In 1986, I had a field of golden wheat in my backyard. The field was 20' and 20' and my backyard was in suburban Clarksville, Tennessee. The former mistress of the modest ranch house had a big garden in the back yard. The first summer, I rented a rototiller and tilled up the lot. Then, contemplating the expanse of bare black earth, it dawned on me that she was a stay at home mother with two school aged kids. I had demanding work, a long commute and a baby. So, instead of recreating the big row garden, I put twelve 4' by 4' raised beds on half the garden. Even that proved to be too much food for my small family and I planted strawberries in two of the raised beds. The other half sat empty, invaded by grass, the rich soil pounded by that ferocious stuff the locals call rain. A year later, I resolved to put in a cover crop of rye. I hadn't planted rye yet, so I didn't know what a disaster it is in small gardens.
So on the way home from work, I drove into downtown and stopped at the grain elevator. Clarksville was like that, back in the day. The guy at the grain elevator explained to me that they don't grow rye or oats in Tennessee, because it doesn't get cold in the fall early enough to interrupt the life cycle of the leafhopper. What they grow in Tennessee is soft red winter wheat. All of a sudden, Southern cooking made sense. All those biscuits and pies made from low protein soft wheat. No oatmeal, no rye bread. Yeast breads made from imported hard spring wheat an expensive treat, and hence a plate of puffy Parkerhouse rolls on the table something to act a bit snooty about and the plate of biscuits a sign of cultural authenticity.
The guy at the grain elevator loaded four pounds of red wheat into a grain sack and stitched it up with his industrial sewing machine. I split it with my gardening buddy and got ready to plant in September.
Wheat goes in easily by hand. I just dug up the grass incursion, broadcast the seed and raked it in. From what Dr. Steve Jones from the Mt. Vernon research station told us, I could have gotten a better yield by making furrows an inch deep and six inches apart, planting the seeds a half inch apart, pulling the soil over the seeds, and then walking on them to press them in.
My wheat field grew well through the fall, was buried by snow several times, and took off in spring. By then, I had abandoned the idea of digging it under as a cover crop and just wanted to harvest the wheat. We already had enough vegetables from the raised beds; I didn't need more garden.
I bought an old sickle at a farm antique store and had it sharpened. Sharpening transformed it from a piece of nostalgic kitsch into a lethal, gleaming crescent. I read up on small scale grain raising and found out that for hand harvesting, you want to get the grain when there are still streaks of green in the stems. For machine harvesting, you want the stems fully golden.
One fine summer day, I went out with the sickle and started harvesting wheat. I had no clue what I was doing, and it was hard going. I have since learned that a serrated Japanese hand scythe is easier to use than the European sickle. Walter Haugen let me use his to harvest some barley at FA Farm last fall, and it was much easier.
I didn't know how to find the rhythm of swinging the sickle, either. If you try this at home, I suggest getting a lesson first. The old wood of the handle broke (your crafty gardener puts new handles on old tools), and I put it back together with duct tape. My elbow tired from the unfamiliar work and I switched to pruning clippers. I still use clippers to harvest small patches of oats in the garden, but for any larger amount of grain, the small muscles in the hand tire quickly. (I tried my pruning clippers at Walter's first, because I was afraid of the hand scythe. Noop, I don't advise that.) Brian Kerkvliet ran a couple of classes last year on using the full size scythe for harvesting. You might try that if you have a lot of grain, say a tenth of an acre.
However, I got all 400 square feet of wheat harvested, and it made an impressive amount. I bundled it into rough sheaves and put them on the floor of the garage to finish drying. Your average suburban ranch house doesn't come with a sheaf house to shelter the grain while it hangs to dry, a definite lack.
The following weekend, I put a tarp on the concrete patio and started threshing with a broken broom handle.
It was ruddy hard going, that's what it was. I tried walking on the heads with bare feet to loosen the grains. I beat the stalks with the broom handle. Then I tried cutting off the heads with the pruning clippers, putting them into a pillow case and smacking it around. That worked the best. (Walter showed me a similar method of threshing barley in a grain sack by hip hop dancing on it.) After a while, I had a few pounds of grain and a large pile of unthreshed wheat stalks left. Remember, I bought commodity seed wheat, bred to resist shattering in the field and be threshed out by machine. Heritage wheats are not so tightly bound to the head.
I winnowed the wheat by throwing it up in the air on the patio, with the tarp spread out to catch whatever I missed with the bowl. Finding a breeze in midsummer in Clarksville is a challenge.
I still remember standing at the picnic table, running my hands through about three pounds of cleaned wheat in a paper bag, just delighted and also sobered by the amount of unthreshed wheat still sitting in the garage.
The modern solution to threshing a small amount of grain is to run it through a chipper shredder. Or you could try home made numchuks instead of beating it with a broom handle.
A lot of my grains were shriveled. According to Laura Ingalls Wilder, shriveled grains result from harvesting too early, before the wheat has completely filled the head. In my case, it was probably from a long dry spell at just the wrong moment as the wheat was developing. If I had had a clue, I could have put a sprinkler on the wheat. As it was, I had dryland wheat, grown with only Tennessee's abundant but sporadic rainfall. I also should have fed the soil before planting, for a better yield. I just planted into the old garden, with no soil amendments at all.
Gene Lodgson's book on small scale grain raising raising has good information for the micro farmer. The Backyard Homestead has a once over summary.
Commercial wheat yields 1 to over 3 tons per acre. Heritage wheats yield on the low end of that. An official bushel of wheat is 60 pounds. Heritage wheats are expected to yield 20 bushels an acre and modern wheat 60 -100 bushels an acre. One acre is 43,560 square feet. A little arithmetic reveals that a 1000 square foot wheat field, that's 33 feet on a side, can be expected to yield at least 46 pounds of clean grain. Put another way, that's 40 loaves of bread. A lot of people are mowing lawns that are far larger than that. My 400 square feet of unirrigated wheat should have yielded 18 - 50 pounds of grain, threshed. I can't say how much I actually got, because I traded that big pile of unthreshed wheat to my friend with the dairy goats, for a pickup load of goat poop for my vegetables.
I still had the paper sack of cleaned wheat and there I ran into another problem: how to grind the stuff into flour? Peasants the world over soak the grain and cook it into porridge instead of grinding it up. I soaked it (an opportunity to skin off more bits of chaff), cooked it and incorporated it into bread made with store bought flour. The resulting sturdy loaves were delicious, a homemade wheatberry. Later, I bought a KitchenAid stand mixer with a power take off and all sorts of nifty attachments. One of them grinds grain, although not that much and not that fast. My friend Darene Maxwell did a bunch of research and concluded that the L'Equip brand of electric home grain mill is the one to get, and it's only $139.
After the wheat was harvested, I planted a patchwork of different kinds of dry beans, soy beans and peanuts in the wheat field. It was already too late and they didn't do much. The idea was right, planting legumes to follow grain, but the timing was wrong. I should have planted fall field peas or a cover crop of vetch.
We left Clarksville the next summer. I still remember my daughter as a preschooler, heading out determinedly to pick her own strawberries, against the background of my wheat field.
For more about local wheat, and sourdough and commercial yeast bread recipes, check out the earlier post, "Slow Bread".