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.