Saturday, June 8, 2013

Planting and Harvesting Wheat by Hand

One of the new things we tried on the farm this year was growing a small patch of wheat. Although we're not thinking of becoming wheat farmers, I thought it would be interesting to try to grow a grain since they are such a staple in our diet. I'm sharing our process here because I found very little information available about wheat growing on a garden-scale. My disclaimer is that this is our first time growing wheat, so we are definitely not experts on the subject.

We are in USDA zone 9b, and we planted the wheat in October. It's Hard Red Winter Wheat, one of the most common varieties. We planted an area of about 240 square feet. To plant the wheat, we just made furrows with a hoe, sprinkled the seed in and then used the hoe to cover it with soil. We irrigated it with sprinklers until the winter rains came. It was extremely easy to grow and basically looked like grass throughout the winter and early spring. It started making heads in early May.
Heads filling out in mid-May

Next came the critical step of figuring out when to harvest it. Based on what I've read and an introductory workshop at Pie Ranch, I determined that the wheat should be all brown, and the kernels should not be chewy anymore. However, you don't want to wait so long that the plants drop their seed. We began the harvest on May 31st.

Since this is just a small experimental patch, I didn't want to buy any special tools or equipment for harvesting. We ended up using a serrated knife and pruning shears. I think the knife was probably more efficient. We grabbed each handful of wheat near the base and cut through the stalks with the knife. I found that it's easier to start with small bundles, about 3-4 inches in diameter. While holding the bundle in my left hand, I would use my right hand to tie it together. I found the most efficient thing to do was  use a stalk of the wheat to tie it. I would just bend the stalk about halfway up, wrap it tightly around the bundle (twice if possible) and then tuck the end into the wrapped part to secure it in place. Each of these bundles is called a sheaf.

Using a wheat stalk to bind the sheaf
Harvesting a sheaf
 We collected the sheaves in a big box, and when it was full, we brought the sheaves to an open place in the yard and stacked them together into "shocks." Each shock consisted of about 15 sheaves of wheat leaning together, with the seed heads up, so as to hold each other up. The best way I found to do this was to choose four of the larger sheaves and carefully lean them together to form the base. The key is to gently squeeze the heads together, so they tangle up and hold onto each other. Then I just keep adding additional sheaves in sets of two on opposite sides. Finally, I covered the top of the shock with a piece of row cover/remay (cheesecloth would work too). It's not as pretty with the cover, but it'll keep the birds off.
Bringing in the sheaves!
Now we'll wait until the wheat is completely dry, and then we'll begin the process of threshing and winnowing, which will separate the wheat grains from the chaff. To be continued....
Some of the sheaves shown here are covered and some not


Anonymous said...

I know this is a few years late, but how much seed did you sow to cover the 240 sq ft of wheat?

Michelle and Gal said...

I don't have the exact figure in our records, but probably about 2-3 lbs. of seed for 240 sq ft. Our yield was approximately 20 lbs.