A post to help you identify 25 of 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, you have come to the right place. This post covers 25 crops, grouped into three main categories: cereal crops, forage crops, and industrial crops. Each has short descriptions to enable you to identify the crop, whether by flower, seed, fruit, root …
At first I was focusing on crops in Belgium, which is where I live, although of course many of these crops are also grown in other areas of western Europe and indeed other parts of the world. But so popular has this post become that I have extended it to crops grown elsewhere in the world.
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.
Cereals, or grains, are members of the grass family (Poaceae). They are cultivated primarily for their starchy dry fruits. Wheat, rice, corn (maize), rye, oats, barley, rice, sorghum and millet are the most common cereal crops. Cereal crops can be used for human food and livestock feed, but they have other uses such as industrial starch and biofuel. The first cereal to be cultivated by humans is believed to be wheat, around 8000 BC. Rice is thought to have been cultivated later, perhaps not until about 2500 BC.
Wheat can be identified from similar crops by its short “beard” (the bristly material protecting the kernels). When ready for harvesting, it has a golden-brown color. 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.
There are six main types of wheat: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, hard white, soft white, and durum. Within these types, there are thousands of wheat varieties. The most important are common wheat (Triticum aestivum), durum wheat (T. durum), and club wheat (T. compactum).
The global trade of wheat is greater than all other crops combined. China, India and Russia are the three largest wheat producers.
Barley is an important grain for the production of alcoholic beverages such as beer and whisky. However, 70% of global barley production is 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 color. 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.
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 flour, bread, beer, crispbread, some whiskeys, some vodkas, and animal fodder.
Rye grows well in much poorer soils than those necessary for most cereal grains. Rye plants also withstand cold better than other grains do.
WHEAT, BARLEY OR RYE?
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 wheat, barley and rye, oats are easier 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 celiac disease. They therefore cannot be part of a gluten-free diet. Oats on the other hand do not contain gluten.
THE FOUR TOGETHER
Here is a neat comparison of all of the first four common cereals described so far.
Maize (also known as corn) was first cultivated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago.
The male and female inflorescences (flower-bearing parts of the plant) are positioned separately on the plant. The male inflorescence is known as the ‘tassel’ or ‘silk’ while the female inflorescence is the ‘ear’. The ear of the maize is a modified spike and there may be 1-3 per plant. The maize grains, or ‘kernels’, are encased in husks and total 30-1000 per ear.
Maize is a staple food in many parts of the world. It’s consumed directly by humans and also used for corn ethanol, animal feed, corn starch, bourbon whiskey, and corn syrup.
There are only two species of cultivated rice in the world, Oryza sativa (Asian rice) and Oryza glaberrima (African rice). Rice plants produce three flowers on a spikelet. The rice grain is formed by the ripened ovary of the flower and is between 5 and 12 mm in length.
Rice is an annual plant, harvested after one growing season. It can reach a height of between 1 and 1.8 meters. Generally, African rice tends to form smaller grains and is more difficult to mill. Asian rice is now replacing African rice in West Africa.
Roughly one-half of the world population, including virtually all of East and Southeast Asia, is wholly dependent upon rice as a staple food. 95 percent of the world’s rice crop is eaten by humans.
The tiny flowers of sorghum are produced in panicles; each flower cluster bears 800 to 3,000 kernels. The seeds vary widely in shape, size and color, and are smaller than those of wheat.
Sorghum probably originated in Africa, where it is a major food crop. Sorghum’s global importance is largely due to its natural drought tolerance and versatility. In Africa and parts of Asia, sorghum is primarily grown for human consumption. The world’s largest producer is USA, where it is mainly used for livestock feed and ethanol production. Interest in growing sorghum is accelerating, partly because it’s naturally gluten-free.
Millet is a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for fodder and human food. They are especially important crops in Africa and Asia. Here they are mainly consumed in flatbreads and porridges or prepared and eaten like rice.
The most widely grown millet is pearl millet, but other important types are finger millet, proso millet and foxtail millet. Pearl millet is identified by its inflorescence which is a spike-like panicle, made up of many smaller spikelets where the grain is produced.
Originally from the Mediterranean region, canary grass is commercially grown in various areas of the world for birdseed, hence its name.
You might be seeing more of this crop in years to come. 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.
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. Forage crops thus contribute to the supply of nutrient-dense foods like meat and milk as well as products like leather and wool. Some cereal crops already mentioned are also used as fodder in certain parts of the world. These are notably maize, rye and sorghum.
