Harvest Arts for Small-Scale Growers

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Decide which tool will work best for you at harvest time based on your preferences and needs.
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“Harvest Arts for Small-Scale Growers” by Eli Rogosa, takes a closer look at the culture, biodiversity, resilience, and cuisine of ancient wheat.

Restoring Heritage Grains: The Culture, Biodiversity, Resilience, and Cuisine of Ancient   (Chelsea Green, 2016) by Eli Rogosa, explores ancient wheat and how it is used today. Find out why it is important to restore this ancient wheat and the advantages it can provide. Learn of the different types of grains found around the world that make up this collection of grains. Find this excerpt in Chapter 3, “Landrace Grains Husbandry.”

When shall we harvest wheat? Deciding when to harvest and how to handle the grain after harvest are critical. Harvest time depends on whether your end use is for flour or for seed saving. The big picture is more important than knowing average harvest dates for a specific area. While we can draw charts with footnotes to determine when the crop should be harvested, it is more effective to understand how to determine when the crop is mature and base your decision of when to harvest on combined factors that include end use, harvest weather, equipment availability, drying capacity, and available storage facilities.

Harvesting for Flour

For flour, cut the grain about two weeks before it is fully ripe. At this stage, the grain will weigh most, giving the largest proportion of flour and the least bran. If the crop is left uncut, a thicker bran will form and a portion of the starch of the grain will change into woodlike fiber. The quality of flour is decreased and the weight of bran increased.

When the straw immediately under the head of grain turns from a greenish to an orange hue 4 or 5 inches in length, it is time to cut the grain for flour. The kernels have passed out of the milky state but can be easily crushed between the thumbnails. At this time, some of the leaves on the lower portion of the stem may be dry and brown, but still, the upper stem remains vigorous for a few days. Do not delay the harvest. Harvesting wheat while it is still slightly green and drying in the barn or stooking outdoors to dry-cure the grains produces the highest-quality wheat flour.

After wheat begins to dry in the field, rain will decrease its quality and test weight, causing fusarium and sprouting damage. Quality decreases daily if wheat stays in the field after maturity. The wheat will have the highest test weight and best grain quality if it is immediately harvested after it is mature and dry. If wheat stands in the field after maturity and is rewetted by rain or heavy dew, the grain shrivels, test weight is reduced, sprouting can occur, and field loss is increased.

Harvesting for Seed

If you are harvesting for seed to replant, allow the plant to reach full maturity before cutting. At full maturity the grain has received the full life force from the stalk and will have a higher germination rate as long as there is not sprouting or moisture damage. Harvest time depends on the weather. A damp, cool spring will give a late harvest, whereas a warm, dry spring will ripen the wheat up to a month sooner.

Finally, the crop yield should be calculated and recorded. Use the observations made during the year together with your harvest records to find which factors were yield-limiting, and to evaluate whether the stand density was adequate, too low, or too high. Carefully evaluating the previous year’s management decisions based on the results helps build knowledge to make better-informed decisions on future crops.

Traditionally wheat was cut about two weeks before full maturity, then cured in the field in stooks. Before the invention of the combine, farmers scythed at the hard dough stage, when the stalk was still slightly green in the upper third, then tied the sheaves in bundles that were placed in shocks or stooks to dry slowly. The grain was later threshed when fully dry. Early harvest and stooking allow farmers to harvest quickly before an impending rainfall, protecting the mature grain from damaging moisture. In nineteenth-century New England, when the combine and the reaper-binder were both available, farmers preferred the reaper-binder that bound into stooks, since the slow-curing process of stooking imparts higher quality and flavor to the grain. Harvesting with the combine works only when the grain is totally mature and dry, making harder bran. Stook-curing is well suited for harvesting high-value heritage landraces that mature at slightly different rates.

Scything

Join the scything renaissance! Every farmer and gardener should have a scythe. It is a forgotten tool that is being rediscovered as an easy-to-use, affordable, and practical alternative to peak-oil machinery. Swinging the light European, a.k.a. Austrian, scythe is an invigorating, whole-body exercise similar to tai chi. The mower swings the blade back and forth, letting the weight of the scythe carry the motion in a comfortable rhythm. Lightweight European scythes are a zero-carbon method to cut meadows, weeds, and even suburban lawns. The English scythe used in colonial America is heavier and more difficult to swing. More muscle, less Zen. I bought a scythe from each of the five North American scythe companies, since I often have interns at harvest time. All the US scythes made in the European style that I tried are well made. Differences were slight. Swish swish!

CR Lawn reports, “The scythe is one of the two tools that I cannot do without on my farm. It gives me freedom to manage all of the grass to cut for mulch. It is part of my whole system. It is a great way to start the day early in the morning when the dew is still on the grass. My other favorite tool is the potato hook—the best weeding tool there is.”

When harvesting grain with a scythe, you need to attach a cradle to move the wheat stalks neatly to one side so that they lie in the same direction for gathering. Without a cradle on your scythe, the wheat stalks fall every which way. A simple bow cradle can be made by lashing a green branch to the scythe with string to push over the wheat stalks.

I use a sickle more than a scythe when I select rare wheats. The sickle allows me to select the exact ears that I want to harvest, whereas the scythe takes all. If you use a sickle, one with a serrated edge is the best.

