and marketing expenses makes it harder for growers to ramp up their output to a size where they can cover their costs. It’s also harder to grow the crops because the yield is lower, and they are usually grown organically without sprays like conventional crops, making them more susceptible to diseases and weeds.

Sorrells also said there are other specialty grains such as hulless oats or naked barley that are high in vitamins and minerals and do not have to be dehulled. Similar to many heirloom grains, they contain a unique and distinctive flavor.

Permission granted by Cornell Small Grains Program

 

I’m sure there will always be a market for heirloom wheat varieties, but I think as consumers discover the value in some of the other kinds of grains that it will take away some of the demand for some of the heirloom varieties,” Sorrells said.

Five years ago, Sorrells came across a 1924 description of several old heirloom varieties that over time have seen their taste altered after becoming mixed with modern varieties. 

To return the grains to their original form, he sorted out those that were “true to type” based on the 1924 description and assembled a sensory panel to evaluate sourdough mixes made from different varieties of wheat including Red Fife, a type of hard red wheat that produces herbaceous and nutty fresh wheat flavors. Despite its poor yield and other subpar characteristics, Red Fife remains very popular.

“It does have that one attribute that is sought after by bakers and consumers and that’s a good flavor in the bread-type products,” Sorrells said.

For now, heirloom grains are riding a wave of newfound popularity with consumers that’s unlikely to abate anytime soon. 

Garlitz with Sustainable Seed, which also sells herbs, flowers and vegetables, said demand for heirloom grains [removed for these since the focus is on grains and not herbs, etc.] were so strong that the company decided in mid-March to stop advertising online. It was getting more orders than it could handle. Sustainable Seed used to fill one UPS truck a day; now it’s filling two. 

“We have a lot of customers that are deliberately searching for heirloom seeds much more so than in the past,” he said. There is “a sense of safety in an heirloom seed.”

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