Several species of clover are extensively cultivated as fodder plants. The most widely cultivated clovers are white and red clover.
Clover gives a lot of benefits. It produces an abundant crop; it is palatable to and nutritious for livestock; it fixes nitrogen, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers; it grows in a range of soils and climates; and it’s a valuable source of nectar for honeybees.
Clover leaves are easily identified by their three oval-shaped leaflets. Maybe you’ll find a lucky four-leaved clover? This is due to a rare genetic variation.
Known as alfalfa in North America, lucerne is a close relative to the clovers. It has clusters of small purple flowers followed by fruits spiralled in 2 to 3 turns containing 10-20 seeds.
Its primary use is as feed for high-producing dairy cows, because of its high protein content and highly digestible fiber. Other uses include feed for beef cattle, horses, sheep and goats. Humans also eat alfalfa sprouts in salads and sandwiches. Indeed, it’s being increasingly grown in gardens as a herb and a source of calcium, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and vitamins A, C, E, and K.
Fodder beet is also known as mangelwurzel, mangold wurzel or field beet. It’s a cultivated root vegetable variety of Beta vulgaris, which also contains beetroot and sugar beet varieties. It’s identified by large white, yellow or orange-yellow swollen roots, below dark-green, heart-shaped leaves.
Fodder beet is an easily digestible, energy-rich food for cattle during the winter. It can also be given to pigs. Both leaves and roots may be eaten by humans. This has especially been the case over the years during famines, such as the Irish Famine in the 1840s.
Swedes are one of the highest energy forage crops. Compared to other similar forage crops such as fodder beet, swedes produce a far greater amount of metabolizable energy.
Swedes are used to provide food for livestock, particularly sheep. The feed value of swede is so high that one hectare is capable of sustaining a flock of 80+ sheep for up to 100 days. The plant is usually a pale green, with waxy leaves. The root is purple, with yellow flesh.
Industrial crops are crops that are normally not sold directly for consumption but are industrially processed prior to final use. They can be starch-bearing crops; sugar-bearing plants; oil crops; or textile crops. Or they could be crops that yield rubber, tannins (tea, coffee), dyes, medicinal substances or narcotics. Some industrial crops have double uses, such as flax, hemp and cotton which yield both fiber and oil. Following are 12 of the most widely grown industrial crops around the world.
Flax, also known as linseed, is a flowering plant that is cultivated as a food crop and for its fiber. Textiles made from flax are used for bed sheets and table linen. Its oil is known as linseed oil. 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.
Flax is one of the most sustainable fibers in the world. All parts of the plant can be used, so there is no waste, and untreated (not dyed) flax textiles are biodegradable.
Sugar beet juice contains high levels of sucrose and is second only to sugar cane as the major source of the world’s sugar.
Sugar beet was grown as a garden vegetable and for fodder before being used as an industrial crop. Sugar beet production only took off after 1811 when a British blockade cut off France’s raw sugar cane supply from the West Indies. Beet sugar now accounts for almost all sugar production in the European Union and for about one-fifth of total world production.
The bright yellow flowers of oilseed rape are familiar sights across many areas of the world. It’s grown for the purpose of extracting oil from the seeds. The oil is then used in margarine, mayonnaise and similar products. It’s probably the easiest crop to identify while on a country walk.
Originally it was grown as a “break crop” in farm rotation to suppress weeds and improve soil quality in readiness for cereal crops. But in the last 20-30 years it has become hugely profitable. This is because rapeseed oil is one of the highest quality vegetable oils. It has a good health profile; low in saturated fat and high in omega-3. It also gives high yields: 45% of its tiny black seeds are oil, and the other 55% is high protein animal feed.
The soybean has been used in China, Japan and Korea for thousands of years as a food and a component of medicines. Soybeans were introduced into the USA in 1804 and became important in the South/Midwest in the mid-20th century. Brazil and Argentina are also major producers.
The soybean is economically the most important bean in the world, providing vegetable protein for millions of people. Popular soy foods include soy milk, from which tofu is made, soy sauce and tempeh. De-fatted soybean meal is an important source of protein for animal feeds and an ingredient in meat and dairy substitutes.
Soybeans form inconspicuous white or pink flowers.
The fruit is a hairy pod that grows in clusters of about 3-8 cm in length. Each usually contains two to four beans.
Famously brought to Europe from the Americas by the Spanish in the second half of the 16th century, the potato is a staple food in many parts of the world and an integral part of much of the world’s food supply.
