How to identify farm crops on a country walk

wheat field

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:

Photo (C)


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.

photo (C)

Canary grass

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.

Levenhuk binoculars


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.


Fodder beet

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.

“You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucerne!”


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.

Sugar beet

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!

Oilseed rape


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.

Tobacco crop

Industrial hemp

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.

If you have enjoyed this post and learned something new, would you consider Buying Me A Coffee as an appreciation? Thank you! Denzil

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43 thoughts on “How to identify farm crops on a country walk”

  1. Thanks for this, Denzil. It’s really useful because I feel very ignorant when I’m walking through the fields and I love seeing the new crops grow.

      1. Loved this informative article. Also, love tooling around my old farming community & discovering just what crops are,? teehee,? coming up, here in the mid Willamette Valley of Oregon.
        Spent plenty of my childhood jumping outta the rafters of a magnificent mortise & tenon, 1900 built barn. Jumping from way up top, into the ground floors deep bins of barley! It was the best of the grains to jump in, because it isn’t pointy! Not just raised a farmers daughter, but flew of the trapeze!? BORN1956?

        1. Thanks for joining the conversation Susun all the way from deepest Oregon! Your childhood sounds fun, growing up on a farm. Jumping into deep barley sounds invigorating. Perhaps not in your 60s though!

        1. Just returned from a country walk here in North Scotland, and tried to identify what I was seeing growing in the fields. The 4 types of ‘ears’ put together solved my problem! I saw rye this time.
          Thank you

        2. This is great, Denzil! Sometimes a body meet a body comin’ thro’ the rye, and then realize, no, they’re barrelin’ thro’ the barley, or walkin’ thro’ the wheat. Seriously, sometimes I’ve seen a field and decided it wasn’t the usual winter wheat, that’s grown around here, and I know the numerous microbreweries have encouraged farmers to plant some barley again, but I wasn’t sure if that’s what I was seeing. And the same people are bringing back hops as a crop, that’s kind of an unusual-looking field, with the poles and cables.
          Oats are my favorite – – beautiful silver-green in the spring, and beautiful tawny color in the fall.

          1. Hops! That’s a good one to add as they are grown in Belgium. And grapes too. So there’s two more to add. Maybe I should add a section on ingredients for beverages. Yes I like oats too, and I’m not talking about the UK slang meaning.

        3. Hi Denzil,

          This is a wonderfully educational post since so many urbanites have been become disconnected from their food supply. Being able to understand the farm to table chain of events is vital for both a healthy planet and nutritious diet. Thanks for sharing the text and photos!

          1. You make a valid point Henry and one that I am going to steal to add into the text! I was focusing purely on identification, but there is a great educational message here too, also for children. Thanks!

          1. For some reason I always thought that a mangelwurzel was a scarecrow. Yes these old words need to be retained, used and not forgotten!

              1. Hi Denzil,

                Thank you for your well-written and informative post. I used it to check that I had remembered the grains correctly from school and I really enjoyed the other crops you mentioned.

                I don’t usually read comments – but it struck me that as field beets or manglewurzles are often used as the head of a scarecrow that may be where the author Barbara Euphan Todd got the idea for the name Wurzle Gummidge and the link to scarecrows in your mind. Wurzle Gummidge has been around for about 100yr and number of UK TV series have kept him and his friends in the public consciousness.

                PS I also love the Mandela-like icons that come up against people’s names.

              2. So interesting, Denzil. I lived in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in the 1980s. All those grains are grown there, as well as flax and rape (although it’s called “canola” here). Not being involved in farming, I never realized the differences between the different grains. And a field of flax in bloom is a wonderful sight!

                1. I prefer the name canola, for sure! A field of flax also looks attractive after harvest time, when the cut flax is laid out on the fields in neat rows.

                  1. Denzil, I have to admit that when I read the title of this post, I made a bit of a groan. But what an absolutely fabulous article this is! I loved reading every part and comparing all the various grains, especially seeing the grains close up. I had no idea white asparagus is so labor intensive. I’m fascinated by the factory where each stem is sorted and packaged by some many different machines and so many people. This post makes me even more grateful for the work by farmers and crop laborers all over the world who make my table a bounty of health and goodness to eat. Thank you, all of you.

                    California is better known for other crops than these, and we have to drive a long distance to see them. The central swath of our state is well known for its agriculture, and when we drive it, we enjoy seeing orchards, vineyards, and all sorts of crops.

                    1. Glad you liked it Sharon. I’ll be adding some pictures of vine and hops. But I know for a certain that our little Belgian vineyards will seem like mini-pockets compared to the Californian vineyards! Yes I was hooked on that asparagus video; fascinating!

                  2. Brilliant, this is so useful . . always get confused with Barley and Rye, maybe I won’t now though!

                    Your asparagus looks very different to ours

                    1. Thanks Becky. Yes I wasn’t aware that there are different types of asparagus. I prefer to see the frilly above-ground asparagus waving in the breeze!

                  3. Thanks. I ride my bike on trails just outside the city and was wondering what grain I saw. My grandparents were farmers in Alberta Canada and frankly I never paid attention. I love the canola fields the most. I identified it was wheat I saw which is what I thought.

                  4. Very informative. Although I live in Canada. It will be interesting to see if there are any differences between the crops in Canada and Belgium. Thank you!

                    1. Thanks for your comment Martin. Surprisingly, this post is getting a lot of attention all over the world. Maybe I need to expand it to include other crops?

                  5. Wonderful guide Denzel. Thanks. It has helped me identify the crops in the field I am walking my dogs round at this moment.

                    Love your passion for the subject. Keep up the great work.

                  6. We also grow other bean crops. White, colored, black … But, I am sure you , like us, grow various “market” vegetables. Maybe a section on these? Celery, peas, spinach, lettuce, broccoli etc. And, hey, mustard is a crop too.

                  7. Lived on a Mennonite farm in Germany where I learned to tell the difference (though I knew wheat from the US) and appreciate the review. White spargl is the best! Maybe add commercial hemp to the list?

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