Hiking in Belgium

How to identify farm crops on a country walk

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 14 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.

CEREAL CROPS

These are grasses grown for their edible seeds. The most common ones grown in western Europe are wheat, barley, rye and oats.

Wheat

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

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

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) https://permies.com/

Oats

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.

Oats

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) https://blog.distiller.com/bourbon-fundamentals/

FORAGE CROPS

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

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. 

Clovers

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.

Lucerne

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.

INDUSTRIAL CROPS

Crops that are used in a variety of industrial processes, either non-food or bulk food processing.

Flax

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.

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

Soybeans

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!

Potatoes

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.

ASPARAGUS

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

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

This then is my short guide for how to identify farm crops while walking through the Belgian 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 it proves helpful to folk, I may add extra photos on crops in various stages of growth. Let me know what you think by adding a comment below or dropping me a line. And if you’re not yet subscribed, add your email below:

A short guide to help you identify 14 common farm crops as you walk through the Belgian countryside!

25 replies »

  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.

  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.

    • 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!

    • 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

    • 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!

  6. 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

    • 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!

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