Pretty much anywhere in North America, growing wheat is easy if you have a modest-sized plot of unshaded ground, the right seed, and the help of a few small implements.
Depending on your weather conditions and your growing practices, a small plot of wheat — say 500 square feet — should yield 15 to 50 pounds of grain. Yes, that’s a pretty wide range, but soils, rainfall, temperatures, storms, diseases, pests and plain luck can vary from place to place and year to year. Those forces dramatically influence wheat’s yield and quality. But your yield starts with your choice of which varieties of wheat to sow.
Choose a Variety
After you’ve decided to grow wheat, you’ll need to make three initial choices: winter or spring type, red-grained or white-grained, and free-threshing or hulled (with the hull intact). For details on various types of wheat, including durum, spelt, emmer and einkorn, read Types of Wheat: What to Grow and How to Use It.
Winter wheats are sown in fall and harvested the following spring or summer. Spring wheats, which can be either common or durum wheats, are bred for Canadian and northerly U.S. regions where wheat can’t survive through winter; they are sown in early spring and harvested in summer. The seasonal labels are important: A winter variety that does not experience cold weather will produce no grain, while a spring variety sown in fall will die in winter freezes (unless you’re in a frost-free region, where spring wheat varieties can be fall-sown).
The choice between red or white wheat is less consequential, unless you’re growing wheat in an area with high summer rainfall. Under those conditions, white wheat kernels are more susceptible to premature sprouting in the head than red ones. Even a slight start on sprouting can ruin the bread-making quality of wheat grain.
Depending on the region, a wide range of diseases and pests can plague wheat. Recently developed varieties tend to have better resistance than older ones. That is not always true, however, and almost every variety has an Achilles’ heel or two. If you are risk-averse, avoid varieties that are especially susceptible to diseases that often strike wheat in your area. Ask your local farm supplier or extension office to recommend resistant varieties.
The hulled ancestors of modern wheats — among them einkorn, emmer and spelt — can be winter or spring type, and either red or white. These varieties are becoming more popular in the grow-your-own community because of a reputation for good taste and quality. But if your homegrown wheat is hulled, you must accept that grain from these old-timers requires more processing to be used for food (see “Ancient Wheats and Their Pesky Hulls,” later in this article).
Choose High-Quality Seed
At least as important as variety selection is the physical quality of the seed you sow. “The one really important aspect that is often overlooked is that you need to start with good, quality seed that is true to type, disease- and insect-free, and not contaminated with weed seed,” says Cornell University professor and wheat breeder Mark Sorrells, who leads a project on heirloom organic wheat varieties.
When you buy seed, it should be plump and free of dirt, weed seed and other foreign material, and its label should include, at a minimum, the variety name and germination rate. Don’t worry that you might accidentally buy transgenic (genetically modified, or “GM”) seed; no GM wheat seed is on the market. A wheat variety is not like a corn hybrid — its harvested seed will produce a crop of that same variety when sown the next season. When producing your own seed, you can ensure your homegrown wheat’s quality during harvest and processing just as you would for wheat you plan to consume (more on that ahead).
Ready the Soil
A soil test from your local county extension office or university can tell you whether your soil is too acidic (therefore requiring lime) or too alkaline (see Your Garden’s Soil pH Matters, for solutions), whether it’s deficient in any of the three big nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — and whether you need to be applying any of the minerals wheat requires in much smaller amounts.
Thanks to its high protein content, harvested wheat contains large quantities of nitrogen that the plant acquires from the soil. An essential element, nitrogen must be restored to the soil in a form that can be taken up by plants grown the next season. Composted animal manure and vegetative compost, which also add organic matter to the soil, are preferred amendments commonly spread on a plot before sowing seed. These materials have relatively low nitrogen content, however, so you’ll need to use more than you’d think for optimum fertility. In his book The Organic Grain Grower (available in our store and highly recommended by MOTHER EARTH NEWS), Jack Lazor recommends 4 tons of composted manure or 12 tons of rotted but non-composted manure per acre of wheat. For a 500-square-foot home plot, that would be about 90 or 275 pounds, respectively, of composted or rotted manure. A more elegant way to improve soil nitrogen and organic matter is to split the plot in half, if it’s big enough, and alternate your wheat crop with a “green manure” planting of a nitrogen-fixing legume, such as white clover, that you’ll later work into the soil.
