Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Add to My MSN

The Summer of My Wheat Obsession

8/18/2010 10:03:22 AM

Tags: organic, gardening, wheat, energy, Cam Mather

I’m obsessed with wheat. And combine harvesters. I feel like a 7-year-old that just got a brand new John Deere Tonka Combine Harvester toy and now I can’t put it down. You remember – being so excited about a new toy that you took it from the sandbox to the dinner table to the bathtub. Well, I don’t actually have a new toy but I just can’t stop thinking about combine harvesters. I’ve been a little obsessed about “wheat” this summer since I grew a patch of it and have been busy harvesting it and processing it. I’ve had a personal epiphany about what goes into a loaf of bread and I’m kind of terrified. And it’s all related to the Maconda oil well spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Knowing that we are drilling for oil a mile and half below the surface of the water and then down another 3 miles below the ocean floor has pretty much convinced me that we’ve hit peak oil. What sense would it make otherwise? If there was easier oil to drill for, oil companies would be doing it. Meanwhile China is adding 9 million cars a year to their roads, and as they ramp up to 13 million more cars a year by 2015, we don’t have any extra oil for these vehicles. So oil is going to get really expensive. Which means that things like food, that depend on it are going to get really expensive too.

Growing my own grain has convinced me that a loaf of bread costing $2 is a miracle. When you realize the amount of energy that went into it, it’s astounding. It’s not just the natural gas based fertilizer or the diesel to plant it, it’s that combine harvester. That machine is a factory on wheels in a grain field. It cuts the grain, threshes it to remove the grain from the heads, takes the husk off, dries it if necessary, then separates the wheat grains from all the chaff which it blasts out the back. The grain is stored in the harvester until it is dumped into a big trailer later. Sometimes a farmer will pull the trailer beside the combine so it can unload the grain while it’s doing everything else.

Ever turned on the air conditioner in your car and notice the lights dim as energy is drawn from the motor to run that additional load? I can’t get over how many different activities a combine is doing simultaneously. And they can cost $500,000! In the movie “Into the Wild” the lead character spends some time driving a combine for a company that owns a number of combines and they travel across the southern U.S. harvesting grain. The volume of food these machines and farmers produce is wondrous.

In 2007 as the wheels went off the global economy and the price of oil skyrocketed to $147/barrel, the price of grain went through the roof too. This summer a brutal heat wave has caused Russian to curtail exports to keep production for domestic consumption. Other wheat exporting countries have had similar droughts, while the bread basket of Pakistan has been hit by record rain and floods. Canada’s bread basket had brutal rain this spring during planting season which will see yields way down.

This will all lead to higher prices and potential shortages in countries, especially those in the middle east, where all their grain has to be imported. Don’t count on your loaf of bread staying cheap for much longer. I know I appreciate every slice of bread that I eat, especially after my grain growing experiment.

I think a lot of people make the assumption that because I garden organically I don’t use oil. Well I don’t use a lot, but I own a rototiller. A farmer growing organically on a large scale has to use oil, especially to plow fields. There’s a lot of talk of “no-till”, but this isn’t practical for an organic farmer. An organic farmer needs to turn over the field after a crop is grown to destroy weeds and work compostable material back into the soil. They’ll all have to use a tractor to weed some crops as they’re growing.

I don’t own a tractor, but after I had harvested the grain I needed to rototill the area to prepare for next year. In most of the garden I weed all season, so rototilling is not a problem. But in my wheat patch the weeds had been growing since last fall and had this whole growing season to take root. So I had to rototill the patch a number of times, rototilling one direction, then the next and raking out the clumps of weeds and straw as I went. It was a crazy amount of work. If I had a tractor I would have just plowed it all over, but I don’t, so while my rototiller burned less gas than a tractor when it was running, it ran a lot longer than it usually does.

A simple loaf of bread in our society is as dense a product of fossil fuels as a plastic pop bottle. Sometimes Michelle and I will treat ourselves to an expensive loaf of high quality bread from a local independent bakery and I just love them. And after my “wheat” summer, I appreciate every single bite.

In one of my next posts, I'll describe exactly how I went about processing my wheat crop.



Related Content

The Benefits and Costs of Disease Resistance in Wheat

Do natural genes that defend wheat against diseases also hurt its productivity and food quality? Som...

Rats Agree: Organic Wheat is Better

In a recent study on the quality of organic wheat vs. conventional wheat, Swiss and Austrian scienti...

Sun Powers More Than Rice Fields

Lundberg Family Farms announces the opening of a new warehouse that is powered by 100% solar energy....

The State of Organic Seed

When we surveyed more than 200 mail-order seed companies about their organic seed stock and what the...

Content Tools




Post a comment below.

 

Debbie McEvers
8/29/2010 9:22:28 AM
We have a 100 acres in Northern California and we grew wheat also. I also love harvesters. We have to use a hill harvester for our land. This is the coolest thing you have ever seen. The wheels are floating from the chassis. So when he comes around the side of a steep hill the chassis is level and the wheels are tilted. It looks crazy. I will send you a pic of our hills being harvested if you would like. We will be planting wheat shortly for this winter. In your other story about threshing and making bread I did the same thing the first year we grew wheat. The easiest way to get your already chaffed wheat is to go get it out of the back of the harvester.I did it by hand for the first loaf and then I was done.







Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.