A short guide to help you identify the most common farm crops you might see as you go hiking through the countryside.
While hiking through the countryside, do you sometimes wonder what the crops are that are growing in the fields around you? Would you like to know how to tell barley from wheat? Or rye from oats? Or know what a field of sugar beet or soybeans looks like? If so, here’s a small guide to help you identify farm crops on a country walk. It covers 16 crops, grouped into a number of different categories. At first I was focusing on crops in Belgium, which is where I live, although of course they are also grown in other areas of western Europe and indeed other parts of the world. But so popular has the post been that I am extending it to crops grown elsewhere.
Moreover, as Henry points out in his comment below, “being able to understand the farm-to-table chain of events is vital for both a healthy planet and a nutritious diet.” In this respect, this post would be useful for children too. It would certainly make a “boring” walk in the countryside more enjoyable, entertaining and educational. So, here’s my article on how to identify crops on a country walk.
These are grasses grown for their edible seeds. The most common ones grown in western Europe are wheat, barley, rye and oats.
Wheat is the most cultivated cereal worldwide. There are six types of wheat: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, hard white, soft white, and durum. Wheat has a shorter “beard” (the bristly material protecting the kernels) than barley. When ready for harvesting, it has a golden-brown colour. Wheat is milled and turned into flour, ground into semolina, or broken or pre-boiled to turn it into bulgur. It drives the bread and pastry industries and is used for a huge variety of foods. The temperate climate of Belgium allows wheat (and barley) to be grown as winter crops, i.e. between November and July. Another type of wheat called spelt is also grown in Belgium but this looks similar to normal wheat.
Barley is an important grain for the production of alcoholic beverages such as beer and whisky, and is also used as animal feed. There are three types of barley: two-row, six-row and hull-less barley. It can be identified by its longer “beard” than wheat and when ready to harvest is yellow-white in colour. Barley can also be identified by the fact that the whole spike bends; the spikes of wheat and rye tend to stay much straighter. Two-row barley tends to have a “flatter”, two-dimensional appearance. A field of ripe barley creates a “fuzzy” appearance thanks to the longer “beard”.
Rye is closely related to barley, and distinguishing the two is difficult. Rye tends to be longer and more slender than barley or wheat, and is characterized by a longer beard. Identification is further complicated by the fact that there are barley x rye hybrids. Rye is extensively used in Europe for making bread, beer and animal fodder.
Another difference between these three cereals is the number of seeds. Barley seeds are solitary; rye seeds come in pairs; wheat seeds come in triplets. This is nicely illustrated below:
After the challenge of working out the differences between barley and rye, oats is a doddle to identify. Oats don’t grow in spikes like wheat, barley and rye, but in what are called panicles. Oats are a hardy cereal that can withstand poor soil conditions in which other crops are unable to thrive. Their high nutritional value makes them popular for breakfast cereals, muesli and cereal bars. The grains of the first three cereals – wheat, barley and rye – contain the protein gluten, which triggers the autoimmune response seen in people with cealiac disease. They therefore cannot be part of a gluten-free diet. Oats on the other hand do not contain gluten.
The photo below is a nice comparison of these four cereals. Unfortunately in its original setting it was incorrectly captioned. As far as I am aware, it shows from left to right: barley, wheat, oats and rye.
Recently, two readers (Sue and John), both from the UK but in different counties (Gloucestershire and Essex), sent me photos of a crop they couldn’t identify – and it wasn’t in my list! It’s canary grass. Originally from the Mediterranean region, it is being increasingly commercially grown in various areas of the world for birdseed, hence its name. However, you might be seeing more of this crop. It is regarded as a promising cereal for human consumption due to its nutrients and health benefits. It apparently reduces cholesterol, blood pressure and inflammation, and maintains glucose levels. It’s fairly easy to distinguish from other crops as it’s much shorter and fatter.
Forage crops are crops grown specifically to be grazed by livestock or conserved as hay or silage. When harvested as whole plants and cured for animal feed, they are called fodder.
Maize, also called corn or sweet corn, is primarily grown in Belgium as a forage crop. In other areas of the world it is grown mainly as a cereal crop. Belgium produces nearly half a million tonnes of maize per year. It’s grown as a summer crop, so planted in March and harvested in September.
This is another widespread forage crop grown in Belgium. Elsewhere in the world it’s known as mangelwurzel, mangel beet or field beet. It’s a cultivated root vegetable in the same family as sugar beet and red beet. It’s an easily digestible, energy-rich food for cattle during the winter.