About one third of the world’s potatoes are grown in China and India. China is the number one potato producer in the world. Each year around 360 million metric tons of potatoes are produced worldwide.
What we call coffee beans are actually the seeds inside the coffee plant’s berries or “cherries”. These appear after the white flowers.
The coffee plant is native to subtropical regions of Africa and Asia, but is now cultivated throughout Central and South America too. Once the berries are harvested, the flesh is removed and the seeds roasted.
As coffee is one of the world’s most widely consumed beverages, coffee beans are a major cash crop and an important export product, accounting for over 50% of some developing nations’ earnings. Almost half of the world’s coffee is produced in South America, and in particular Brazil. The two most economically important varieties of coffee plant are the Arabica and the Robusta.
The tea plant is an evergreen shrub native to a number of Asian countries. After water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world.
The flowers are yellow-white, and the seeds can be pressed to yield tea oil. But it’s the leaves that are the most important part of the plant. Young, fresh leaves contain about 4% caffeine. Usually, the tip (bud) and the first two to three leaves are hand-picked from tea plants every one to two weeks.
China is the world’s top tea producer, with 40% of the world’s tea, weighing in at 2.4 million tonnes. It’s followed by India, Kenya and Sri Lanka.
Cotton is a soft, fluffy fiber that grows in a “boll” around the seeds of the cotton plant. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The cotton plant is native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world.
The fiber is spun into yarn or thread and used to make textiles. Cotton fabrics dating back to 6000 BC have been found in Peru. Cotton makes up about 2.5% of the world’s arable land. India produces the most cotton in the world, followed by China and the US.
Rubber is harvested in the form of a sticky, whitish, milky fluid that is produced in the cells of the rubber tree. It is drawn off by making incisions in the bark and collecting the fluid in vessels.
Rubber displays high strength and the capability to be stretched many times without breaking. Natural rubber compounds are very flexible, waterproof, good electrical insulators, and resistant to many corrosive substances.
Thailand is the leading natural rubber producer in the world, followed by Indonesia. Industrial demand for rubber began to outstrip natural rubber supplies by the end of the 19th century, leading to the synthesis of synthetic rubber in 1909 by chemical means.
Hops are the flowers of the hop plant Humulus lupulus; a vigorous, climbing plant that is usually trained to grow up strings in a field. Inside each flower are tiny yellow pods called lupulin – the source of bitterness, aroma and flavor in beer.
Hops have separate female and male plants, and only female plants are used for commercial production.
Two-thirds of the world’s hops are grown in the European Union, notably Germany, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia.
Over 70 species of tobacco plant are known, but the chief commercial crop is Nicotiana tabacum. After the leaves are harvested, they are hung in a curing barn. Curing prepares the leaves for consumption because, in their raw, freshly picked state, green tobacco leaves are too wet to ignite and be smoked.
Interestingly, despite the health hazards of smoking, global production of tobacco hasn’t changed over the last few decades.
What has changed is location of production. It has shifted from high-income countries in Europe and North America to low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Brazil, China and India are now the dominant tobacco leaf producers.
Hemp is not the same as marijuana; they are varieties of the same plant (Cannabis sativa). The difference is the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active substance in “drug-type” marijuana. Industrial hemp has less than 0.2% THC; recreational marijuana has 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.
Hemp and cannabis plants look very similar and both share the same leaf shape. Hemp plants however, are 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.
Any further suggestions?
If you think a crop is missing from this list, please let me know and I will add it. You can drop a comment below or contact me. Thanks. Denzil
Want to receive it as an eBook?
If you enjoyed this Guide to Farm Crops and found it useful, you may like to receive it as a smart, full-color 32-page eBook. With the eBook on your phone you will always have quick access to this guide. You could even give it as a gift to someone.
The eBook is available now and I will happily send it to you. All you have to do is make a donation to the running of Discovering Belgium. There are two ways to do this:
When you make a donation, just indicate “Send me the Farm Crops eBook”. As soon as I see it come in, I will see your email and will send you the book. Any problems with payment or receiving the eBook, just drop me a line. Thanks! Denzil
By the way, there is a great new children’s book available (August 2022) on farm crops. Entitled “Can you climb a beanstalk” it provides answers to common questions that children might ask about the farm crops that they see in the fields.
This would be a really useful gift to give to a (grand)child. You can get the book from Amazon.
Other nature projects you might like to look at include: