So, you must be thinking that we have really gone crazy, now, haven’t you? I mean, it is one thing to grow some potatoes and carrots for winter, maybe a few other things, and get the impression that you are ‘homesteading’, or ‘prepping’. But growing your own wheat? Wheat is as much of a staple as potatoes and onions. It is a storage crop for us. It isn’t that expensive, in fact it isn’t expensive at all. You get about eight times as much yield as from what you plant. Growing wheat is not any more difficult than growing grass, and we are growing less and less grass these days, and more wheat. Oh, I suppose the goats like grass, but we have a designated area for them.
When perfectly good flour is readily available at the store, and so inexpensive, why on earth, then, should you consider growing wheat? Even the good flours, the organic ones? Well, even the very best of flour commercially available lacks one important step that is so crucial to flavor: Stook-curing. Sheaves of grain, wheat in this case, are stacked in tee-pee like fashion. It takes thirty or so of these sheaves to make a stook, and this is where fermentation takes place as heat builds from within the core of the stack, a step lacking from commercial grain production. It is an important step, to us anyway, because of the quality of the flour. A quality that cannot be purchased; it has to be grown by yourself.
You can get your wheat seed from most anywhere. This year we planted ‘spring red’ wheat. In the future, possibly next year, we are planning to grow ‘winter red’, and also rye and spelt, since those other grains figure just as importantly in our diet. I admit that we are just getting our feet wet this year. I don’t want to give you the impression that we are veterans at any of the things that we write about. We are just learning as well, and sharing as we go.
We’d read that a twenty foot garden row of wheat, thirty inches wide, can yield five to seven pounds of flour. That is great! I thought. We planted a thirty foot row, but did not get as much as we had hoped. The tornado of July truly did wipe out many of our crops, and after the storm three-quarters of our wheat was lying over on its side. Next year will be better.
We planted the wheat using the Earthway seeder, planting five rows in the thirty inch swath. Germination was a little spotty, so next year I will sow tighter rows. Also next year I will lay down more mulch. This year we mulched much more than in the past, and it has payed handsome dividends. When it first germinated and began growing, the wheat looked just like grass. That makes perfect sense since wheat is a grass. (Or is grass a grain? I forget which.) I was so proud seeing it grow. This is sustainability, my friends!
Determining harvest time is a little tricky. Starting in July you really need to pay attention and monitor the grain, and testing its hardness with your fingernail. When you dent an immature grain with your thumb nail and milk comes out this is the immature stage. Come back a few days later and when milk no longer comes out it is the soft dough stage. A few more days after that and it is like hard dough. A few days more and it is like hard flint. These terms are used by our friend Will Bonsall, from whom we learned what little bit we know about growing wheat. Or perhaps I should say that he inspired us to grow it.
Anyway, getting back to the stages of hardness. When you actually grind the berries, they must be at the flint stage. But that is not the best time to harvest it. It is best to cut the wheat at the ‘hard dough’ stage, and bundle it into sheaves. The sheaves are then arranged into the before mentioned stooks, and left to ferment and cure. This grain is FAR superior to combine-harvested wheat. The invention of the grain combine in the early 1800s pretty much said goodbye to field-curing of wheat, unless you do it yourself, by hand. It may not be practical to stook-cure wheat on a commercial basis, but for the homesteader, it certainly is. The flavor resulting from this method is incomparable.
The next step is to thresh the wheat. To do this I took our sheaves and laid them on a plastic tarp and swatted it with a stick, an old tool handle, an act called flailing. In no time at all I had gotten a lot of grain. I ended up flailing about six times. You have to decide for yourself when enough is enough, but there usually is always a little more wheat left on the straw. After this you gather up the straw and set it aside. The next step is winnowing. The word winnow is somewhat derived from the word wind. There was a breeze on the day that I winnowed, so I poured the grain from one pail into another and watched as the chaff blew away. I performed this step many times. Seems like no matter how many times I winnowed there were always a few hulls left on some grain, which is no big deal.
Storing your grain is best done in a plastic pail with a tight fitting lid. Store it out of the way in a dry cool location until you are ready to grind some flour. It is really just that simple. The hand grinder we use is readily available and cost just over a hundred dollars.
What better way to spend a nice quiet afternoon this fall or winter, grinding your own flour from grain that you grew yourself!