Ancient Grains Conference Recap

The Northern Crops Institute (NCI) recently hosted its first ever Ancient Grains Conference on July 20th, 2022, at the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, MN. The purpose of the event was to explore and educate the 50+ attendees of the conference on the benefits of consuming Ancient Grains foods while also showing them the numerous potential uses for these types of grains. With three keynote speakers, numerous panel participants, and hands-on work for attendees, this conference offered a true crash-course in the viability of Ancient Grains in the future and why they’ve quickly become the latest hot macro food trend.

The venue chosen for the event, the Oliver Kelley Farm, is an educational and historical facility located in Elk River, MN, in the Northwest corner of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area of the state, often referred to as the “Twin Cities.” With the property’s history dating back to the 19th century with the aptly-named Kelley farming family (whose original farm is still situated on the grounds of the modern-day property), the original Visitor Center opened in 1981 and was replaced by a larger Visitor Center in 2017. The original farm was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the MN Historical Society (who received ownership of the farm from the National Grange, an organization formed by Kelley and six other individuals, in 1962) in 1964. Since then, the farm itself has undergone numerous renovations (with the most extensive being in 1975), but for the most part has remained original since its original construction in 1850.

On the evening prior to the event, July 19th, NCI hosted a welcome reception at Rockwoods, a restaurant located in neighboring Ostego, MN. Featuring buffet-style food service and a ticket-based bar, participants who chose to attend the reception were greeted with a casual and relaxed atmosphere where they could network with each other and with the members of the NCI staff who were present.

From there, the next day, the Conference began with opening remarks from three individuals inside the main presentation room of the Oliver Kelley Farm: Mark Jirik, Director of NCI, Anders Mayland, Site Manager of the Oliver Kelley Farm, and Neil Doty, Business Development Manager at NCI. Once these were complete, the first keynote presentation began with Shrene White, Director of Specialty Grains & General Manager of The Annex by Ardent at Ardent Mills, presiding. During her keynote, White provided some backstory on what Ancient Grains are and why they are increasingly being sought after by the public.

Following a short break, the first panel discussion began: Agronomy. Led by Neil Doty of NCI, this discussion focused largely on how ancient grains are grown and maintained along with how they’re currently being used in the food industry. A second panel (Trends & Applications) was also featured at the conclusion of this one, and was led by Aidin Milani, Sales & Development Manager for Pulses & Seeds at Buhler, Inc. Milani’s panel introduced conversations regarding modern approaches to utilizing Ancient Grains, and led right into the lunch hour.

Once the buffet-style lunch service was complete (featuring a variety of foods made with actual Ancient Grains), the second keynote speaker began. This second keynote speaker was Andrew Ross, a professor in the Food Science Department at Oregon State University. His presentation focused largely on the nutrients that are found within Ancient Grains foods and the numerous health benefits that one can expect if they begin incorporating these Ancient Grains foods into their diet regularly.

Upon the end of Ross’s keynote, attendees transitioned away from presentations to their hands-on work for the day in the Oliver Kelley Farm kitchen. Hosted by Lauri Scanlin, Principal Food Scientist at Ardent Mills, participants were provided instructions with how to work with the tools and Ancient Grains ingredients provided to them for the baking exercise. They then created their own dough and used it to prepare a number of food items. The attendees then were able to consume the foods they created!

After wrapping up with the baking demonstration with Lauri, the attendees once again moved back into the main presentation room to another panel discussion: Health & Nutrition, led by Julie Garden-Robinson, Extension Food & Nutrition Specialist at NDSU. Her panel expanded upon the keynote Andrew Ross presented, and delved even deeper into the nutritional benefits consuming foods made with Ancient Grains can provide. And, once again, the health benefits those who consume Ancient Grains regularly enjoy.

Finally, to conclude the conference’s presentation schedule, the last keynote speaker provided the closing presentation. The presenter was Jonathan Bethony, co-owner and head baker at SEYLOU. Bethony spoke about his business and also the new and creative ways his bakery has begun using Ancient Grains for. He also shared what his and other bakeries his is affiliated with plan to do with the increasing adoption of Ancient Grains, giving attendees another taste of what’s to come as Ancient Grains become more and more accepted in the baking world.

However, attendees of the Ancient Grains Conference still had one more surprise waiting for them once Bethony concluded his closing keynote: a giveaway for two merchandise items! All attendees had their names placed inside a bucket at the start of the event, and during this time, two names were drawn by NCI Director Mark Jirik, along with the assistance of NCI Staff member Krista Jansen. Once both winners’ names were drawn, they were invited to the front to receive their gifts in front of the group. From there, the conference officially adjourned, and that marked the end of the event.

Overall, this was an extremely successful event, not only for NCI but also for the Oliver Kelley Farm. Both teams worked endless hours in tandem with each other to make this conference possible, and the results were well worth it.