Red and white clover are primarily used for hay, pasture, silage, and soil improvement. These quick-growing crops are however grown less in Belgium than previously. But it’s still possible to come across a beautiful field full of clover in full bloom.
Also known as alfalfa, this is a close relative to the clovers. It is used for grazing, hay, silage, a green manure and a cover crop.
Crops that are used in a variety of industrial processes, either non-food or bulk food processing.
Apparently, the best flax in the world is grown in Belgium, Northern France and the Netherlands. The combination of suitable soil with alternating rain and sunshine makes the region ideal for flax. Coming across a field of blue flax on a country walk is a special sight. In Belgium there are around 2000 farms that grow flax, 50 companies that process the fibre, and seven linen weaving mills. Did you know that flax is one of the most sustainable fibres in the world? All parts of the plant can be used, so there is no waste, and the fibre is biodegradable.
Belgian farmers produce over five million tonnes of sugar beet each year. The mountains of beet left to dry on the side of a field are a common sight, particularly in the provinces Liège, Hainaut and Walloon Brabant, as well as around Tienen in Flanders. Thanks to its high concentration of sucrose, it’s converted into a range of sugar products. These include sweeteners for hot drinks; desserts; jams; and caster sugar. An interesting fact about sugar beet is that one hectare of sugar beet converts 30 tonnes of CO2 into some 13 million litres of oxygen per year. That’s four times more than one hectare of forest. (References 1 and 2).
Oilseed rape and turnip rape
The bright yellow flowers of oilseed rape and turnip rape are familiar sights across many areas of Belgium in spring. They are grown for the purpose of extracting oil from their seeds. The oil is then used in margarine, mayonnaise and similar products. It’s probably the easiest crop to identify while on your country walk!
Last year I was quite surprised to discover a field of soybeans growing near where I live. I didn’t realize it was being grown in Belgium. It seems that the first farmers began planting a few fields earlier this decade as an experiment to see if soybeans would grow successfully and profitably. So the sight of these little beans might be more common during your walks in the country!
Potato growing is big business in Belgium. The country is proud of its Belgian fries and has become the world’s largest exporter of frozen potato products. In 2019, almost 5.3 million tonnes of potatoes were processed into fries, mashed potato products, crisps, or precooked potatoes. At the same time, Belgian fresh potatoes and seed potatoes are exported to the rest of Europe. The familiar ridged fields and then the white flowers are a common sight throughout the country.
Known as “white gold” in Belgium because it’s expensive and coveted, fresh white asparagus is cultivated underground so it doesn’t turn green. It’s available in different sizes ranging from pencil-thin to thick stalks several centimetres in diameter. White asparagus is prized for its delicate sweet flavour. It’s usually boiled and served with a sauce, although it also turns up in soups and other dishes. As white asparagus is grown underground, there’s not much to see. However, I found this interesting video that explains the whole growing process. So if you see raised, covered beds in the fields, you know what’s underneath!
Tobacco has been cultivated in Belgium since 1650. The fields around Wervik in West Flanders were the industry’s centre of productivity. The golden age was immediately after the Second World War and then between 1970 and 1985. However, in the 1990s the Flemish tobacco industry declined rapidly. By 2000 only 450 hectares of tobacco were planted, and in 2014 the figure was down to around 100 hectares.
Hemp is not the same as marijuana. They are different varieties of the same plant (Cannabis sativa). The difference is to do with the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active substance in “drug-type” cannabis or marijuana. Industrial hemp hardly has any THC: less than 0.2%, which means it is not psychoactive. Cannabis plants intended for recreational use have very high levels of THC, up to 20%.
Hemp is extremely useful; its stalk, seeds, flowers and leaves can all be harvested and processed into products that are reusable, biodegradable and compostable. Specific uses include textiles, construction materials, paper, packaging, furniture, fuel, bioplastics, and even paint. Production of industrial hemp in Europe is small, coming in at only 50,000 hectares. France is currently the biggest producer, followed by Italy and the Netherlands. In my native Belgium, only around 200 hectares are devoted to hemp. The world’s five biggest producers of industrial hemp are China, Canada, the US, France, and Chile.
As you can imagine, hemp and cannabis plants look very similar. Both share the same and well-known leaf shape. Hemp plants however, are typically skinnier and taller, growing up to 6 meters high. Hemp leaves tend to be concentrated at the top of the plant, so leaving the lower stem with few or no leaves. Marijuana plants are smaller, fatter and bushier.
This then is my short guide for how to identify farm crops while walking through the countryside. You might like to bookmark it so it’s handy to access when you come across a crop you are not sure about. If you have any suggestions for other crops I could add to this list, just add a comment below or drop me a line.
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