Threshing

In the United States, as the number of small-scale grain growers increases, there is a great unmet need for smaller threshing machines. In developing countries, small-scale grain growers use appropriate technology, spanning small-scale machinery, animal power to tread on the grain to loosen it from the seedhead, and flails. Flails use two heavy sticks bound together with a leather tie so that the shorter piece lies flat on the grain. I have threshed small amounts at good speed by placing the cut seedheads on an upside-down floor mat from a car, knobby side up, over a tarp or in a large container, then doing the wheat shuffle dance. Although common in Third World countries, few treadle threshers are commercially made in the United States. Small-scale US grain growers are devising ingenious machines, or importing them from abroad. Mark Fulford imports international small-scale threshers to meet this growing market.

Winnowing

Pouring out the threshed grain in front of a fan separates out the good heavy seed from the lighter. I use a commercial vacuum blower to blow off the chaff, then a clipper seed cleaner with vibrating screens to separate out the lighter seeds. The smaller seed and debris fall through the holes, and the fat seed is collected.

Dehulling

Farmers who grow hulled grains must find an effective way to remove the hulls. Dehulling poses a similar problem to that of threshing. Most equipment is designed for high volumes and large fields. The machinery is expensive, and its cost must be spread over a large volume to be economical.

Pounding

Before hulled grains can be cooked or milled into flour, the hulls must be removed. In early times, hulls were separated from the kernels by pounding with a heavy wooden pestle or mallet. The hulls were then winnowed out. Pounding the grain by hand, as has been done for millennia, works well.

Flaming

Grain harvest celebrations, from the traditional Celtic Lughnasadh to the ancient biblical Shavuot as recorded in the Talmud, involved soaking the sheaf of hulled grain in water, then singeing it in fire to loosen the hulls. This tasty, smoked, charred grain is today known as frikah in Arabic and kaule in Hebrew. After the hulls are loosened from the kernels, they are separated from the grains by threshing and winnowing.

A Home Dehuller

Increase the space between the stones of a stone mill so that the hulls are abraded and rubbed off and so that kernels can pass through without being broken up too much. You can also use a burr mill that has had one of the burr wheels replaced by a hard rubber disc to rub the hulls from the grains. The loose hulls should be winnowed out of the mixture of grain and chaff afterward. Old flour mills that ground spelt in Europe were equipped with two pairs of mill stones. The first pair was located above the second. The bottom stone of the first pair turned while the top stone was stationary. The spacing between the two stones was set to just allow dehulled kernels of grain to pass between them. The mixture of kernels and hulls fell from the top pair of millstones into the second pair after falling through a column of air that blew out the loose hulls, leaving the grains to fall into the second pair of stones that then ground them into flour.

To modify a threshing mechanism for dehulling, the spaces in the concave between the bars need to be filled with flat steel strips to prevent the grain from falling through the concave. With the concave thus closed, the grain stays between the cylinder bars and the concave bars, where it is rubbed apart. A lot of the dehulling is accomplished by rubbing grain on grain when the grain can’t fall through the concave. The advantage of using a combine or threshing machine is that the mixture of grain and chaff also passes through the cleaning sieves and is winnowed by the fan afterward.

Using any of the alternative dehulling methods results in leaving some degree of foreign matter and hulls in the grain. After grinding grain that contains excess hulls and other fibrous material, you need a screen or sift to remove the objectionable material. A flour sifter will work if nothing else is available.

Small grain growers may find it affordable to have the grain cleaned and dehulled at a commercial facility with cleaning and dehulling equipment.

A dehuller manual written by Nigel Tudor is available for a free download on the SARE website. The well-illustrated instructions clearly explain how to fabricate a small-scale dehuller based on a German model.

Drying the Grain

The grain must be fully dry and cleaned of weeds and other foreign materials before milling. A low-tech way to dry small quantities of grains is to spread them on a wooden floor and to shovel or rake them every few hours until they are dry. A box fan blowing over the grain speeds the process. A drying box can be improvised by cutting a hole in the bottom of a wooden box and placing a screen mesh on it. Place a fan underneath. Fill it with grain, and let the slow aeration dry the grains. It’s important to keep the grain stirred and loose. Wood helps draw moisture out and prevents condensation at the bottom of the pile.

Few farmers today are aware of the traditional slow-curing process that produced lighter, digestible bran with more richly flavored grain. Large-scale growers use grain-drying equipment to decrease kernel moisture. This maintains the quality of the grain while minimizing spoilage. The grains can be dried by inserting an aeration hose into perforated totes, using drying fans, and placing the grain on pallets to increase air circulation. Bins must be cleaned meticulously before filling them with grain. The grain moisture content can be tested by trying to dent the kernel with a fingernail till it is fully hardened and dry. The wheat is ready to store when it is very hard to crack it between your teeth.

Seed Dormancy

A wheat seed is dormant when it will not germinate even under good conditions. Seed dormancy right before harvest prevents premature sprouting. Dormancy increases with lower temperatures during grain fill. Postharvest dormancy generally dissipates by late September to early October. Hot or cold conditions promote germination better than seed stored at ambient air temperatures. If you plan to sow early or conduct a germination test, refrigerate seed for two days prior to planting or testing.

In black winter emmer, each spikelet has two kernels. One germinates immediately. The other lies dormant for a few weeks, then comes alive as a mechanism to protect against adverse weather conditions.


Reprinted with Permission from Restoring Heritage Grains by Eli Rogosa and Published by Chelsea Green.

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