Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Part II: Harvesting and Propagating Wheat

 

Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing
 

[Part I of this article, covering types of wheat, weed control and planting, appeared in the March-May 2010 MOF&G]

By Will Bonsall

The last time I wrote about home-scale wheat growing, I referred in passing to other crops occupying the same ground at the same time. Let’s go there first.

I’m referring of course to companion planting, a common practice with more progressive gardeners, who find that intercropping peas with carrots, scallions with cabbage, or pole beans with sunflowers can yield much more food than planting each crop separately on the same total space. Why not apply the same principle to grains?

In fact, some special problems rule out many possibilities: timing, competition, accessibility, mode of harvest; but these need not rule out any and all possibilities. One partner crop that has great potential is field peas, the kind you use for split pea soup, among other dishes.

Indeed, farmers in India have long combined these two crops with several others in an intricate system that has some food coming from the wheat fields at nearly every season. But companion planting with grains is not a haphazard business. Centuries of experience have taught these folks how to plant the right variety of peas with the right variety of wheat at the correct time and at the proper density to reap maximum benefits. It’s not child’s play, but it certainly can be worth the extra effort.

I’ve trialed several wheat-pea combinations and still don't have clear conclusions about what works best. My tentative preference is for planting the peas immediately after the wheat (using the appropriate feed-plate), seeding every OTHER wheat row with peas and spacing the peas at two or three seeds per foot within the row by taping over some of the holes in the plate made for peas. If sown much denser, the pea vines may encourage the wheat to lodge, pulling down the whole crop.

The pea variety must mature along with the wheat. Earlier, and the pea pods may shatter and be lost at harvest; later, and the vines will still be green at harvest and will mold in the shock. (We’ll get to that.)

These then are the two big challenges: timing and spacing. I am trialing many dozens of field pea and spring wheat varieties for convivial pairs.

Harvest

Whether or not you companion another crop with wheat, you need to know when the grain is ready to harvest. Once the heads form, you must watch the development of the maturing seed, which goes through four stages: the “milk” stage (think corn-on-the-cob), when the kernel can be squished like a bug with your thumbnail; the “soft dough” stage, when the kernel can be squished but is not milky; the “hard dough” stage, when the thumbnail can dent the kernel with some pressure; and lastly the “flint” stage, when the kernel is brittle-hard, as you would grind it for flour.

Here’s the hitch: Even though the flint stage is how you store and use wheat, for best quality the crop should be reaped at the hard dough stage. Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it.

When the wheat is mostly at the hard dough stage and the straw is still at least one-third green, you should begin to cut it. Lacking a scythe with a grain cradle, I use a grain sickle. They’re not easy to come by; I bought mine years ago for 25 cents at a barn sale. Today you might find one at an antique shop for $25 if you’re lucky. We’re not talking about the sort of thing you found in hardware stores before the advent of string trimmers. A proper grain sickle has a very long sweeping curve (think Soviet flag here) and a better temper than most of us. Although these are hard to find, an Oriental-style tool called a ginsu knife is readily available (from, for example, Willamette Exporting Inc., 7330 SW 86th Ave., Portland, OR 97223, phone 503-246-2671. Cat. #117, pkt. of 10 for $69.50).

Properly equipped, I start at one end of my grain patch, grabbing fistfuls of plants at the top with my left hand and slicing the stems off near the ground with the sickle in my right. I do not SWING the sickle the way one hacks at weeds with the modern sickle. That’s a great way to slash your knuckles or snap a blade. Rather I slide the long curved blade behind the stems and deftly pull it upward toward me with a sidewise slicing motion.

I lay this fistful down on the stubble and cut more fistfuls in the same manner, piling each bunch on top of the others until I have as much as I can wrap both hands around. I leave this lying and move on until the whole patch is cut and laid in such piles.

Then I go back and “bind” them all. I could use twine, but it is oh-so-much-more “organic” to use the straw itself. I pick out one of the greener plants and use my thumbnail to press the stem into a flat ribbon. Wrapping this supple straw twice around the bundle, I tie it in a snug knot, but not so tight that it breaks. Of course, if you have intercropped with field peas, you will have nearly mature pea vines with pods mixed in with the sheaves, which is why it is so important that their maturities are similar.

When all the bundles have been bound into such “sheaves,” I form them into a shock, or ”stook.” To do this, I lean two sheaves together and hold them upright while I (or a helper) lean two more sheaves together in the other direction. Then two more, and so forth, until I have a whole stook of perhaps 30 or 40 sheaves. The wheat will be left in this stook for several days until it is “cured,” meaning the wheat that was cut in the hard dough stage will ripen to the flint stage while severed from the roots. This is very desirable because when the grain is cut at the flint stage, the bran is much coarser than if it cures after being cut. Also the digestibility and overall baking quality are improved.

