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Are you looking for ways to grow most of your own food? If so, you probably have the fruit and veggie patches going great guns. Or, maybe homemade goods such as breads and pastas rate highly on your family’s dinner selections. In this excerpt from Fair presenters Hank and Karen Will’s new book, Plowing With Pigs and Other Creative, Low-budget Homesteading Solutions, they’ll show you how to add small grains to your plot.
Small Grains, Big Benefit
The backyard food garden brings ready images of labor converted to greens, fruits, beans, and corn – but why not small grains? There was a time when almost every farm and homestead out there made some provision for growing grains – and not only the larger grains like corn and beans, but also the small grains that continue to feed the world and that most folks in North America consume in large quantities every day. Is it because these staples have drifted into the realm of the highly processed and therefore are not for home growing?
Whatever the reason, it’s true that dry beans, flint, flour and dent corns, along with a whole host of small grains are not among the top tier of food-garden favorites in North America. When was the last time you were involved in a conversation about the awesome flavor of a particular variety of corn, ground into meal, or which variety of wheat’s flour was responsible for that oh-so-delicious homemade pasta?
No doubt, one practical reason for small grains falling out of favor is that there is quite a bit of labor involved with getting the crop out of the field and sufficiently processed to be able to make flour. And the making of flour requires milling – a process that we’ve been raised to believe requires vast stone or metal wheels powered by water or electricity to crush the grains and liberate that white starchy stuff we call flour. And we have a vague idea that it takes even more complicated machinery to separate the starchy stuff from the protein and the fiber – the germ and bran. And that’s where we’ve gone wrong. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that the only flours worth eating are white and starchy.
The homestead is a perfect place to devote a little energy to the production of small grains. All it takes is a bit of fertility, some effort on your part, and minor cooperation on the part of Mother Nature. And come harvest time, if you don’t have time to process the grain from the get-go, it will store quite nicely – so long as you keep insects, rodents and birds at bay. Let’s take a look at what’s involved to make it happen.
Consider Your Needs
Before embarking on a full-scale small-grain production, try growing one to three small patches of your favorite grains (or some you are just curious about) as a means to dip your toes in the water. While those patches are growing, do some calculations to get a feel for how many pounds of whole wheat flour you consume in a year. Move from there to consider what fraction or multiple of an acre it would take, under average conditions, to produce that amount of grain. For example, if winter wheat is among the crops you want to grow, you might be able to achieve a yield in the realm of 40 bushels per acre, which roughly approximates one bushel per 1,000 square feet. So, if you devote a patch that’s 20 feet by 50 feet to winter wheat, you should come close to making a bushel of threshed grain for your efforts. A bushel of wheat should weigh in the vicinity of 60 pounds – that’s a lot of flour, when you think about it.
Putting in the Crop
Once you’ve decided on a wheat variety, you’ll want to prepare your ground. You can do the initial prep with hogs, but you’ll want to spend some time with a tiller, wheel cultivator, rake, etc., to get a fairly uniform seed bed. If you want to grow winter wheat, make sure to first check with local growers or the extension service (or online) to discover if the Hessian fly is an issue in your area; if it is, then find out what the earliest planting date is to avoid Hessian fly infestation. If you are in doubt, err on the later side for planting – but, with winter wheat, you’ll need to give the crop sufficient time to germinate, sprout, and grow a bit before snow cover or freezing weather shuts it down. If you happened to have your peas, beans, or a cover crop of clover in a patch prior to the wheat, you won’t have to worry too much about fertility. If you think fertility might be depleted, feel free to work some composted manure into the soil as you prepare the seedbed.
Once the seed is on the ground, go ahead and rake it in, and then pack it. Once the soil is packed, all you really need to do is sit back, relax, and wait. If you are in an area that requires irrigation for any green life to thrive, you may need to sprinkle your wheat patch to get things moving.
Winter wheat generally ripens in early to late summer, depending on your elevation and latitude. The farther north you are, the later it will be. You’ll know it’s maturing as the verdant green turns silvery and then to various shades of amber, yellow, straw or brown – there is plenty of variation in the color of mature wheat. At some point, you may notice that the seed stalks curve until the heads are aimed more-or-less downward. Pull a head or two, and rub it between your hands – if it is anywhere near ready, you should wind up with a small handful of loose wheat berries along with some chaff. Select a few berries and chew on them – crunchy means the wheat is ripe. This stage is ideal for combining wheat (mechanically harvesting and threshing with a modern combine), but you needn’t worry so much about timing if you are going to be cutting and threshing your wheat by hand. Ideally, you want to harvest it before it is crunchy and allow it to dry to the crunchy state before storing it.
When your wheat has turned mostly to amber (or red or whatever color your variety turns) and the berries are a bit on the soft or chewy side, you should feel free to begin your harvest. Use a scythe or garden sickle to harvest your wheat – if you happen to have a scythe with a cradle, so much the better. The cradle will collect the cut wheat stalks and keep them oriented head to tail for easy bundling. In any case, once you’ve cut sufficient stalks to make several bundles (perhaps a double handful of stalks or at least 6 inches in diameter, measured at the stems) you want to gather it up, keep the heads facing one direction and the stalks the other. Tie the bundles (sheaves) with a wheat stem or piece of twine. Shock several bundles by stacking them together (leaning against one another, teepee style) with the seed heads up. If you’re worried about moisture, set a couple of bundles horizontally across the top. You could also simply haul bundles or loose wheat stems (with heads oriented together), and bring them into a well-ventilated and dry barn or mudroom where you can allow them to dry unmolested by rodents and birds until you can thresh out the berries easily with your hands; if they’re crunchy, you’re good to thresh and store. If they’re still soft or chewy, you should allow the threshed wheat to dry before storing. Spread the berries on a tarp placed on the ground or a table to facilitate drying.
Getting at the Good Stuff
Finally, you’re ready to separate the wheat from the chaff – literally. Humans carried out this operation for millennia before the advent of threshing machines or the modern combine, which harvests and threshes in a single pass. Luckily, ripe wheat shatters relatively easily, so all you need to do is rig up a threshing floor of some kind – and have at it. The threshing floor can be as simple as a cotton drop cloth, light canvas tarp or some other clean, aesthetically pleasing piece of material spread on a hard wooden or concrete floor. One of the simplest methods is to toss a few bundles into the center of the cloth, fold it in half or quarters, and then simply stomp on the enclosed bundles. You can crush the wheat in lots of other ways, so long as you use relatively light force, lest you crack the grain.
Winnowing can be as high tech or as low tech as you desire. We suggest that you let Mother Nature do most of the work for you, as follows. Gather your threshed wheat in a large bowl or 5-gallon bucket, grab another vessel with as wide an opening as possible – like a galvanized wash tub about 24 inches in diameter. Take the works outdoors and into the wind. Set the wide-mouth vessel on the ground, grab a handful of threshed wheat, and drop it slowly from a standing height into the wide-mouth vessel. You might need to adjust your point of release depending on wind conditions. As the grain drops, notice that the wind whisks away the chaff. Voila! You have clean wheat berries, or nearly clean, anyway. You might have to repeat the process a few times to remove 99 percent of the chaff; if the wind is fairly stiff, you might simply be able to slowly pour the wheat from the 5-gallon bucket into the wide-mouth vessel. Experiment with pouring from a few steps up on a stepladder – the longer the drop, the more chance for the chaff to catch the breeze.
Use It Up
Wheat berries are incredibly versatile as a food source. Boiled or steamed, you can eat them much as you would pearl barley or rice – and you don’t need to think so far ahead as to soak them overnight – although there’s nothing wrong with soaking. Add two cups of winter wheat berries (be sure to sort for any stones that may have entered the scene during threshing) along with 6-7 cups of water to an appropriate-sized saucepan, bring to a boil, and then simmer for about an hour. Pour the works into a colander and rinse. You can serve this delight with butter and maple syrup, chill it and add it to a salad, or use it as a starch in place of pasta or rice. If you happen to own a rice-cooker machine, you can cook wheat berries in that. Add the recommended amount of berries and water for a “normal” batch of rice, and turn the machine on. It might take a bit longer than rice, and you might need to modify the ratio of grain to water some, but once you figure it out, you’ll have fluffy, soft (not mushy) wheat to use in any way you can imagine.
Fresh whole wheat flour also makes excellent pancakes, muffins, and other quick breads. The first step in baking anything with whole wheat flour is to measure out your wheat berries and grind them into flour. If you don’t have a small grist mill, experiment rendering your wheat into flour using a blender. You can sift the result, if you’d like to get it really fine or remove the bran. Once you have a fine flour, it’s time to make pancakes. Take a cup of the flour and mix it with 2 teaspoons of baking powder. Next, mix together 2 teaspoons of honey (adjust to suit your own taste), 1 cup of whole milk, 2 farm-fresh eggs, and a tablespoon of melted butter (substitute coconut oil, sour cream, cold-pressed sunflower oil, or cold-pressed peanut oil for variation). Finally, fold the works together and drop onto a hot, greased griddle. Serve these pancakes anyway you like – and don’t be afraid to refrigerate leftovers – packed them in tomorrows lunch pails to make some family members really happy.
There are many other grains and grain-like crops that you can grow specifically for the food and storage value of the ripe seeds – many turn out to be cover crops. Check out Gene Logsdon’s wonderful book, Small-Scale Grain Raising, for all you ever wanted to know about raising, processing and using grains on a homestead-sized scale.