We Make Bread from Wheat We Grow Ourselves

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

Nearly everyone, it seems, now wants to recapture some of
the joys and values of “the food old days”. Here’s how one
Wisconsin family satisfies that desire.

I grew up on a 127-acre farm and, for that reason, the
little 1/7-acre field next to our house sometimes seems
pathetically small to me. Even though it is tiny, however,
that plot of earth plays an important role in my family’s
life. For it’s there that we (my husband, myself, and our
three children) raise our year’s supply of wheat!

The ritual begins at the end of each summer when we haul
buckets and barrow loads of manure from the neighboring cow
pasture to our mini-field. Along with some old hen house
bedding (generously donated by a nearby chicken farmer), we
spread the fertilizer on the ground . . . and then wait
eight or nine months for the rich nutrients to percolate
down into the soil. By the following May, we’re ready to
sow wheat.

The first time we planted, we did it by hand . . . which
meant throwing out big, sweeping fistfuls of grain (and
trying afterwards–with little success–to even
up the seeds’ distribution with a rake). Since then, we’ve
mechanized. Now-with the aid of a wooden, hand-operated
broadcaster–one of us can simply walk back and forth
across the field and (by turning a crank) scatter seeds
evenly on its surface.

And that’s the signal for the beginning of a race between
us and the birds: We must cover the little grains of wheat
before the feathered robbers can eat them! (To speed this
part of the job we do use a rototiller but, no matter how
mechanized we get, we’ll never resort to chemical
fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.)

Next comes the hard part. The three months of waiting . . .
and waiting. We cast an expectant eye at the field each
time we walk by on the way to the mailbox or the school
bus. We peer at that seemingly lifeless soil. We
squint and we stare at that dirt. And then–at
last–the Big Day arrives when one of us announces,
“The wheat is up!”

Those four magic words transform us, during the following
weeks, into miniature copies of “real” wheat farmers. We
critically analyze the ratio of weeds to our developing
crop. We speculate about whether or not it’ll be a bad year
for grasshoppers. We take our farming as seriously as if
our livelihood depended upon it.

With August comes the hot, dry days and nights that are so
essential to the ripening of wheat here in Wisconsin. These
are the days when we can stand and almost watch the plump
heads of grain turn golden brown under the sun’s scorching
rays. (When the air is still, you can–if you listen
closely–hear faint noises as the heads dry.)

Finally, the kernels of wheat have ripened to the point
where–if you bite down on them–they’ll crunch
between your teeth. It’s “thrashin’ ” time.

We encourage all able-bodied family members to join in the
harvest, which means–usually–that we have a
work crew consisting of two willing parents and three
reluctant children. (“Never mind their protests,” we tell
ourselves. “Their memories will be rich.”)

As strange as it may seem to “real” farmers, we don’t
harvest our wheat with a combine. (The patch is too small
and, anyway, when we tried a combine once our grain was
presented to us liberally mixed with weed seeds, stones,
and dismembered insects.) Nor do we cut the stalks of wheat
with a scythe, sickle, or cradle (a scythe fitted with a
light frame that makes whatever is being cut lie down
evenly).

What we do is we each take a cardboard box out into our
mini-field and we hand pick the heads of wheat
right off their stalks. This doesn’t take as long as you
might think . . . and it leaves all the weed seeds,
pebbles, and random pieces of grasshopper back in the field
where they belong.

After the wheat is picked, it, of course, must be threshed.
We like to spread a clean sheet on the garage floor, lay
out the heads we’ve gathered on the linen, and then shatter
them by beating the heads with a bamboo rod or an old
broomstick. Striking the wheat repeatedly and forcefully is
a grand way to work off pent-up frustrations, as more than
one guest has discovered. (We often invite friends and
relatives to share in the fun.)

Next, it’s time to winnow out the grain. We wait for a
special sort of day to winnow . . . a day with just a
little–but not too much–wind. One of us then
carries the shattered heads of wheat up a ladder to the
porch roof, while the others spread a sheet on the ground
below. Then–carefully, in such a way that the chaff
catches the wind (while the grain doesn’t!)–the
threshings are poured down onto the sheet. The process is
repeated until the nuggets of grain that we catch on the
ground are almost entirely free of broken stems and seed
husks.

Naturally, this primitive technique isn’t 100% efficient:
some wheat is carried downwind with the chaff (to be eaten
shortly thereafter by a circle of waiting birds) . . . and
a certain irreducible amount of debris remains with the
grain. No problem. Whenever I go to a meeting or a friend’s
house I just take along a tin of wheat (in place of
knitting) and spend my idle time picking out the bits of
chaff left in the wheat.

After this “final cleaning”, the grain is ground in our
electric mill or cracked in a hand cranked grinder. And what
delicious breads, what hearty cereals our
home-grown-and-ground wheat makes! Each toothsome mouthful
is rich in nutrition . . . and steeped in memories.
Memories of blistering sun and soothing rain . . . of green
waves undulating in the wind . . . of the feel in your palm
of golden wisps of crackling-dry grain . . . and of the joy
of family closeness in a common task.

These are the aspects of “the good old days” that seem to
us to be worth recapturing. And–thanks to our tiny,
1/7-acre patch of wheat–we do recapture
them.