08 September 2009

Harvesting grains

September heralds a harvest of a different nature, with a quickened pace to match the flurry of spring planting. These two peaks of activity bookend summer's intermittent dance of advancing green, and dashing retreats from humid heat and biting insects. Summer's vegetable harvest are gathered gradually, in a steady sequence of ripeness, and the pantry fills in dribs and drabs. September wakes us from summer's never-ending dream, and reminds us that time is again short. The garden seems to remember snow and frozen ground, rushing for the finish line of ripened seed, and we scurry like squirrels to gather it all in, and store it safely away.

Nothing connects me more to my human inheritance than the grain harvest. The hard red spring wheat, our staple grain crop providing a year's worth of breads, pastas, crackers, cakes and cookies, was ready to harvest this last weekend. The tasseled heads rustle dryly in the wind, no green remains in the crop, the kernels thresh out easily between the palms of our hands, and the plump golden kernels are firm, not crunchy, but hard with a starchy gum-like center. We harvest our grains by hand, in the manner of peasants over 5 Milena. It is the very meaning of simplicity, and it connects us, in solidarity, to the millions of subsistence farmers around the world who are, I pray, likewise in their fields, gathering, threshing and winnowing their staple grain crops.

We experimented with a few hand harvesting techniques last year, and have come to settle on crude but effective, inexpensive kitchen knives as tools. Gathering a handful of stems, we cut the stalks near the heads, therefore bringing very little stalk into the storage bin. This reduces the amount of space needed to store the heads until we can thresh it all, and it also makes the threshing process easier, with less stalk to clog the equipment.

On a larger, community grain scale, we have more appropriately scaled ideas for harvesting tools, including solar/electric small or two-wheeled tractors (re: link), pedal or treadle powered threshers and harvesters, or biofueled walking tractor sickle-bar mower/binder (re: Ferrari scroll down to picture #3 for a close up of the harvester) and are quite keen to bring these ideas to a receptive community in our journey West.

But for now, we find this simple and steady pace is not too arduous or time-consuming to make hand harvesting our wheat possible. Side by side, we can cover 2000 sq ft an hour, so we can bring in our 1/6th acre in six hours of work, spread out over 3-4 days. We fill large feed bags lashed to our sides, large enough so that the bottom of the bag rests on the ground, and no weight is placed on our backs. And we empty these bags into a prepared grain bin, 8' x 4' x 4'. This way, we can thresh the grains in November and December when the rest of the harvest and winter preparation has slowed down.

And the quiet, meditative pace of the work allows us to share conversation and song, and the bond of working side by side. The greatest pleasure of harvesting by hand, rather than machine, is being able to witness the buzzing, hopping life in the midst of a sea of grain. These fire-engine dragonflies were mating on the bobbing heads, sparrows and wood warblers glean insects and seeds on the ground, grasshoppers catapult away from our sweeping hands, and the sky is abuzz with late summer song.

Our cultivated grains are not the only ones ripening. While thinking about the process our ancestors went through to begin sowing and selecting wild grains for their potential food value, my eyes began to scan for the ancient wild strains of our cultivated grains. In our garden we have these foxtail grasses, ancestor to a still cultivated foxtail millet from Asia.

As well as barnyard grass, ancestor to the proso millet we are growing. Both of these millet ancestors had been attracting small sparrows to the feast.

This flowering seedhead of bindweed is ancestor to buckwheat, domesticated in southeast Asia 8000 years ago.

And this lamb's quarters seed head is close cousins with, and ancestor to quinoa, a valuable and important high-protein staple of the Inca who called it "mother of all the grains". Because of it's ceremonial use, Chrisianizing colonists forced the South American Indians to abandon this quality food for the less nutritious and water hungry corn.

Our own proso millet was ready for harvest as well. The fan-like seed heads ripen gradually, from the top down. It is ready to harvest when the tops are ripe and the bottom grains have lost most of their green. Commercially, the crop is swathed and left to ripen in the field like hay. But it is often plagued by birds and rodents while ripening, and there was some competition for my crop as well. So I cut the heads and let them cure in the house, in a dry warm spot for a week or so.