What about all the wheat in the world that is harvested by combines? Obviously this is all cut and cleaned in the flint stage, not cured in labor intensive stooks. Therefore it is relatively “trashy” and indigestible compared with the stook-cured wheat, which means that the very best whole wheat flour you can buy off your co-op shelf is quite inferior to what you can grow yourself. Big surprise – organic gardeners expect that anyway.

Of course if you’re roller milling your grain and sifting it to make white flour, then you’re removing the bran and germ anyway, but if you prefer less-refined food, yet still want nicer-textured bread, then stook cured is the way to go. However don’t look for it anywhere but in your own garden or fields.

Grain that is curing in the stook is vulnerable to rain, birds and mice, so don’t leave it in the field longer than necessary. A shower or two will do little harm, as the stacking arrangement should let the grain dry out quickly, but a prolonged wet spell (unlikely at that season) may cause the grain to sprout or mold. For a few stooks, you might simply cover them with a small plastic tarp, or bring the sheaves inside if you have room.

To remove the grain from the straw, I spread it on a tarp on the barn floor (or on a hard-packed area outside) and slash all the binding straws with a quick flick of the sickle. For threshing I use a flail, which I made from an old shovel handle and a 2-foot length of 2-inch hardwood dowel. I make my own “swingle,” as it’s called, from an oak or ash square, but I suppose you could just as well use a straight length of round limb with any knots smoothed off.

Into each piece (the swingle and the handle) I drill a 1/4-inch hole about an inch from the end, tapering the opening carefully to remove any roughness. Then tie them together with a loose loop of thong (I use braided sisal binder twine, but I must watch it for wear) so that the swingle can swing freely.

Next I attack the loose heap of straw and grain with the flail. Swinging the flail overhead, axe-like with macho fury, is counterproductive. You will tire quickly (oh yes you will), and if threshing indoors, the swingle will bounce off the overhead and brain you. A firm-but-gentler swing from the side, using your wrist more than your back in an almost continuous sweeping arc, is far safer and more efficient.

While swinging thus, I sidle around the heap until every exposed part has been assailed. (Any resemblance to martial arts paraphernalia is NOT a coincidence.) When you think you’ve been thorough, turn the heap over with a hayfork and see all the unscathed wheat underneath. Thresh it further until you’re satisfied that all the wheat has been broken loose. (It hasn’t, but at some point you have to call it good.) Then fork off the empty straw, shaking it to sift out any loose grain. Toss it aside to use for mulch, compost, bedding, etc.

Now you have a much reduced pile of grain, some of it with hulls still attached, and whole heads and bits of broken straw mixed in. If you have one of those old wooden hand-crank bean winnowing machines found around so many Maine farms, that will clean the crop nicely. Lacking that, simply take a 5-gallon bucket and a clean trash can and pour the grain from one to the other in a steady breeze, repeating that until all the light chaffy stuff has blown away. There will still be some whole or broken heads with grain in them. I sort these out through a 1/4-inch screen and re-thresh those in my hands before re-winnowing them.

If you intercropped field peas with wheat, your cleaned wheat will of course end up with the peas scattered through it. At this point, you can simply screen out the peas for soup or whatever, although I’m told that farmers in India grind the wheat along with the pea “impurities,” making for chapatis with a better protein balance.

Varieties

Those few garden seed companies that offer field crop seeds such as wheat are selling varieties that are available through mainstream sources. (Some people still believe their seeds are grown by the company that sold them.) This usually means they are bred for and adapted to the prairie soils of the Midwest, which have a markedly different structure and chemistry than our Northeastern forest ecosystem soils, and varieties that do best in one region are typically less suited to the other.

Many of the old red spring wheats that were once grown in northern New England are now gone, although there is an effort to bring some of them (such as Banner, Marquis and Red Fife) back into availability. I have also found that many of the old wheats from northern Britain and the Baltic region are particularly well adapted here. For example, an Estonian winter wheat called Sirvinta performs excellently under my conditions. Unfortunately it is currently out of stock, but I’m trying to become a source for it again.

Our government maintains many thousands of grain varieties, freely available to those who know what they want and are willing to propagate their own seedstock from a small initial sample. (See www.ars-grin.gov/npgs.) The small grains collection in particular is maintained at Aberdeen, Idaho.

Once you have identified and located one or more wheat varieties that work best for you, they will likely not be available on the general market, and your original source was a once-only source (as described above) that assumed you would further propagate and maintain your own seedstock. That is not particularly difficult, especially since wheats are highly self-pollinating, which means you can grow two or more varieties in close proximity without risk of their crossing and becoming useless. (This is also the case with oats and barleys, but not ryes.)

Start small with a row or two to propagate your own seed and make all your mistakes before expanding to a larger patch. For I predict that when you taste your first slice of fresh-grown, stook-cured, hand-threshed whole wheat bread, you will indeed want to expand your patch.

About the author: Will Bonsall lives in Industry, Maine, where he directs Scatterseed Project, a seed saving enterprise. His extensive, bountiful and beautiful gardens are open for tours two days each summer.