The most commonly grown grains in the world are: maize (corn), wheat, rice, and barley. These four crops together provide over 60% of the world’s food energy (FAO Staple Foods). And because they are so common, you can easily find these foods to buy and add to your stored food supply. Cornmeal, wheat berries, white rice, and pearled barley all keep fairly well in storage. So if you are going to grow some of your own food, you might want to consider growing other types of grains, to supplement your stored foods.
This post will review 5 less common grain crops: buckwheat, millet, sorghum, spelt, and teff.
Despite the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat and is not a true cereal crop. Like amaranth and quinoa, buckwheat is an achene; it is a small hardened fruit containing a single seed. However, it is called a pseudo-cereal because it has the nutritional and culinary qualities of a cereal.
Buckwheat flour is high in carbs (70.59%) and high in protein (12.62%). It has about the same protein content as wheat, but with a better essential amino acid profile. Wheat is low in lysine, but buckwheat is a complete protein, offering ample amounts of all essential amino acids including lysine. The flour is only 3% fat, and is a good source of fiber (10%).
Buckwheat flour can be added to bread recipes or other baked goods. Pancakes made with buckwheat are delicious. Buckwheat can even be used to make a type of pasta called “soba” (How to Make Soba Noodles ). The pasta can be made with 100% buckwheat flour, but it is easier to make with a mix of buckwheat and wheat flours.
Growing buckwheat is no more difficult than other grains. The crop is not at all frost tolerant. It prefers moist and cool weather, but excess rain may cause lodging (when the plant falls over and gets stuck in the soil). Unlike amaranth and quinoa, buckwheat has a hull that must be removed prior to eating. Some of the newer cultivars are easier to hull. Yields are around 1,000 lbs/acre. More on growing buckwheat here.
There are several different types of millet grown as grains: proso millet, finger millet, foxtail millet, barnyard millet, and pearl millet. Of these five, peal millet is the most commonly grown. It is about 11% protein and has ample amounts of all essential amino acid, except lysine.
These different types of millet offer a certain advantage over other grains. Millet matures more quickly than other grains, reaching maturity in only 60 to 90 days. The plant also requires little water. Millet grows well with few inputs, i.e. with little fertilizer, water, etc.
“Proso plants generally mature between 60-90 days after planting and can be grown successfully in poor soil and hot dry weather. Proso is an easy crop to grow and it seems to be better adapted than most crops to primitive agricultural practices…. Proso millet requires very little water, possibly the lowest water requirement of any cereal, and converts water most efficiently to dry matter/grain….” (Progress in new crops)
Finger millet offers the advantage of keeping very well in storage. Barnyard millet is one of the fastest growing grains, reaching maturity in as little as 6 to 8 weeks. More on growing millet here.
Though sometimes called ‘broom corn’, sorghum is unrelated to corn (maize). When grown for its grain, sorghum is also called “milo”. Sorghum tolerates hot dry conditions well. It is among the more drought-tolerant grain crops. However, sorghum needs high temperatures to thrive: over 90 degrees as a daytime high is optimum. Yields are very high, in the range of 75 to 105 bushels per acre (4200 lb/acre to 5880 lb/acre).
Nutritionally, sorghum is similar to other grains. It has moderate levels of protein (11.3%) and fiber (6.3%), and is a good source of all essential amino acids, except lysine. It’s protein content is similar to wheat. Why grow sorghum instead of wheat? Sorghum offers higher yields under hot dry conditions than wheat. But in cool moist weather, wheat or maize might be better choices.
Sweet sorghum is grown for the sugar in its stalks (much like sugar cane), but it also produces grain, though at lower yields than grain sorghum. Forage sorghum is grown to feed livestock. The crop is very productive for that purpose, often being competitive with corn.
Spelt is closely related to wheat: same genus but different species. Both spelt and wheat contain gluten, which means that spelt (unlike buckwheat or sorghum) can be used to make a bread that rises with yeast. It can also be used to make pasta. Spelt is higher in protein (14.5%) than most other grains. It has a near-complete essential amino acid profile, except for a lower than ideal amount of lysine. However, spelt contains more lysine than wheat.
The close-fitting husk of spelt makes the crop more resistant to pests. But it also makes threshing the crop more difficult. Spelt is cold-tolerant and is generally grown as a winter crop: planted in fall and harvested in spring. “Spelt can be grown on poorly-drained, low-fertility soils. It grows well on sandy soils in the Midwest.” (Alternative Field Crops). Typical yields are in the range of 2400 to 3000 lbs/acre.
Like other grains, teff is a good source of protein (13.3%) and has all essential amino acids in ideal amounts, except lysine (55% of ideal). In this regard, it is like wheat, though with slightly more lysine.
The grains of teff are very small; it is one of the smallest cultivated grains in the world. The small size has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it takes only a small amount of teff seed to sow a field. The seeding rate is 6 to 8 lbs/acre for teff, compared to 25 to 75 lbs/acre for wheat. So if you have 25 lbs of wheat seed, you can plant, at most, one acre. But if you have 25 lbs of teff seed, you can plant 3 to 4 acres.
Teff yields range from 785 to 1570 lb/acre. The yield is lower than for wheat, but the plant is much more hardy. Teff tolerates dry conditions as well as damp conditions.
“Teff also thrives in both waterlogged soils and during droughts, making it a dependable staple wherever it’s grown. No matter what the weather, teff crops will likely survive, as they are also relatively free of plant diseases compared to other cereal crops. Teff can grow where many other crops won’t thrive, and in fact can be produced from sea level to as high as 3000 meters of altitude….” (Whole Grains Council)
On the down side, teff grains are small, and so they are difficult to hull. However, teff can also be used as a nutritious forage for livestock grazing. More on growing and cooking with teff here.