Wheat, a journey of pride

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Yesterday, I ground wheat berries from our own harvest! My family and I have been experimenting with the highs and lows of growing our own supply of hard red winter wheat. This is our second harvest.

We’re not farmers by any means, just a family on a journey to self-reliance with a passion for food that is homegrown and natural. We went into this knowing the labor and agreeing that we were not going to invest any money in fancy equipment. We’ve made many mistakes and learned from each one. Our original 1/32 acre plot has since grown to a whopping 1/8th of an acre (and switched locations to allow the original plot to rest). I sometimes wonder if it’s worth all the labor, the trial and error, when I can order a 50 lb. bag of hard red wheat berries online for a very reasonable price.

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hard red winter wheat berries, harvested late summer 2015

It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it in my opinion. To grow something, to await the wonder of germination from something in stasis and ostensibly barren of life, never ceases to amaze me. After planting our winter wheat in late September, days later we witness a carpet of vivid green. It grows for a bit, and then it stops with the arrival of the short winter days. Winter wheat needs this cold period, and in the spring it takes off again, this time continuing its journey upward to becoming a mature plant with offspring of its own. We watch the stalks turn golden and the heads start to bend sideways, an indication that the seeds are ready for harvest. Then the real work begins (the labor that makes me doubt this endeavor sometimes!). We harvest, we thresh, we winnow. And then we have something amazing — pride in our work, a sense of accomplishment. Oh, and of course bushels and bushels of nutritious wheat!

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weighing the freshly ground flour to make bread dough

We haven’t purchased store bread in almost six years, except occasionally while I was pregnant with my now four-year-old daughter, when the smell of yeast made me even more sick than I was in general during those months. We’ve been grinding our wheat for the past two years, but this is the first year I will be baking extensively with my own homegrown wheat. The first year yielded little more than enough to save for seed the following year. We’ve been gradually building a supply of heirloom seed over the past two years, and this year there is surplus!

For many this journey may not be worth it, but I enjoy a challenge and I enjoy hard work.

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stretching & folding the dough before a second rise

We’ve always kept a big garden that provides fresh vegetables throughout the summer and enough surplus to put by for leaner months. Growing wheat has been something my husband and I have always talked about. I love the sense of accomplishment of working the land and producing food myself. It’s one of the few things that always makes sense to me.

There’s nothing more satisfying than the smell of baking bread. And there’s nothing harder than waiting for freshly baked bread to cool enough so everyone can enjoy that first warm slice with butter!

 

[edit: after posting this on Facebook, a friend commented with a link to this very interesting article, called Bread is Broken. It seemed appropriate to post it here as well!]

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four 13″ loaves, baked in un-lidded pullman pans.

 

Here’s to You, Little Red Hen

I’m so busy right now with a wide selection of seemingly random affairs–things related to gardening, harvesting, homeschooling, book editing, education advocacy, as well as other small tasks. The last thing I should be doing is writing a blog post. But here I go, putting it all aside to tell you that I just ate the most delicious slice of bread, freshly baked and still warm from the oven. This isn’t just any slice of bread. This is bread from the flour of hard red spring wheat that my family grew, harvested, threshed, and ground ourselves! The feeling I have is satisfying. No, it’s exhilarating!

from plant to wheat berries to ground flour

from plant to wheat berries to ground flour

Growing small grains has been on our to-do list for some time. We bake all our own bread, and have for the past four or five years. For about a year, we’ve been buying whole wheat berries and grinding our own flour. My gift for Christmas was a Nutrimill. I gave my husband five pounds each of hard red spring wheat seed and hard red winter wheat seed, to start our first plots of each.

Spring wheat means you plant it in the spring and it is ready for harvest by the end of the summer, and that’s what we started with. This was a trial plot (we didn’t even know if it would grow here!), and it was filled with some success (I’m eating bread, aren’t I?) and a lot of failures. Not knowing if growing wheat would suit us long term and our plot too small to necessitate special equipment, we decided to broadcast the seed and rake it in, one method recommended for small scale grain growers. Keep in mind, we’d never done this before and were really experimenting, learning through the entire process. I calculated the viability rate of the seed and took into account average loss, and we prepared a plot just the right size for five pounds of seed. We made two mistakes: First, I don’t think we seeded the plot densely enough; and second, I don’t think we raked it in deep enough. As a result, when the wheat finally germinated and began to grow, we noticed right away that our wheat field was a bit on the sparse side. Because of this, weeds had plenty of space to grow up around the wheat. I tried to weed in the beginning, but it quickly became apparent that come harvest time, we would be searching for our wheat amongst the towering undesirables–so much for our dreams of casually scything down large swaths of golden wheat swaying gently in the breeze.

Harvesting the weed infested field was a nightmare and a challenge, but one my husband luckily took on whole-heartedly. Pushing aside the weeds, we (mostly he) located the wheat and harvested it. We found the easiest way in our situation was to cut off the wheat just under the heads. Painstakingly, we did this while imagining that our neighboring farmers were watching from their barn, laughing all the while.

Our next challenge was to remove the wheat berries from the seed head and separate them from the surrounding chaff. We anticipated that this task would be yet another obstacle that would put another check mark on the side of harvesting your own wheat is not worth it. But it turned out to be quite easy! The chaff came right off with just a little friction or beating. Then my husband devised a DIY wheat threshing system based on something he found online: a bucket with a bearing attached to a rod that ran down through the center of the lid.  Attached to the rod were several lengths of chain. Using a drill attached to the visible end of the rod, the rod turned threshing the wheat inside the bucket with the chains. It was brilliant. The wheat berries were free. Farmers of old used to separate their just threshed wheat berries from its chaff by tossing it in the air on a windy day.  The heavy wheat berries would fall back down while the light chaff would blow away. We replicated this with a box fan and shortened the job drastically.

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Today, I ground several pounds of our spring wheat and baked my first bread with it. The Little Red Hen would be very proud of me, but unlike her, I had help. I couldn’t have done this without my husband’s support (especially the back breaking kind) and his own excitement to see this project through. Furthermore, even the kids are proud to have produced. My 6 1/2 year old son and my almost 3 year old daughter helped harvest the wheat and took it upon themselves to thresh their own small supply of wheat berries (These have become very sacred and I am not yet allowed to grind them–maybe we’ll save those for seed next year!). My reward from the hard work and dedication it takes to produce what society normally takes for granted as something packaged at the end of a processing line is knowing that my food is safe, natural, nutritious, and sustainable. More importantly, my entire family has a connection to their food, a characteristic that I feel will one day benefit my children greatly as the world continues to change. When I asked my children, “who wants a slice of freshly baked bread made from our wheat that we grew?” They responded with a immediate and exuberant “Me, me, me!”

risen loaves, just before being popped into the oven

risen loaves, just before being popped into the oven

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Just out of the oven

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loaves cooling

I’d say the success outweighs the failure. Learning from one’s mistakes is an important part of improvement. Our real goal is to grow hard red winter wheat, which is sown in the early fall to begin growing. It requires a cold period as part of its growing cycle, and in the spring will continue to grow to be harvested at the end of summer. Because of its longer growing period, winter wheat tends to produce higher yields than spring wheat; and the gluten content of hard red winter wheat is the highest of all wheats (spring v. winter, soft v. hard), which is ideal for bread baking. We have already seeded a small plot of winter wheat, this time sowing the seeds more densely. We did a better job raking them in as well. We intend to seed a second small plot in a few weeks to compare the different sowing times. Growing winter wheat will again be an experiment (will it overwinter alright?), but we have learned much and are confident that the process the second time around will be much easier. That will be a post in another year’s time.