The Summer of My Wheat Obsession

Reader Contribution by 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.