Cultivating a plot before sowing incorporates organic matter and nutrients into the soil; it’s then necessary to groom the surface layer so that planted seeds can germinate easily and seedlings can emerge and grow. While a garden-style, gas-powered mechanical tiller is the most common small-plot tool for the job, it will pulverize the soil and produce a too-fluffy seed bed. Many people don’t like the expense or hassle of buying, renting or borrowing the machine, let alone the noise and exhaust fumes. Instead, you can prepare a small plot using hand tools, such as spades and rakes. An especially useful tool for the job is a broadfork.
Sow the Seed
After your soil has been raked or harrowed and is relatively level and clod-free, sow the seed. North Dakota State University research specialist Steve Zwinger says avoiding a too-thin planting is crucial, because leaving too much space between wheat plants invites weed problems. In the Plains states, a common sowing recommendation is a million seeds per acre, which would be roughly a pound of healthy-sized seed per 500 square feet. But keep in mind that sowing very small or very large seed will give very different numbers of seed. The amount of seed you sow in a very dry location with no irrigation should be lower, and the amount should be higher in regions with ample moisture.
You can broadcast seed with a hand-cranked rotary seeder like those used for lawns, or simply by hand-tossing, followed by raking the seed in. But Zwinger, like most experts, recommends sowing in rows, which provides for better germination, more uniform stands and easier weed control. To do so, make furrows with a hand or wheel hoe, drop in seed, and cover. Even better, use a push-type garden seeder, such as the traditional Planet Jr., or a jab-style corn planter (for more about push seeders, see our article Choose the Right Garden Seed Planter). Space rows 6 to 7 inches apart to provide effective ground coverage and weed control.
A solid stand of wheat is good at out-competing weeds; nevertheless, whatever your sowing pattern or density, weeds will turn up uninvited. There will be no way around hoeing or, later, pulling weeds, and the reasons for doing so are not solely cosmetic. Weeds compete with your homegrown wheat for light, rooting space, water and nutrients, and if left to grow, they’ll produce a lot of seeds, each one of which will either contaminate your harvest or go into the soil to increase the number of weeds that will come up next year.
Reap the Wheat
Wheat is ready to harvest when the wheat grains are anywhere from mature with still-high moisture (the “hard dough” stage) to dead ripe and fully dry. When the grain is ripe, cut by hand with a sickle or scythe, or with a gas-powered sickle-bar mower. If you cut the plants low, tie them into shocks and stack them against one another to keep heads off the ground and expose them for better sun- and air-drying. With a small plot’s harvest, cover the shocks with a large tarp in case of rain. If the weather’s warm and dry and the wheat is dead ripe, cut with a sickle at any point below the heads and thresh the heads right away. Otherwise, the shocks will have to stand until fully dry.
Thresh Your Harvest
You’ll then face the age-old question of how to thresh out the grain (unless you’ve shelled out several hundred dollars for a European hand-held “combine,” which is used commercially for grain sampling, and cuts and threshes heads right in the field in one step). For easy-threshing wheats, some growers find they can simply grab small bundles and beat the grain out onto a threshing floor or tarp. A wooden box with a sheet of corrugated rubber (the material used for doormats and runners) glued to its inner bottom surface and a short piece of 2-by-4 with the same rubber on one side work well together to rub out the grain. Do-it-yourselfers have designed a variety of larger hand-cranked threshing devices, and you can obtain the plans for some of them. Professional wheat breeders have long used machines for threshing large numbers of small grain bundles, and those small threshers (along with seed-cleaning equipment) sometimes show up among aging items being sold off by universities and seed companies. A treadle-powered thresher, selling for $900, is available from the Back to the Land Store (see Slideshow). You can watch a video of the thresher in action at the Back to the Land Store. Find source information for all of these machines in “The Tools You’ll Need to Grow and Process Wheat,” later in this article.
