Spelt farming on the Western Slope of Colorado, Part I | TheFencePost.com

Spelt farming on the Western Slope of Colorado, Part I

Carolyn White
Olathe, Colo.

What is spelt? The Distel family of Olathe, Colo., – who grow it on a section of their 160-acre farm – have been hearing that question a lot over the past 10 years. “It’s an ancient variety of wheat that originated in Egypt,” explained Bryan, grandson of Lawrence Distel, who’d purchased the property in the 1950s. “It is planted in September, lies slightly dormant through February, and is harvested in July.” What are the advantages of spelt over other grains? During a tour of the well-kept and organized property that he maintains along with his father, Larry, and Uncles Melvin and Allen, I learned that there were many.

Because it is a winter crop, the Distels save on feed costs by grazing their cattle on the sprouts that grow from mid-October through February. (Their rich, green spelt field stands out in complete contrast to the surrounding brown hills and bare trees.) Spelt hasn’t been bred down, so it can grow as high as 6-feet tall and “provides around two tons of straw” after the grain has been harvested. Some of that is sold, but the rest is used as bedding for the cattle corrals since it “soaks up the water like a giant paper towel.” In addition, “Although it takes as much water and fertilizer as corn,” Bryan continued, “it’s worth more,” due in part to the fact that the family receives a ‘forward’ contract each year from Purity Foods, the company which got them started.

In business since 1979, Michigan-based Purity Foods manufactures a premier line of products known as Vita-Spelt. According to their website, spelt has a ‘rich, nutty flavor and a smoother texture (than wheat), containing a balanced protein made up of all eight of the essential amino acids’. Although it does contain gluten, spelt-based products such as breads, spaghetti, rotini, angel hair, lasagna, and even pretzels ‘are more easily digested than most other grains.’ With its primary niche market in California, about a decade ago the small company felt the need to expand its spelt- growing areas beyond Michigan and Canada. Although they’d first tried other areas back East, those hadn’t been very successful due to high humidity, which resulted in “head sprouts” and damaged kernels.

The arid climate of our Western slope promotes much better growing conditions. Because of furrow irrigating, the plants don’t get dry or stressed here, resulting in more consistent protein levels. Working through the Montrose Economic Council, Purity started searching to expand to another 500 to 1,000 acres in Colorado. According to Bryan, “Bob Buyer at the (Olathe) Co-op first mentioned the Michigan men being in town and encouraged us to attend their meeting.” Upon learning more about spelt the Distels agreed to sign on, fitting the unusual crop in along with their pinto beans, hay and field corn.

The spelt is usually harvested and stored in mid-summer, after which samples must be submitted for quality testing. (Because spelt flour is primarily used for baking, the protein levels have to remain high.) It must then be re-planted as early as possible so that cattle – the family maintains between 200 and 300 head – will have the shoots to graze on after being hauled back from National Forest lands no later than Oct. 14. September, as a result, is the busiest month for the Distels, with everyone putting in 12-hour days. There’s a third cutting of hay to put up, plus the corn harvest, and then the ground is tilled and irrigated again before the water is turned off for the year. When the spelt is finally shipped it remains in the hull, which grows tight around the seed. Once at Purity, it’s then ground off by two big stone wheels so that the seed isn’t damaged, and the resulting product looks like whole grain flour only darker.

So, what’s spelt? After learning all about it from Bryan Distel I’ve decided that it’s a versatile, cost-effective, and multi-faceted crop. I’m ready to look for a spelt product the next time I go shopping, too, and try it out. But there’s more to the story: tune in to the Fence Post this coming August for more details of the actual harvest.

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What is spelt? The Distel family of Olathe, Colo., – who grow it on a section of their 160-acre farm – have been hearing that question a lot over the past 10 years. “It’s an ancient variety of wheat that originated in Egypt,” explained Bryan, grandson of Lawrence Distel, who’d purchased the property in the 1950s. “It is planted in September, lies slightly dormant through February, and is harvested in July.” What are the advantages of spelt over other grains? During a tour of the well-kept and organized property that he maintains along with his father, Larry, and Uncles Melvin and Allen, I learned that there were many.

Because it is a winter crop, the Distels save on feed costs by grazing their cattle on the sprouts that grow from mid-October through February. (Their rich, green spelt field stands out in complete contrast to the surrounding brown hills and bare trees.) Spelt hasn’t been bred down, so it can grow as high as 6-feet tall and “provides around two tons of straw” after the grain has been harvested. Some of that is sold, but the rest is used as bedding for the cattle corrals since it “soaks up the water like a giant paper towel.” In addition, “Although it takes as much water and fertilizer as corn,” Bryan continued, “it’s worth more,” due in part to the fact that the family receives a ‘forward’ contract each year from Purity Foods, the company which got them started.

In business since 1979, Michigan-based Purity Foods manufactures a premier line of products known as Vita-Spelt. According to their website, spelt has a ‘rich, nutty flavor and a smoother texture (than wheat), containing a balanced protein made up of all eight of the essential amino acids’. Although it does contain gluten, spelt-based products such as breads, spaghetti, rotini, angel hair, lasagna, and even pretzels ‘are more easily digested than most other grains.’ With its primary niche market in California, about a decade ago the small company felt the need to expand its spelt- growing areas beyond Michigan and Canada. Although they’d first tried other areas back East, those hadn’t been very successful due to high humidity, which resulted in “head sprouts” and damaged kernels.

The arid climate of our Western slope promotes much better growing conditions. Because of furrow irrigating, the plants don’t get dry or stressed here, resulting in more consistent protein levels. Working through the Montrose Economic Council, Purity started searching to expand to another 500 to 1,000 acres in Colorado. According to Bryan, “Bob Buyer at the (Olathe) Co-op first mentioned the Michigan men being in town and encouraged us to attend their meeting.” Upon learning more about spelt the Distels agreed to sign on, fitting the unusual crop in along with their pinto beans, hay and field corn.

The spelt is usually harvested and stored in mid-summer, after which samples must be submitted for quality testing. (Because spelt flour is primarily used for baking, the protein levels have to remain high.) It must then be re-planted as early as possible so that cattle – the family maintains between 200 and 300 head – will have the shoots to graze on after being hauled back from National Forest lands no later than Oct. 14. September, as a result, is the busiest month for the Distels, with everyone putting in 12-hour days. There’s a third cutting of hay to put up, plus the corn harvest, and then the ground is tilled and irrigated again before the water is turned off for the year. When the spelt is finally shipped it remains in the hull, which grows tight around the seed. Once at Purity, it’s then ground off by two big stone wheels so that the seed isn’t damaged, and the resulting product looks like whole grain flour only darker.

So, what’s spelt? After learning all about it from Bryan Distel I’ve decided that it’s a versatile, cost-effective, and multi-faceted crop. I’m ready to look for a spelt product the next time I go shopping, too, and try it out. But there’s more to the story: tune in to the Fence Post this coming August for more details of the actual harvest.