NCAT Agriculture Specialist
© NCAT 2002
Cereal grains that can be sprouted include wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley, buckwheat, millet, and rice. In addition, there is a species called catgrass that is popular in some markets. Some cereal grains are sprouted hydroponically, using only water, as alfalfa and bean sprouts are commonly produced. Hydroponic sprouts carry considerable food safety concerns because of seed-borne diseases. Therefore, this publication will only describe two alternative methods of production: the bed method and the field method.
Seeds are grown in shallow beds made up of a mixture of soil and peat moss or vermiculite. This method begins with soaking the grain until the root radicle emerges from the seed coat. Seeds are then placed in the beds. The seeds grow in the dark at first and then, after two or three days, they are exposed to light.
Shallow trays are often used to grow these cereal "grasses." Sometimes production is in a greenhouse. The greenhouse method begins with laying thermal tubing on top of polystyrene, which rests on the ground. This is covered with black plastic. Thermal tubing distributes heat from hot water heaters and functions as a root-zone heating system. Next, a layer of compost or soil-less potting mix is laid on top of the plastic about an inch deep. Soaked grains are spread on top of the compost-mixture so that each makes contact with the soil. The seeds are kept moist by watering, as needed. In a week, the sprouted grains will be ready for harvest.
Harvest begins just before the second pair of leaves appears, usually about day eight. The result looks like a small, lush lawn. Sprouts are cut with scissors or a knife just above soil level or are pulled out with the roots. If they are cut, there is often a second harvest during the next week. Detailed information about timing and temperature is given in the books on wheatgrass that are listed at the end of this publication. There is also considerable detail on the websites listed.
Careful attention to correct temperature, light, and moisture is critical for consistent harvests. However, the environment necessary for wheatgrass production is also favorable to the growth of fungal and bacterial contaminants. Therefore, sanitation during production and harvest is extremely important. If the seed will be consumed, there is a strict protocol to ensure a pathogen-free product. If the wheatgrass is to be cut, water quality is the main concern. In either case, proper postharvest storage temperature, handling, and packaging are critical. The product is very perishable.
Pines International is a large cooperative in Lawrence, Kansas, that produces wheat grass juice tablets. This company distinguishes between the wheatgrass grown in beds and harvested at about one week to 10 days and their product, harvested at a later stage of grass development when both stems and leaves have formed. They claim their product has more nutritional value because it is grown in soil for a longer time period. Contact Pines International (see Further Resources below) for educational materials, or refer to their website for further information about this method of production.
An increasing number of cases of foodborne illness have been traced to the consumption of raw sprouts. Contamination is often from the seed itself. Salmonella, Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, and Listeria have been identified on seed coats. Escherichia coli, however, results from contaminated water or contact with manure from warm-blooded animals (rodents and birds) during seed storage.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an advisory in August 1998 against eating raw sprouts, especially for children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Government regulations that apply to production processes and facilities are being examined and may become more stringent. At the very least, existing ones will be more strictly enforced. The FDA defines the growing of sprouts as food processing, not agriculture. Consequently, oversight of sprout production and production facilities is the responsibility of the FDA, rather than the USDA.
Up until now, the FDA has focused more on the hydroponic production of sprouts than on soil culture. This does not, however, rule out the possibility of regulations in the future. To read about the FDA advisories, you may go to its website and use the search engine to search for sprouts and wheatgrass.
Beginners can learn about relevant regulations by contacting their state Department of Health Services. It would be wise to establish a cordial relationship with the local inspector. It would also be wise to know what inspectors can and cannot require of a commercial producer.
If illness or death is traced to a particular production facility, the owner can be sued. In addition, costs of investigation by the regulating agency can be charged to the company that owns that facility. One incident can easily destroy even a financially solid operation. It is, therefore, critically important not only that managers do everything to avoid contamination but also that they maintain records of seedlots, procedures, and proper training of employees involved in production. The health department is a resource for learning about legal requirements.
Liabililty insurance is a necessary cost associated with any type of food production. This is a difficult subject to understand, but it is essential to protect you and your business from situations that could be financially devastating. Two resources may help as you consult with your insurance agent about the coverage you need. Neil Hamilton's The Legal Guide for Direct Farm Marketing (1), is an excellent overview. In the liability chapter of this book, the author refers to another resource, Understanding the Farmers Comprehensive Personal Liability Policy: A Guide for Farmers, Attorneys and Insurance Agents (2). Both books are written in an easy-to-understand style.
Before beginning any business, it is extremely important to develop a complete business plan. This includes learning about available markets and deciding on which you will use. Because your crop must be harvested fresh, it is likely that your markets will be nearby. ATTRA's publication Evaluating a Rural Enterprise provides information to assist in this process. Direct Marketing and Organic Marketing Resources might also be helpful. You may call 800-346-9140 and request these publications or download them from the ATTRA website.
Hamilton, Neil D. 1999. The Legal Guide for Direct Farm Marketing. Drake University Agricultural Law Center. Des Moines, IA 50311. 235 p. ISBN: 0-9671556-0-6. Available from Drake University for $20.00. Call (515) 271-2065 for volume discounts of 20 copies or more.
Literature on sprouted grain technology and health benefits is listed in the Further Reading section below. These materials may be available from a local bookstore, an online retailer, or through your land-grant university library.
In addition, the Living and Raw Foods Bookstore specializes in this type of literature. You can also find useful information online from a variety of sources. Some examples are listed in the Online Resources section below.
P.O. Box 1107
Lawrence, KS 66044
Cooperative that produces wheatgrass using the field method
Living and Raw Foods Bookstore
An online bookstore that specializes in books on sprouts and sprouted grains.
Kulvinskas, Viktoras. Nutritional Values of Sprouts and Wheatgrass.
Mayerowitz, Steve. Wheatgrass: Nature's Finest Medicine.
Russell-Manning, Betsy. Wheatgrass Juice—Gift of Nature.
Seibold, Ronald L. 1990. Cereal Grass: What's in it for You! Wilderness Community Education Foundation, Lawrence, KS. 142 p.
Wigmore, Ann. The Wheatgrass Book.
Sells seed and equipment, includes information on production methods for 80 seeds, equipment and its care, a kids section, food safety information, cookery, and benefits.
Extensive information on sprouted grains, including medical references, history, testimonials, archived newsletter, uses, and nutrition.
True Leaf Market Wheatgrass section
Sells growing kits, supplies, books, and more.
How to sprout and health benefits.
Food Source Information
Maintains links to many sources of sprouts, sprout information, and sprouting supplies.
Note: Mention of specific brand names or products is for educational purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by NCAT, ATTRA, or USDA.
By Alice Beetz
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Tiffany Nitschke, HTML Production
This page was last updated on: November 1, 2018