Monday, August 26, 2013

Growing wheat in a Washington garden.

I have been grinding my own wheat flour from grain purchased at the local co-op for a year or two now and have really enjoyed the taste and texture of the flour.  Last fall I went to a local skill-share festival near my home in Ferndale, WA and talked to some of the people who were growing and threshing their own wheat.  It seemed reasonably straight forward, so this spring I tilled an extra 10x20 area in my garden, purchased 1 pound of Glenn Red Spring Wheat from Johnny's Selected Seeds, and sowed the seeds in early spring.

It came up looking a lot like the normal field grass that makes up the yard and surrounding pastures.  I weeded it a bit around the edges as time allowed, but mostly I just let it be and watched it grow.  It grew about waist high in our hot dry summer.

In the middle of August, it seemed ready to harvest.  The wheat berries were a bit crunchy, and the stalks were mostly brown with the seed heads hanging down.  My son Jovan and I set about harvesting it...I with an antique sickle I picked up some where and Jovan with some small garden clippers that he loves to use.

I used a large bucket to hold the wheat stalks while I gathered up a bundle big enough to make into a sheaf of wheat (a bundle that can just be spanned by both hands seems about right).

I picked about 5 long stalks and twised them just so to bind the sheaf.  I could not actually tie them, but just folding them back and tucking them through held well.

It took about 2 1/2 hours to cut and bind the wheat.  It would have been faster if I had fewer weeds to pick out, and in retrospect, I wish I had done an even better job of cleaning the wheat before I bound it into sheafs.  Might have been a bit faster with less garden clippers as well!

I stacked the sheafs in an old kiddie pool and the bucket and left it in the garage until the next weekend.  I think some mice were stripping some stalks each night, and I should have been more careful about keeping the heads elevated as some of the sheafs in the bottom of the kiddie pool were a bit damp by next weekend.

I had previously seen a 'bucket thresher' at the skill-share festival.  Basically, you need a strong drill, a sheet-rock mud mixing paddle and a 5 gallon bucket and lid.  I added a piece of chain to the mixing paddle, connected with some zip-ties.  Cut a hole in the bucket lid to feed the paddle through.  It took about 3 minutes to put this all together once I had the parts.

The basic idea is to cut the heads off the stalks of wheat, stuff them into the bucket, and use the drill to whack things around until the seeds separate from the chaff.  Probably around 1-2 minutes per bucket full (one sheaf).

I used a box fan and the large bucket to separate the chaff from the wheat.  The chaff is generally lighter and so it blows sideways while the denser wheat falls right down into the bucket.  I ended up with a fair amount of kernels still in their husks.  These were too heavy for the fan to blow away, but were not actually clean wheat.  I scooped off what I could each time and ran them through the thresher again when processing the next sheaf of wheat.  Even so, my end product still needs some sorting.  I plan to try threshing by hand with a flail next year, and maybe try tossing the wheat with a shallow basket instead of just pouring it through the fan's air stream to see if that yields a cleaner result.

Each sheaf of wheat yielded about 2 cups of mostly-clean wheat berries.

In the end, I spent about 4 hours threshing and had about 17 pounds of wheat to show for the effort.  To be honest, it was more wheat than I was expecting, but obviously a small part of the effort needed to feed a person for any length of time.

I found the wheat stalks to be quite interesting, especially when you spend some time thinking on what this (and other staple grains) means to the world.  And, when you spend a few hours at harvesting and threshing, you certainly have some time to be thinking as well.  Here's a small bouquet I made for a friend's harvest party.  If I grow wheat again, I think I'll make a few more of these...I imagine they should keep for quite a while.

For those who have never seen a wheat stalk, here are a few heads.  These are probably a bit above normal size, but not by much.

I carefully threshed one by hand and counted out 23 seeds.

All in all, it was a very rewarding experience.  Someday soon I'll finish cleaning the wheat, grind it up, and make some celebratory biscuits!