Ancient wheats will require an additional step to free the kernel from its hull (see “Ancient Wheats and Their Pesky Hulls,” later in this article).
Clean the Grain
Whatever your wheat variety and means of threshing or dehulling, the seed you obtain will still be mixed with chaff, dust and other inedible material that must be removed. Winnowing — using air movement to separate grain from chaff, dust and smaller weed seeds — is necessary for grain that’s to be milled into flour as well as for the portion that’s to be saved and sown to produce next year’s crop. In manual grain-handling, winnowing involves slowly pouring a stream of grain from one container into another while in a stiff breeze or in front of a small fan to remove lighter material. In his book, Lazor describes a winnowing system for small amounts of grain that uses 5-gallon plastic buckets, a three-speed box fan (or a shop vacuum), a tarp, and a good bit of trial and error.
With any winnowing system, multiple passes are usually necessary, and that still leaves untouched any material that’s similar to — or larger than — a wheat kernel in size or density. Lazor suggests making wood-framed screens using wire mesh to remove this debris. You need one screen with openings large enough for wheat to fall through and another that will keep wheat on top and let smaller seeds and other material fall through. Grain screens are also available commercially, as are power-driven devices with complex arrangements of shakers, screens and blowers. But such equipment, like the small combines used by wheat researchers, is expensive if purchased new. Try to scavenge old screens, combines and other equipment from seed or grain companies or universities.
Your grain will then be ready to be milled or eaten as whole cooked grain. (See Types of Wheat: What to Grow and How to Use it, for best cooking uses for various types of wheat.) To set aside seed for the next crop, seal it tightly in a rodent-proof container and keep it in a cool, dry place. To prevent insect damage to grain that’s to be used for seed (not for food), mix in a little diatomaceous earth — a natural material that comes from microscopic sea organisms. Silica gel packets, changed as needed, will help keep moisture levels under control. Before you know it, that seed will be back in the ground for another turn of the grain cycle — and you’ll have mastered the craft of growing this ancient crop.
Ancient Wheats and Their Pesky Hulls
Liberating the grain of an einkorn, emmer or spelt crop doesn’t end with threshing. North Dakota State University’s Steve Zwinger, who has done research on emmer for 20 years, says, “Hulled wheats are actually the easiest to thresh. But for small plots, it’s hard to come up with an effective, inexpensive way to dehull them.” Because hulls adhere tightly to the relatively soft kernel, they can be difficult to rub or knock off without also cracking the kernel.
The GrainMaker company will offer a Homestead Huller Kit as an accessory for its Model No. 99 mill later this year (shown in the Slideshow), priced at $275 per pair of dehulling disks. With interest in hulled wheats growing fast, Zwinger says, we can expect growers themselves to come up with a new generation of small, relatively inexpensive dehullers. He says that in these situations, farmers are the creators. As an example, Zwinger points to Nigel Tudor of Weatherbury Farm, located 40 miles south of Pittsburgh. Tudor, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is building a dehuller for emmer and spelt. But, Tudor warns, his dehuller is designed for larger-scale crops. “It would require a minimum of 60 pounds of grain to work efficiently,” he says.
The Tools You’ll Need to Grow and Process Wheat
Searching for equipment for small-scale grain growing and processing? Browse these resources to locate what you need, plus acquire more know-how.
Planting and Harvesting
Scythes, serrated harvest sickles and sickle-bar mowers
Using a scythe
Threshing, Dehulling and Milling
All kinds of equipment
Small flour mill
Hand-cleaning screens and pans
Countertop grain mills
Stan Cox is a sustainable-living activist and plant breeder at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He has worked as a USDA wheat geneticist and his most recent book is Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing.