Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
By Cam Mather
We focus a big part of our diet on wheat-related products, like breads and pastas. In fact I could be a bread-a-tarian. I love bread. Thank goodness that whole “low carb diet” fad blew over when the originator died of a heart attack, because I watched it unfold while stuffing myself with veggies, bread at every meal, pasta, cookies, crackers, and every carb I could get my hands on and I haven’t gained a pound in 10 years.
So this year I decided to take it to the next level, and put my money where my carb-devouring mouth was and grow my own wheat. How hard could it be? In “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” I suggest that one of the neat things about vegetable gardening is that every year you can try something new. A few years ago we tried growing peanuts, last year we grew sweet potatoes and this year it was time to try some wheat. I had grown oats before and they were easy.
I grew winter wheat, and so I broadcast-seeded by hand last fall. I spread the seeds over an area of about 25 ft. x 35 ft. or about 900 square feet. In the photo the light green area behind where Michelle is cutting garlic scapes is the wheat patch. I garden organically so by the spring there were weeds in it. I tried to eradicate them by leaning in where I could or treading carefully, but eventually I ended up with a fairly high number of weeds.
Just after I finished harvesting all of my garlic, around the third week of July, I started harvesting the wheat. At first I attempted to cut it with a hand sickle which I must not have sharpened properly because it did not cut well. I don’t have a scythe because of my “don’t spend any money, work with what you have” mantra, and so the best tool I had was a good set of garden clippers. They worked well as long as I cut on my knees which was okay since I have my fabulous new gardening pants with the knee pads built in.
Cutting the wheat was the easy part. Now I had to figure out how to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” Each wheat seed produces a stalk with a head or “spike”, and the head contains a bunch of wheat seeds. Each seed or grain has a thin pointy “beard” sticking out of it, and is wrapped in a protective skin or husk. This is what is called the chaff. So you have to remove the seeds from the head, then get the beard and the husk off the wheat seed (or wheat berry as some people call them.)
This separation is called threshing, and it’s a big job. None of this stuff separates easily so it requires a bit of beating up. I used two techniques. First I tried placing the wheat in a feedbag and then I beat the bag with a broom handle. This worked fairly well, but I guess I’m not as coordinated as I thought I was, and I kept hitting myself with the broom handle. It was also tough to keep the bag closed up and the contents from spilling out. It was a good way to vent any frustration or anger though.
My other strategy was to use a large, clean plastic container (in my case it was a brand new garbage can) and take a handful of the stalks and beat them against the side. It was also a great frustration reliever. After beating the stalks against the side of the can I was left with a handful of straw and the wheat berries and some debris in the bottom of the container. A few stalks might still have their heads, which I’d remove manually.
But I wasn’t done. I was left with a can full of wheat berries, some of which still had their husk or chaff on them, and lots of stalks and full heads. I strained them through a broad steel mesh basket which took out the big stuff. (Just to clear, I found this basket in a stream near a grocery store, in case you were about to report me.) I put this back in the feedbag and beat it up again to separate it.
The wheat berries or grains are much heavier than the pieces of stalk and husks so many people “winnow” the grain, throwing it into the air and letting the wind blow away the lighter materials. I’ve seen photos of people using a special large mesh tray for this but since I don’t have one of those I tried using a fan instead. Of course since I live off the grid this is a “solar powered fan” which makes it very sustainable!
As I poured the materials from one bucket to the other the fan blew away lots of the chaff. A lot got through each time though, so I had to repeat the process 7 or 8 times. Each time I’d pick out the heads that had made it through, because they’re heavy enough to fall through the wind with the grain.
I still ended up with a bucket of heads that I’ve been separating by hand when I watch the news at night. The final product I’m left with still has some grain with husks on it that I think might separate as it dries a bit more. I’ll leave it for another week or two before I run it through the fan/winnowing process again.
Each wheat grain has three main parts, the endosperm, the bran and the germ. The endosperm makes up the majority of the kernel and is the source of white flour. It contains most of the protein, carbohydrates and iron, as well as the major B-vitamins like riboflavin, niacin and thiamine. It has soluble fiber. The bran, which is about 14% by weight is included in whole wheat four and has the B-vitamins again, trace minerals and dietary fiber which is insoluble, hence better for your digestive system.
The wheat germ is only 2% of the kernel by weight and is the embryo which will sprout into a new plant if you plant the grain. It is usually separated from the flour in the milling process because it is 10% fat which will limit its shelf life. It is a great source of B-complex vitamins and trace minerals which is why some people purchase it separately.
We have often found that whole wheat flour doesn’t last that long and takes on a rancid taste after being stored for a while. This is because of the germ. The wheat berries on the other hand will last indefinitely, so we’ll be storing them and then grinding them as we need them to make our flour. Now all we need is a wheat grinder. We have a friend who just bought one after much research, so now we’ll start our search for a grinder. In the meantime we’ll trade wheat berries for time on their grinder.
I posted a video on our website of my wheat harvesting:
My friend Roman helped me with the calculation of how much bread my wheat experiment would generate. I’m going to round up my 900 square feet to 1,000. An acre is 43,560 square feet, so my wheat plot was about 1/ 40th of an acre. I’m also rounding up my total output of 37 pounds to 40 pounds. I’m doing this because I was so inefficient with harvesting. If I had cut sooner and used a scythe and gathered it up better I would have had a much higher yield. I know I was inefficient because I’ve rototilled the plot several times and each time within days I have a great crop of nice green wheat seedlings started. These should have ended up in my harvest, not on the ground.
So Roman’s calculation is that 40 pounds of wheat should produce 80 cups of whole wheat flour, and you use about 4 cups of flour per loaf of bread, so I netted out at 20 loaves of bread. We probably eat 2 loaves a week, so at that rate, our wheat will only last us about 2-1/2 months. The good news though is that if you had 1/2 an acre under wheat cultivation you should end up with 20 times that amount or 400 loaves of bread which would do a big family reasonably well. Now half an acre is pretty big and would require a lot of person power to harvest and process. But if you had a bunch of people living on your homestead and they weren’t preoccupied with internet, iPods, iPads, satellite TV and a myriad of other distractions, you’d have lots of time to process your wheat to turn it into bread.
When Roman heard the results of my great wheat experiment he said “potatoes.” And I agree with him. You would net more edible food from a comparable amount of space planted with potatoes. I love potatoes and we plant, harvest, store and eat a whack of them over the year. But I love bread and pasta too, so it’s always nice to have a variety. Michelle loves making potato scones, which are basically mashed potatoes and flour grilled up with butter, so we’ve got to have some flour around!
Now that I’ve grown and harvested wheat once I’ll be able to refine my harvesting and processing systems each year. And if I ever win a lottery I’ll buy my own combine harvester. This year I would have had to run it for about 6 seconds to harvest the patch of wheat I grew. A new combine can be cost $1/4 million dollars or more. I’m not sure that even if I won a big jackpot, that would be a good return on investment.