Saturday, September 28, 2013

Growing wheat and other grains on the small scale



Wheat, ready for harvest.
About five years ago we decided to try our hand at growing wheat.  We had an old corral that was rich with composted horse manure.  My husband tilled it up and I scattered wheat across the ground.  I used a 5-lb. bag of organic hard white wheat, and I planted it on Mother's Day, hoping it would ripen by fall.  In our climate that's always an iffy proposition.
After tossing the wheat out by handfuls we walked around scuffing our feet on the ground and using a rake to cover as much of the wheat as we could.  A week later it looked like the corral had been planted in thick, lush dark green grass.  During July and August, our dry months, we watered it.  In the fall the wheat heads formed.  Antsy to follow it's progress I broke off some kernals and they were green and soft.  As time passed they turned yellow and then brown, and became hard.
I didn't know what to expect or when to harvest them, so I almost waited too long.  The wheat kernals had begun falling from the heads.  We decided it was time for harvest.


The first thing we thought of was to have my husband cut it with the weed-eater.

He carefully edged the weed-eater into the stalks near the ground, but they flew everywhere and were a disorganized tangle of stalks. 

He next tried a scythe and it left them a little more organized but still difficult to sort out.

I finally ended up just breaking the heads off the stalks one at a time and putting them in buckets.  It was slow work but I enjoyed being in the fall sunshine, and I spread it out over about a week.  I went out and broke off wheat heads for half an hour to an hour, a couple times a day.

I tried scissors and while it did work, it wasn't any faster or easier than breaking the wheat heads off by hand.  It made me think of the cotton-pickers of old, carrying a big sack and picking the cotton, one head at a time.
 Over the fall I threshed the wheat by hand.  The middle bucket in the picture has the whole wheat heads.  The one my hands are over is the one I was 'squishing' the wheat kernals into.  The bucket around the side of my legs is where I tossed the empty wheat head after all the kernals were out.
When I had a bucket full of them done I spread them on an old cookie sheet to clean them.  There was a lot of "chaff" mixed with the kernals.  The chaff is light-weight and easily blown away, leaving just the heavier wheat kernals.  This is often done outside.  One way is to spread a tarp and pour the threshed wheat onto it.  This is best done with at least two people and on a breezy day.  Hold onto both sides of the tarp and toss the wheat and chaff into the air, just enough for the breeze to blow away the chaff.  You'll probably still have to do some cleaning by hand but it blows away a great deal of the chaff.
Regarding threshing, I've seen several homemade threshers, including one that uses a five-gallon bucket.  There's a hole drilled in the center of the lid and a drill on the outside is attached to a chain on the inside, through that hole.  When the drill is turned on, the chain whips in a circle inside the bucket and threshes the wheat.

We have an electric grain grinder that makes a fast job of milling the wheat into flour.  This one has several setting from 'fine' to 'coarse', but even the coarsest setting is finer than our hand-cranked grinder.  Here's a quick-link to electric grain grinders in case you're interested in seeing what's available and how much they cost:

Our grandson loves to pour the whole grains into the hopper on our hand-cranked grinder.  This grinder is a heavy iron one that we picked up at a second-hand store about twenty years ago.  We have a lighter steel hand-cranked grinder too, but prefer to use this one because it's more heavy-duty.
Here's a link to hand-cranked grinders for those interested in browsing:
  We grind not only grains for our own use, but also for the chickens and whatever other livestock we have at the time.  Right now it's just laying hens, but we've had goats, pigs, ducks, turkeys, and rabbits. 

Just for an experiment I found a large flat stone and a smaller stone and tried hand-grinding some grains.  Grains like wheat are hard-shelled and it was a lot of work to grind even a little.  I tried some dried corn and it worked very well and it was easy to grind a lot in a short time.  Unfortunately we can't grow corn in our cold, short growing season, but for those of you who can, if you ever find yourself needing to grow and grind your own grain, especially by homemade means like stones, corn is the best grain.

This is the ground wheat when I finally got it all smashed and ground around on the stone. 
The following year after we first planted wheat, it came up on it's own, reseeded by the kernals that fell to the ground before we harvested it.  The third year it was sparse.  We tilled it up and I divided the corral into three parts and planted wheat, rye, and hulled oats.  This time I used hard red wheat out of a 50-lb. bag of non-organic wheat.  There were bare patches that didn't come up, and what did come up grew poorly and never produced mature wheat heads.  I can't say it was just because it was non-organic.  Maybe the hard red wheat has different needs than hard white wheat. 
Later in the summer I tried to sprout some of the wheat still in the bag, and it would not sprout.  Now before I plant, I test a small handful of kernals from the batch I want to use as seed, and if it sprouts, I plant it.  If it doesn't, I get different wheat or other grain.
I had ordered the rye and oats from Johnny's seed company and it grew well.  The rye was much like the wheat.  We ordered hulled oats to make harvest and threshing easier.  The oats were wonderful.  They grew well and were very tasty.  We ground some into flour, but I also put some on my big cutting board and rolled them with a rolling pin to make 'oatmeal'.  I haven't tried to grind oats on a stone, by hand, but they flatten easily with a rolling pin, so they must not be as hard of a grain as wheat.  Some day I hope to have an oat roller, but in the mean while, it does work this way.  Here's an oat roller if any of you want to look at them to see what they are, or to order one:
I've a notion to try and make a hopper for my pasta roller and see if it could double as an oat roller.


  1. "Unfortunately we can't grow corn in our cold, short growing season, "

    Have you tried Painted Mountain corn? It's a short-season flour corn, and it handles cold weather pretty well.

    1. We haven't tried Painted Mountain corn, but we've planted the short-season corn a couple different years. The one year it did pretty good. The plants got about 5' tall and we had around 100 ears of corn. The ears were approximately 6" long. The next year was colder and it didn't do as well. We only got 7 ears of corn that year.

      The year we got a lot of ears we spent a lot of time babying it. We covered the ground with plastic to warm the soil, then covered the soil again until the corn was up. We mulched it as it grew, until we had about 8" of mulch around the bottoms of the stalks. We kept the whole patch covered with the gauzy row cover fabric because our nights almost always drop below 40, even in July. The cold nights, even when it frosts, slows growth and reduces harvest.

      The next summer was windy and tore the row cover fabric to pieces, so the corn wasn't as protected.

      The third summer we ordered now row cover and the seed...and the seed was back ordered a few times and finally they notified us that they wouldn't have any more seed that year.

      Since then it hasn't been worth the trouble. We've concentrated on the things that normally give us a good crop since for us, we really won't have enough to eat unless we work hard in the garden and at hunting and fishing, etc. We still keep a small part of the garden for experiments, and we enjoy trying something new in it each year. The things that do well might find themselves planted in a 'real' part of the garden the next year.

      I might give the Painted Mountain corn a try if it's more cold-tolerant than the other short-season corn. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.