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Leaping Into Small-Scale Grain Production

Last month's food tracking exercise showed us that the majority of our food can come from our own garden, even in the middle of winter, but it was also a reminder that we still eat a lot of food that we don't grow. We learned that about 30% of our food by weight was coming from the grocery store in January, and when we looked closely at the items in that 30%, we noticed that there were a couple of crops we could still add to our repertoire to reduce the percentage of purchased food even more. So, in the interest of improving our self-sufficiency and sustainability even further, we are going to take a serious leap into small-scale grain production this season.


This move into grain will allow us to grow MORE of our own food, but it will actually mean growing LESS food on the same amount of land. So why would we want to grow a smaller amount of food? Well, since our goal is to grow as much of our own food as possible, we have to remember that quantity isn't everything. The main objective is to match our production with our consumption, crop by crop. If I simply wanted to maximize our production numbers on paper, I would just fill our growing space with heavy crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, and potatoes. Alternatively, if I wanted to make the most money with our growing space I would emphasize quick growing crops like greens which have a higher value per square foot. In either case, our total yield or total profit might look impressive, but we would be ignoring a large percentage of the food we actually eat and find ourselves trudging back to he grocery store every week. It turns out that when we devote growing space to ALL of the crops we want to eat, we have to include crops with a lower yield per square foot, like grain. That means that even though we will be growing a higher percentage of our diet, our average production per square foot will most certainly drop. I'm OK with that now though. We have plenty of space to play with and the rest of our vegetable production is running smoothly. This leaves me with an opportunity to dive into the world of grain and take more responsibility for the food we want to eat.


Our Grains of Choice


Selecting which grains to grow was mostly just a matter of looking in our cupboard to see what we were eating. At the top of our list were wheat, oats, and rice, followed by corn and quinoa. I am going to dodge the challenge of growing rice for now since we don't have any land suitable for that purpose. Instead, we can whittle down our rice consumption by replacing it with other staples like quinoa and potatoes. The other grains on the list seemed like fair game, so we're going to devote land to wheat, oats, flint corn, and quinoa this year. Let's have a look at the unique qualities and advantages of these homegrown grains.


The main variety of wheat we will be growing is Red Fife, which was originally grown in Canada in the mid 1800's. It became popular thanks to its superior bread baking quality, but since it was slow to mature, growers struggled with crop loss from early fall frosts. I am counting on the benefits of our urban heat island in the city to give us enough frost free days to pull off a nice stand of Red Fife.



Thanks to Prairie Garden Seeds for sharing photos of some of their homegrown grains with us. We should have plenty of our own photos next year!


Our oats of choice will be a traditional variety referred to as "hulless" or "naked". The oats that dominate the market today have hulls that are difficult to remove. As a result, they require a high level of processing before they end up on a shelf at the grocery store. These hulled oats used to be grown just to feed livestock, while naked oats were grown for human consumption. The main benefit of naked oats, in addition to their improved nutritional qualities, is that the grain sheds its hull freely during threshing. I sure like the sound of that, but we'll have to wait and see how things actually turn out in fall.


Next on the list is corn. At first glance, this crop won't really stand out in our garden, because corn has a place in most gardens around here. What's notable is the type of corn we will be growing. the variety we have selected is called Glass Gem which is a type of flint corn. At full maturity, the kernels of flint corn are much lower in moisture than sweet corn and very hard. As a result, flint corn is suitable for milling into flour or cornmeal.


Glass gem corn
Glass Gem Corn (Image courtesy of West Coast Seeds)

Red Head Quinoa
Red Head Quinoa (Image Courtesy of Uprising Organics)

Lastly, we will be adding quinoa to our grain collection this season. This will be my first time growing quinoa, although we did do a few trial beds of amaranth last season, a relative of quinoa. The amaranth was a fun experiment, but we were honestly not longing to have more amaranth in our diet. We would gladly eat more quinoa though. The advantage quinoa has over amaranth is its tolerance of cool weather. This will help us get off to an earlier start in spring and improve our ability to grow this crop to full maturity. The quinoa variety we will be growing is called Red Head.



Sourcing our grain seed took a lot more searching than I would have liked, so if you are considering some similar trials of your own, here is a quick list of our seed choices and sources.

​Crop

​Variety

​Seed Source

Wheat

Red Fife

Oats

Naked

Flint Corn

Glass Gem

Quinoa

Red Head


How much will we be growing?


We don't have any of our own yield numbers for these grain crops yet so I have needed to start with yield estimates from a few books. Two resources that have been particularly helpful for seed spacing and yield approximations are Homegrown Whole Grains and How to Grow More Vegetables. After tracking down some rough yield estimates, I was able to plan crop quantities for grain just like any other crop. We started by adding up our desired consumption for each grain in one full year, and then determined how much space we would need to grow that desired amount. That meant answering questions like "How much flour do we need each time we make pancakes?", How many times do we want to make pancakes?", and "How much wheat do we need to grow to produce 1 cup of flour?"


When the dust settled from all of that number crunching, we were left with 9 beds of wheat, 5 beds of oats, 2 beds of quinoa, and 1 bed of flint corn. Our standard sized beds are 50 square feet, so that brings us to a total of 750 square feet of bed space that will be devoted to grain production this year.


I thought it could be interesting to see a full breakdown of our garden space use now, including grains. The pie chart below shows grains (yellow) making up roughly 25% of our garden space. I say that this is roughly 25% because I simplified my math quite a bit by assuming every crop we have planned for the season will be growing in a bed of its own. In actuality, there are several cases where a relay planting will mean that two or more crops are growing in the same bed space. If I accounted for the relay planting potential of some crops, the fraction of land devoted to grain would be even higher than 25%.



Next Steps


Now, of course this new territory of small-scale grain production brings with it a whole new set of questions, many of which I cannot answer entirely yet. While I anticipate the seeding process to be quite easy with the use of our Earthway seeder and the maintenance to be pretty minimal in our weed free plots, the tasks of harvesting, threshing, and storage will undoubtedly bring on some new challenges. I think I'm feeling up for it though, and if I leap into this whole-heartedly with 750 square feet of grain production, I am bound to learn a few things in the process. Stay tuned for updates later this year!

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