I feel like I am cheating on my vegetables a little when I say this, but to be honest, wheat may have been my favourite crop to grow this season. I'm sure a lot of the appeal was the in curiosity that came with watching a new crop throughout the season, and the fun of solving the new problem of wheat harvesting. Variety is the spice of life after all.
Despite this being our first year of wheat production, we did a lot more than just dabble. Right from the start, I knew that if I was going to include wheat in our crop line up at all, I was going to grow a legitimate quantity that could actually contribute significantly to our family's grain consumption. The inspiration to start growing grains originated from a little audit we did of our family's food consumption last January. This audit revealed flour as one of the items we used in significant quantity but still purchased from the grocery store. It was clear that if we wanted to eat a higher percentage of homegrown food, we would have to venture into serious grain production at some point...or give up baking, but I don't think Rachel is ready for that. So here we go! The 1 minute video here will give you a short run through of the entire wheat production process to start with.
Your questions probably fall into one of three categories: growing wheat, threshing wheat, or milling wheat. This post is therefore organized according to those same three themes. Read on and if you don't manage to find what you're looking for, send me a message with the contact form at the bottom of the page. I can always add more details to this post at a later date.
This was the easy part. I was equipped with a mechanical seeder that we used for our vegetable crops so I wasn't worried at all about getting a large patch of wheat in the ground easily. Timing wasn't really a concern either because I wasn't trying to squeeze any other crops in with my wheat beds. I just had to get the seed planted in early May and harvest the crop whenever the kernels hardened in the fall.
The only real question on my mind was regarding the ideal spacing for wheat. Spacing is a big deal for maximizing the yield for our other crops so I wanted to get this right for wheat too. Industrial scale wheat growers are now seeding their wheat with densities of 25 to 30 seeds per square foot but the modern wheat varieties have been bred for this style of high density planting. The landrace Red Fife wheat that I wanted to grow was from a different era. Thankfully, I came across this article called "Grain Husbandry and Wide Spacing" that touted the benefits of using wide spacing for more traditional wheat varieties and even had field tests to back up the claims.
Contrary to what one might assume, traditional wheat varieties produce a higher yield per square foot with wider spacing. What enables the older landrace wheat plants to perform this way, is that they have an ability to produce an abundance of tillers (ie. additional stems with seed heads) One plant, if given enough space, will produce 20, 30 or even up to 40 tillers, dramatically increasing the yield per plant. These larger plants are healthier and the results show that they end up yielding more per area than a higher density of plants that have fewer tillers. This study gave me the confidence to proceed with an average plant spacing of 6-8 inches. While it was uncomfortably spacious to begin with, the plants did perform as promised, averaging well above 20 tillers per plant. Yes, we counted.
And finally, here's a look at the cutting process. I'm using this curved serrated sickle, which I preferred over this straight bladed sickle in an earlier test. At first glance, it might seem like a lot of work, but it only took 40 minutes to cut this entire plot of 450 square feet.
OK. Here lies the puzzle of efficiently gathering in a crop of wheat at a small scale. If you've looked into small scale threshing methods a little already, you've probably seen folks whacking a pile of grain with a flail over a large tarp, or ripping the heads of wheat into a bucket before beating them with some time of spinning chain assembly. Both of these methods might eventually knock all of the grains free, but then we would still be left with a mess of straw, chaff, and grain that would need to be separated by winnowing, that is passing the grain and chaff mixture through a current of air so that the loose debris blows away leaving only the grain behind. I did this last season with our amaranth crop, and the lack of precision seemed to cost me quite a bit of lost grain. The yield of grain crops is already terribly low, so if possible, I would much rather improve the threshing process than have to plant 30% extra to account for a wasteful threshing process.
This reasoning led me to explore the possibility of building a little threshing machine of our own. Unfortunately, there was no single prototype out there that I could replicate exactly, but I had come across this foot powered grain thresher...
...and this DIY seed cleaning machine developed by Reel Seeds. You can find more information about how this device works here: https://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedcleaner.html
I couldn't resist the challenge of building a machine that somehow accomplished the beating AND winnowing of the grain in one pass, so I got to thinking, and ended up putting together a thresher of our own this fall. It uses an electric motor to drive some spinning beater bars and a jacuzzi fan to drive air through a winnowing chamber. The finished product looks sharp thanks to the paint job, but it was really just assembled with scrap wood and a few other random parts I had in my tinker box.
Check out the video below for a full explanation and demonstration. I sart by walking you through the different components of the thresher and then we thresh a bundle of wheat so you can see it in action.
At this time of writing this, we still haven't subjected all of our grains through this thresher, but I can report that it has been a been success for our wheat. We have also used it for our hulless oats with reasonable results, but the oats seem to need a bit more agitation to remove all of their pesky hulls so I'm still working on refining the process for this crop.
Is the threshing machine fast? Yes and no. The machine's role is fast, but the human role is not fast. We learned that it works best if we just stick the heads into the mouth of the machine and minimize the amount of straw that enters. This requires taking the time to align a handful of heads first before pushing them into the top opening. So while the machine can thresh grain as fast as we can feed it, our threshing speed is limited by the pace at which we can organize our handfuls of grain heads to feed into the machine. When I use the thresher by myself, I don't really maximize its potential. A crew of six would be more appropriate to keep grain flowing through the machine at a more steady rate. Still, even when using the thresher on my own, I appreciate the order and precision it allows. It may be accomplishing the task at a slow pace, but I at least know I am not spewing precious grain into the air with a less controlled threshing process.
In case you missed this statistic in the opening video, we ended up with 25 lbs of grain from our 450 square foot plot. This converts to 2375 lbs per acre or 39.6 bushels per acre. My uncle farms thousands of acres so I ran these numbers by him for comparison. He said he averaged 45 bushels per acre this season, but his 10 year average is 69 bushels per acre. Those numbers would be with modern wheat varieties bred for a different growth habits and a different quality of end product, but it was still interesting to compare notes and comforting to know that our yield was in a respectable range with minimal irrigation and no synthetic fertilizers.
The problem of milling our own wheat was solved quickly when I told my grandparents about our grain plots and they kindly handed over an old grain mill of theirs that they weren't using anymore. It goes by the name of Magic Mill III Plus and claims to be the "world's finest home flour mill". It's quite loud, but so far it works like a charm, so we likely won't be looking for an alternative any time soon. If you're curious,
We only mill our wheat in small batches because the fresh wholewheat flour doesn't store indefinitely. Highly processed white flour at the grocery store just contains the starchy endosperm portion of the grain which has a fairly long shelf life. Wholewheat flour contains the bran, germ, and endosperm, and since the bran and germ contain more oils, they are prone to degrade sooner when exposed to air, light, or moisture. There's not really a definitive expiry date on flour that has just been milled because it depends on the storage conditions, but we'll generally plan to use our home milled flour is used within 30 days. A few members of our family really enjoy their baking and we've gotten into a routine of enjoying pancakes for breakfast together every Friday, so I don't expect we will ever have trouble using up our flour!
That sums up our wheat growing experience from this season but I'm sure it's not the end of the story. Wheat will certainly be back in our crop line up for next season. I anticipate trying out a couple of different spacings and maybe even another variety of seed, but those decisions can wait for a few months. I hope this information has helped you with your own grain production efforts or left you with enough confidence to give it a try. If you've got enough land and you're already growing all the fruit and vegetables you can eat, I see no reason why grain production should be left out of the garden plans of the serious homesteader.