In 2010, Troy De Smet stared at an imported container of freekeh — a green wheat, harvested young, toasted and cracked, that’s been a dietary staple in the Middle East for 2,000 years. No U.S. retailer wanted it for grocery store bulk bins.
“People didn’t know what it was or what to do with it,” said De Smet. After learning more about freekeh, De Smet decided to develop a retail product to tell its story.
The central part of this tale is the relationship between De Smet, who grew up shoveling grain and founded the Minnesota-based Freekeh Foods in 2012, and the U.S. organic farm community.
“We decided right then and there; we were not going to import it,” he said. “We were going to learn to grow and manufacture it here.”
With the California-based Davis Farms as a partner, De Smet relied on over 25 years of agricultural product development experience to understand the growing process, accessing grain elevators and processing facilities, and much more.
“If it weren’t for our team’s stubborn, charge-forward mentality, Freekeh Foods wouldn’t have been created. It’s been a group effort,” said De Smet.
But the hardest part was making a convincing pitch to farmers about the agronomic benefits of growing an unknown, exotic-named product for market.
“Once farmers saw it used 25 percent less water to grow than wheat, was harvested early (eliminating weed problems), and becomes a green manure for building soil, it was an easy sell,” said De Smet, Freekeh Foods’ CEO. Freekeh, he said, is an excellent entry crop for farmers interested in transitioning to organic. And, De Smet sees it as a way to build more climate-resilient farms with a hardy, drought-tolerant crop that just so happens to be a nutritional powerhouse.
“Freekeh is about the relationship we have with the land,” he said. “We get to communicate with farmers about their process, about sustainability, and about being good partners in bringing people a very special food.”
He notes that being a part of Oregon Tilth and seeing education and services geared to help farmers find success is deeply rewarding.
“Freekeh has created some of the best open and honest communications between a processor and farmer I’ve ever experienced in 25 years. It has required lots of communication and involvement, and we think that’s a good thing.”