Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Growing Your Own Wheat for Baking

       The blog  I posted earlier today on baking bread from wheat I grew has resulted in more questions than I feel comfortable answering through Comments.  Tina's questions sent me searching for my husband's book Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon. 
       The wheat I grew wasn't planted neatly in a specified plot.  It volunteered where the tomatoes were planted last year and mulched with straw.  I haven't finished separating the grain yet.  So far I've gotten only the three cups I needed for the bread I baked yesterday.  I expect at least another six cups, hopefully a lot more.
Wheat waiting to be threshed and about three cups ready to grind.
       According to Logsdon's book, you can expect a bushel of wheat from a 10x109 plot.  A bushel is 60 pounds and will give you about fifty one-pound loaves of bread, using little or no purchased white flour.  He advises preparing the seedbed with a rotary tiller, raking, broadcasting the seed, then raking it lightly to cover the seeds.  Using a cultipacker to cover the seeds and give good seed-soil contact will improve germination.  He talks about planting 2 bushels per acre.  The suggested plot size is 1/40 of a bushel, so that's 1/20 of 60 pounds, or three pounds of seed.
        When to plant might be your biggest concern regarding wheat.  Around here we plant winter wheat in the fall after the Hessian fly is no longer active.  Logsdon says this is usually around mid-September.  He also says it's better to plant the wheat later rather than earlier.  If the weather is too warm for too long, the wheat may grow so much in the fall that the cold will kill it.  An October planting may work for you, depending where you are.
       Logsdon claims that there isn't much to do to care for the crop.  I certainly didn't do much for mine.  I think I pulled a few of the more obnoxious weeds. 
       The next step would be to check if your wheat is ripe.  Pick a few seed heads, rub them vigorously between you palms, blow away the chaff, and chew a few grains.  If it's chewy, it's not ripe.  You want it crunchy.  My husband questioned my grains' ripeness after I'd already threshed some.  He said it nearly broke his teeth. 
       Because my "plot" was so small, I used scissors to cut it.  You may want to use a scythe.  If you don't get the wheat out of the field in a timely manner, you will loose it to wildlife, especially birds.  Again, because my plot was so small, I could cover the whole area with a floating row cover when I noticed the birds were zeroing in on my crop.  I wasn't even sure at that point if it would be worth the effort of harvesting.  But eventually, I cut it and brought it onto the porch to dry further on a drying rack.  For larger harvests you may want to bundle the wheat in the field, tying double handfuls (or what's comfortable to you) with twine and stacking them together like you see in old paintings.  I wouldn't leave them unprotected in the garden though.
       To thresh the harvest, Logsdon recommends spreading an old sheet on a hard surface, placing a bundle of your harvest on it, and beating it to death with a broom handle, plastic bat, or some other suitable club.  He says you don't really have to hit hard as the grain will shatter fairly easily onto the sheet.  You won't get every kernel this way, but it's a lot faster than rubbing the seed heads between your hands like I've done.  Take advantage of a windy day or a fan to blow away the chaff and straw.  Pour the harvest from container to container several times until you're satisfied with the level of cleanliness.  Logsdon says not to worry about eliminating every bit of hull; it all grinds up nicely and only adds to the fiber content, he says.  Personally, I hand pick the grain until it's clean.
       We bought a manual grain grinder but we're not happy with it.  It took hours to grind enough flour for a few loaves.  My Vita Mix is quick and gives a fine enough flour for baking, but I'd be interested in hearing about something that's reasonably quick and doesn't take electricity.
       Thanks you, Tina, for you interest and your questions.  I love questions.  They push me to dig deeper and learn more.  Have you tried grinding corn?  I have a really terrific old family recipe for Johnnie Cake.

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