Monday, December 6, 2010

Grains - Wheat!

Grains aren't an underutilized or alternative crop by any means. They make up the bulk of our most people's diets, and are grown over huge amounts of land. However, here in Western Washington, they haven't been grown on a large scale for several decades. There's been a recent upsurge in interest in locally grown organic grains and several organic farms are now growing wheat and other grains on a large scale west of the Cascades. The staff at the WSU Mt. Vernon Research Center are doing some really great work at evaluating grain varieties for W. Washington and if you're in Western Washington and at all interested in growing grains, you should definitely check out the Kneading Conference this next September.

I could go on and on about the local grains movement here in Western Washington and I likely will in a future post, but I'm going to curb myself and talk about my wheat growing so I don't end up with an excessively long post.

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Growing wheat has always been something I've dreamed of doing, but to be honest, it seemed a bit intimidating when I first read about how to do it. There was scything, threshing, winnowing, milling - and then I read that it couldn't be grown that well here in Western Washington. Turns out, it's not that hard to do (and can be quite fun), and you can grow it here, quite successfully!

"Hank" - A hard red spring wheat I grew this year
I first learned about wheat growing at the Evergreen Organic Farm, where they had done some variety trials a few years ago. I became heavily involved with the wheat growing on the farm, and managed to get some wheat berries at the Tilth Conference. The variety I got was "Hank", a hard red spring variety, which you can see growing in the picture to the left. 
The 'hard' in 'hard wheat' basically means it's high in protein and is good for baked goods that you want to rise and be chewy, such as bread. Soft wheat is better for baked goods that you want crisp and not chewy, such as crackers and pastries. The red simply refers to color; white is the other main wheat color. And the final distinction is the spring/winter. Winter wheat you plant the previous fall (here, after Sep. 15th, but before November) and it overwinters to produce the following summer. Spring wheat you plant in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. 
I planted the Hank in the picture above on March 23rd. I planted it in rows, which allows you to weed between the rows. You can always broadcast (sprinkle by hand) the seeds, but if you have weedy ground, you'll probably want to plant it in rows instead.

The great thing about growing wheat is you don't have to water it. It can do fine all by itself through our dry summers. Apart from any weeding, it's mostly maintenance free. You may notice some orange powder forming on the leaves, which is wheat rust. If it's really bad, you have a susceptible variety, and you could likely lose yield. There's really nothing you can do to help this organically and planting rust resistant varieties is your best defense.

You can safely harvest when the upper most leaf, called the 'flag leaf' has dried out (turns yellow). The grain should crunch between your teeth when it's ready. This year, the wheat was ready in early August. A hand scythe (a.k.a. sickle) works great for harvesting small amounts. You can buy these online, and there are some really great Japanese grass sickles that I think work best. If you want, you can also invest in a scythe. Or if you have a couple thousand dollars, you can buy a combine - there's quite a few to be found on Craigslist.

Tie together a bundle of wheat into a 'sheaf' (plural is sheaves) with some rope or twine, and if you want, you can lean them against each other to create a shock. Here's a picture of a shock I made at the Evergreen farm this year:
"Red Chief" - an older wheat variety - soft red winter
Shocks are a way of storing grain in the field and it also allows the wheat to dry further if its still a bit green. One or two sheaves can be laid on their sides on top of the shocks to help repel rain and this protects the grain from getting wet.

Threshing is the next step and there are many ways you can do this. A good method I've found is using a burlap sack. Simply put the sheaf in the burlap sack and beat against a fence post. If you do this outside, you may get strange looks from your neighbors. You can also stomp on the sack and this will loosen the grain as well. 

Another fun method is to lie a sheaf on an old bed sheet and beat the sheaf with a piece of rope or electrical cord. You can also fold the bed sheet over the sheaf to ensure that all the grain will get captured. Have fun with this - it can be a great stress reliever.

Simply collect the grain in a bowl when you're done threshing to begin winnowing. You'll need another bowl and a fan for this. Winnowing is simple enough. Just pass the grain and "chaff" (chaff is the light fluffy material that gets threshed out with the grain) from bowl to bowl in front of a fan or if it's windy, no fan is necessary. The chaff will all blow away and eventually, you'll end up with grain, like in the photo below.
Wheat berries from the Hank in the previous picture

The next step is milling, which can obviously be a challenge if you don't have a mill. Grain mills run anywhere from $100 to upwards of $400. You can go old school and use a mortar and pestle, but that could take a while to grind a significant amount. I've heard a blender or food processor can be good at giving a rough grind of the wheat. Using the wheat whole is another option and you could use it make a pilaf or sprout it.

Remember to save seed to replant the next year. Once the harvest is over, you'll also find that in addition to grain, you know have your own homegrown straw to use for mulching or compost. I used my straw this year to successfully shield my winter carrots from a recent arctic cold blast.

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