I have become accustomed to answering a lot of questions while I work since a lot of our growing space is visible to the public, but never before this year has there been a question so dominant and so constant as the one we had this year, which was, "What's that big purple plant in your garden?" At last, I can tell you in writing and for the last time of 2021. It's amaranth! More specifically, it was Burgundy Amaranth that we sourced from West Coast Seeds. I will take some time this month to share some of the finer details from our trial.
Amaranth is a wonderfully versatile grain that loves warm climates. You can eat the greens throughout the summer and still harvest the grain at the end of the season. The photo below shows the small amaranth grains that closely resemble quinoa, it’s relative. I chose to experiment with growing a patch of our own amaranth this summer as part of our continued effort to take responsibility for the sustainable production of more of our food. Grain doesn't compete well with vegetables in terms of yield per square foot so I would only suggest getting into grain trials for fun or after your vegetable production is totally dialled in.
Given that amaranth thrives in warmer climates and requires 90-100 days to mature, I figured I was I taking a bit of a chance by trying to grow a large patch of it to maturity in our relatively short growing season. So to swing the odds in my favour, I started my own amaranth seedlings and transplanted them in the designated beds with the best spacing I could surmise from my research. That spacing was 2 rows spaced 15 inches apart in our 30 inch wide beds with 12 inch spacing between the plants in the rows. This resulted in 40 plants in each of our 50 square foot standard beds, and an average plant spacing of 0.8 plants per square foot. At first, this spacing can seem a bit sparse, but it doesn't take long for the fast growing amaranth plants to fill in the gaps!
Growing the amaranth was as easy as can be. I wondered if some type of vertical support would be necessary to keep the small patch standing upright on windy days, but I was happy to find that the tall plants resisted wind pressure quite well and remained standing even as they reached 6 feet in height. Eventually, some lateral shoots heavy with seeds would cause some of the plants around the edges to tip over slightly, but this only occurred in the final couple of weeks.
As fall approached, I began checking on the flower stalks to see how freely the seeds released from their husks. I delayed harvesting anything until the seed heads started to release their seeds quite willingly into my hands when rubbed.
During the first few weeks of September, the seed heads were cut from the plants with pruning shears and carted home to dry in our high tunnel. The full harvesting process was far from over at this stage but the really forgiving part is that we can just press pause at this point while the seed dries and approach the task of winnowing after all of the other fall garden clean up is complete.
Winnowing is the process of separating the seed from the husks that contained it in the seed stalk. Obviously, not much else matters about my growing ability if I can't effectively separate the amaranth seeds from their husks. Therefore, I anticipated that the winnowing process would either make or break the viability of our amaranth crop. I will take a minute now to walk you through the process that I used to winnow our amaranth harvest this year and share a few key metrics for you at the end.
The winnowing process began with a 50 gallon drum packed with the dried seed stalks that had been dried in our high tunnel. At this starting point, our total harvest of seeds and their husks weighted in at 36.8 lbs.
Step 1: Beat the seed stalks to release the seeds from their dried husks.
I accomplished this with a homemade drill powered beater made from a plaster mixing paddle wrapped with chains. The seed stalks were broken up pretty well after this step as you can see from the photo below.
Step 2: Winnow the beaten mix to separate the seed from the chaff.
I accomplished this by pouring scoops of the mix in front of a box fan. (slide 4) If you look at this video carefully, you can see the tiny white seeds dropping into the bin below, while most of the lighter seed husks blow further away. It looks pretty chaotic, but if you focus your attention on what is happening below (slide 5), you can see that it is mostly just the seeds and heavier stems that are landing in the bin.
Step 3: Sift the winnowed product until almost all of the chaff is removed.
I used a potato ricer first and then did a final sifting through a sieve with sight smaller holes as shown in the two video clips below. I was satisfied with the end product after this stage.
That sums up the entire winnowing process pretty quickly. Could I have done this better? Certainly. This was only the first attempt, so I would welcome suggestions for improving the process. Step 2 was definitely the least fun and has the most room for improvement. Please send me a message with the contact form at the bottom of this page if you have ideas or have used other methods that seem easier.
If you are curious about the numbers, when all of the blowing and screening ceased, I was left with almost exactly 8 lbs of cleaned amaranth seeds! I would estimate it took me 4-5 hours to complete the steps outlined above for the volume of seed we had. When we have an abundance of growing space, I don't mind devoting a significant amount to grain production despite the lower yield per square foot, but the winnowing process would really have to improve in order to scale up our home grain production. That's why I've already been dreaming about building one of these seed cleaning machines. It looks like a fun project to me and could save a lot of time in the long run if we continue growing our own grain.
Learn more about how to build one of these machines here: https://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedcleaner.html
For those of you wondering about the value of our harvest, I looked into that as well. Here's where the numbers take us in two dramatically different directions. If I marketed our amaranth harvest as viable seed, it would be valued at $190 CDN for a 500g bag, according to West Coast Seeds. That price would value my total amaranth harvest at $1380 CDN from 125 square feet of production. I'll take that! On the other hand, if I marketed our amaranth on Amazon, it looks like it would be valued close to $3 CDN per pound. That's almost worthless and selling my entire harvest would leave me with a net loss considering my costs of production.
Considering that we won't be marketing the seed and that our end use is just home consumption, amaranth remains at the bottom of our list in terms of economic viability. This brings us back to the reason I first warned that home growers should only dabble in grain production if they find themselves with extra time and space to use after meeting all of their vegetable production needs. In the case of crops like this, we are solely motivated by our desire to secure a more well balanced and sustainable food supply for our family. If you find yourself at the same point on this journey and you start to get into grain production of your own, please let me know how it goes.
P.S. My favourite way to enjoy amaranth is to pop the seeds first, then add them to a bowl of berries and yogurt.