The hulless oats, originally domesticated relatively late in the Fertile Crescent beginning 3000BC, were likewise, mostly cured, but with a few remaining green-tinged heads. Since it is a small crop, and many of the head were beginning to lodge (or fall over on the ground), and the birds were beginning to pay it some attention, I harvested a week early and finished curing it indoors. The oats are easy to strip off the stalk, and with a small crop, it can be done quickly and efficiently.


hickchick said...

I am curious...how many bushels/pounds of grain do the two of you require to be self sufficient? How much is for human consumption, how much for animal feed? Thanks-I'm just trying to grasp the scale of things?

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

hickchick, this year we are aiming for about 400lbs of wheat for the kitchen... about a pound a day or three cups of flour. We use about 2 lbs of legumes a week (2 adults), so we are aiming for 100 lbs. Same for oats, about 100 lbs a year, but we didn't get that much planted. As we experiment with other crops like the millet, quinoa, etc, they will start to replace the above grains, so we would begin to grow less wheat in favor of the higher protein grains and legumes.

The animal feed is in a separate field, we grew about an acre of wheat and oats (1/2 acre each) which we harvest with scythes, and store loose in the barn. We have poor soils so we only get 1500-2000 lbs of grain an acre, which is just enough to keep a flock of 6 chickens and a few goats. We do need a lot of grain up here through the winter, especially for the chickens which is why we are going to get into ducks instead. And we also grew 2000 row feet of peas for animal feed. We just planted our saved seed, Lincoln shelling peas, in rows 1' apart, and let them grow on the ground. They produced very well, and once they were dried out we pulled up all of the vines and stowed it away in the barn. The chickens peck open the pods and eat the peas whole, the goats get right in there and eat the pod and all, they think it's a great treat. I would estimate that there's 100 lbs of peas in there, and for anyone looking at growing some of their own animal grains, I would recommend growing peas, it's a valuable source of protein, much needed by production animals, and using trellising you can get more crop per square foot than a cereal. Dried pole beans, as well as peas, can be shelled and ground in a meat grinder, grain mill, food processor etc, and make a great animal feed. I would also recommend millet, for ease of harvesting if you have limited storage space for the grain. The seed heads can be easily cut by hand, and when dry, they thresh out easily as well. Another advantage of millet is that it does not need to be milled or ground for feeding.

Hope that helps Kris. To get a good idea of your own grain consumption, try weiging out your dry grain portions before cooking (flour, whole grains, legumes, etc). And try to cook a typical meal menu that best represents your prefered basic diet, for an entire week. If your diet varies greatly from summer to winter, do it for each season. Then just multiply it out. It is very helpful to know these numbers when planning a garden.

risa said...

Now this is a useful and wonderful post -- my son wants to know, have you done barley? If so, how did that differ from the wheat and oats for you?

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

risa, thanks! We have grown feed barley, but find that it is a very hard kernel, even when cracked, the chickens avoid it, and the ruminants or pigs pass it straight through, so we no longer grow it for feed. But we do enjoy some barley in the household, and for that, we would choose a Hulless Barley variety. The regular hulled common barley has a hull that is just about super-glued on, and cannot be removed easily on the home scale. There are a few seed companies that offer hulless barley varieties. If you live in an agricultural area, you may be able to order seed through a farmer's coop, etc. Try an internet search, we've only been looking at the canadian distributors, or check out the Website called Kusa Seed Society on my "Websites" sidebar, they specialize in heirloom/ancient grains.

It may be the tough hull on common barley that makes the grain difficult for the animals to digest, so if I were to try barley again as feed, I would likewise choose a hulless barley variety.

As far as the growing conditions for barley, it is generally a shorter season crop, suited for higher elevations, which is the only reason I know of for choosing barley over wheat or oats. Commercial farmers generally grow barley as a malt (beer making) crop, as it gets a premium price, but only the highest quality crops are suited for malt, so the lower quality crops are diverted into animal feed. It requires similar soil conditions as oats and wheat, and has similar cereal diseases.

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