Superfoods and Tray vs. True

AS SEEN IN The Furrow Magazine / Written by Karl Kessler

This Kansas firm is selling bottled wheat grass that’s more nutritious than carrots and spinach.

Growing numbers of health-food enthusiasts are learning something cattle producers have known for years—that wheat grass is packed with nutrition. Harvested just before the plants start to joint, tender young wheat leaves beat carrots and spinach hands down as a vegetable in human diets, according to Ron Seibold.

Seibold is co-founder and president of PINES International. The firm, based in Lawrence, Kan., has been selling wheat grass for human consumption since 1976.

“Some of our best customers are farmers,” he says. “They’ve seen how well beef cattle do on wheat pasture, and they know what wheat grass can do for milk production and the health of dairy animals.”

Seibold says just one teaspoonful of PINES Wheat Grass powder, dissolved in water or juice, provides the same amount of nutrition as a serving of deep-green, leafy vegetables. Seven wheat grass tablets will do the same.

Pound for pound, he notes, the dehydrated wheat grass the company sells is many times richer in chlorophyll and iron than spinach. Its protein level averages 25 percent and it contains virtually every vitamin known, along with 20 amino acids, including the eight that are considered essential for human health.

According to Seibold, PINES Wheat Grass has a minimum of six times the vitamin A of carrots, eight times the vitamin C of citrus, five times the calcium of whole milk, and 18 times the iron of spinach.

In addition to wheat grass, PINES International offers barley grass in tablet and powdered form. Seibold says the two grasses are the same, nutritionally. The company also sells a wheat grass pasta (update: the pasta has been discontinued) made from organic durum wheat flour and wheat grass powder.

Last year, PINES introduced a new product called Mighty Greens. Billed as a “green superfood blend,” it comes in powdered form for mixing with water or juice. The main ingredients are wheat, barley, oats, and rye grasses, dehydrated alfalfa, and green algae.

PINES also markets powdered alfalfa, beet juice, and rhubarb juice (update: rhubarb juice has been discontinued), and an assortment of dried herbs. All of the products are distributed throughout the U.S., and can be found in a majority of the nation’s 10,000 health-food stores.

Although Seibold says demand for PINES products is strong, it doesn’t take many acres to supply the raw materials to produce them.

“With the intensive production system we’ve developed, we’re getting all the wheat grass we need from about 500 acres,” he notes. “Most of that land is company-owned. One farmer, who’s been with us from the beginning, grows the rest of the wheat we use.”

The intensive production system Seibold refers to begins with meticulous seedbed preparation. “We don’t want any furrows or high places,” he explains. “We disk the ground very thoroughly and sometimes harrow it to try to get a smooth seedbed.

“We don’t use any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides,” he adds. “Most of our wheat is rotated with red clover and soybeans. Our basic rotation program is wheat, soybeans, and two years of red clover, or sometimes, alfalfa.” Weed control is limited to cultivating the soybeans.

Although Seibold prefers not to discuss specific varieties, he says the company grows wheat varieties that produce food foliage.

On irrigated ground, which includes almost all of the acreage PINES has in production, the wheat is double drilled. That, Seibold explains, amounts to seeding about 60 pounds of seed per acre in each of two perpendicular directions. The purpose is to minimize tillering and get a dense, weed-free stand.

The crop is harvested about 200 days after seeding, just before it begins to joint. “That’s when the plants reach their nutritional peak,” Seibold says. “After that, they begin to grow rapidly and the nutritional value falls off dramatically.”

As soon as it’s ready, the grass is harvested using special custom-built, self-propelled machines that resemble forage harvesters. Seibold emphasizes that none of the grass ever touches the ground, nor is it touched by human hands as it’s harvested and processed.

“We direct cut the grass just after the joint comes out of the boot,” he says. “The plants are about 7 to 10 inches tall at that stage and we only clip off the top 3 inches or so.”

Careful handling
The clipped leaves go directly into the harvester’s sterilized hopper. The grass is whisked from the field by truck to a nearby dehydrator. The custom-designed dehydrator dries the leaves in a patented low-temperature process that keeps the natural enzymes in the material alive, Seibold says.

From the dehydrator, the grass goes directly into huge, nitrogen-filled plastic pharmaceutical bags. Each bag holds a ton or more of dry leaves. The grass is then stored at about 10 degrees F until the processing plant in Lawrence is ready for it.

Most of the grass goes into tablets or powder, both of which are packed in brown glass bottles and flushed with nitrogen to prevent deterioration from exposure to air and light.

Meanwhile, back in the fields, the wheat is allowed to mature. When ripe, the grain is harvested and sold.

Not all of the grass is sold, however. Since 1991, PINES has donated shipments of wheat grass products equaling about 10 percent of annual sales to needy and undernourished people. Seibold says free products have gone to projects that assist Native Americans and homeless individuals in the U.S., and to organizations that distribute food in Africa, Central America, Asia, and Europe. The total retail value of the donations now exceeds $1.5 million.

Special projects
The company is also involved in farmland and wildlife preservation. Seibold, who grew up on a small wheat farm in Kansas and has a degree in sociology, has long been committed to preserving productive farmland and wildlife habitat. He and Steve Malone, Pines International’s other co-founder and current chief executive, say a major goal when they started the company was to generate money to buy chemically farmed land and convert it to organic farming. Profits from growing chemical-free cereal grasses, grains, and vegetable crops would then be used to buy additional land, develop wildlife habitat, and set up environmental-education projects.

Since 1991, PINES has acquired nearly 1,300 acres. About 70 percent of it is in hay or other crops, all being grown organically. The rest is forest, some of which has become part of a Wilderness Community Education Foundation that Malone and Seibold have established. PINES has also constructed three energy-efficient demonstration homes near Lawrence. Two are entirely underground.

Seibold says the company’s sales volume has expanded 10 to 20 percent a year from the outset, and he expects to see continued steady growth.

“People are becoming more aware of the importance of dark-green, leafy vegetables, but the traditional American diet doesn’t include enough of them,” he notes. “Our products offer a convenient way to correct that deficiency without having to change your whole diet.”