- Growing Wheat
- Distribution of production
- Wheat quality
- Paddock selection and Crop sequence
- Seedbed preparation
- Depth of sowing
- Seeding rate
- Seed dressings
- Crop nutrition
- Crop management
- Weed management
- Further reading
- Farming 101: Planting Wheat
- Winter wheat
- Seed and inputs
- Ready to roll
- Growing Wheat of Your Own
- Harvesting Grain
- The Best Ways to Store Wheat
- Grinding Grain
- What Does a Wheat Plant Look Like?
- Wheat Today
- Uses of Wheat
- What’s the Solution?
- How to Grow Wheat to be More Self-Sufficient
- Learning how to grow wheat is something every aspiring homesteader should do.
- Subscribe To Our Newsletter
- Homegrown Grains: The Key to Food Security — How to Grow and Make Your Own Wheat Flour
- I’m Growing Wheat This Year. And You Can Too.
Note Number: AG0548
Published: July 1996
Updated: July 2012
Wheat is the most important cereal grain in world commerce. The framework for all winter crop production in Victoria is based on the principles and practice of successful wheat farming.
This Agriculture Note gives an overview of those principles.
See the Victorian Winter Crop Summary for an up to date guide to wheat varieties and last season’s yield results. Additional information is available in other Agriculture Notes and in other publications, some of which are mentioned here.
Distribution of production
The area sown to wheat in Victoria has been increasing over the last 10 years. At the last census, 2005, it was estimated that 1.3 million hectares were sown to wheat but the department estimates for more recent seasons indicate that 1.6 million hectares has been sown each year. North west Victoria is the centre of wheat production in this State. The Mallee and Wimmera regions together account for about 75 per cent of total production.
Average production estimates have been compromised by well below average rainfall conditions in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Table 1. Estimated wheat production for Victoria 2011
Northern Country and North East
A key profitability issue for the industry is ensuring that research continues to deliver improvements in wheat quality in order to increase market share in a competitive world arena. From the farmers viewpoint, continuous yield improvement is also important.
Wheat quality encompasses the suitability of particular varieties grown in certain environments for particular end uses. Standards for harvest segregations for quality are maintained by Grain Trade Australia and are based on consumer demand.
All wheat varieties in Australia have a classification based on processing and end product quality which along with a range of physical standards contributes to a marketing standard or segregation.
Segregations which account for the majority of the Victorian harvest are Australian Hard 1 (minimum protein 13.0%), Hard 2 (minimum protein 11.5%), Australian Premium White 1 (minimum protein 10.5%) and Australian Standard White (No minimum protein). Special categories of segregations are Australian Noodle, Australian Soft 1 and Australian Feed. Varieties not meeting the specifications of these segregations will be received as Australian General Purpose.
Information on the varieties appropriate to each segregation is available from the Grain Trade Australia web site.
The high protein wheats sought by domestic millers for traditional bread products generally come from the Mallee. Deliveries which meet the receival specification are segregated as Vic Hard. Elsewhere, generally longer growing seasons give higher yields but also greater variability in wheat quality. Most of this wheat is segregated either as APW or ASW.
Feed wheats by definition are not suitable for milling, but often have the potential for high yields when compared to milling varieties.
Feed wheats are most suitable for the 600-800mm rainfall or irrigation areas. In order to realise potential yields of 5-10 tonnes/ha, these varieties must be sown early (mid-late April) in paddocks where moisture and nutrition are not limiting and the potential for waterlogging is mitigated. Other agronomic requirements are similar to those of the milling varieties.
Paddock selection and Crop sequence
Historically wheat was grown in a rotation with pastures and a period of fallow, often bare cultivated. The advent of a range of pulse and oilseed crops, favourable economic outcomes from cropping and with a deeper understanding of management of disease and fertility issues, crops are normally sown every year in the same paddock.
Rotation is now rarely used to describe cropping systems as flexibility is the key to success. Changes in crop choice can be made at sowing time based on several factors.
Pulses, oilseed crops and barley offer disease breaks for many wheat diseases and indeed differing genetic backgrounds of wheat varieties sometimes allow wheat to be sown in consecutive years. Incorporation of disease resistances into wheat has also virtually eliminated some diseases, such as cereal cyst nematode, and allowed more frequent sowing of wheat.
Wide row sowing with precision guidance techniques, where crops are sown in the gaps between the crop rows from the previous season, can also allow wheat to be sown more frequently.
Choice of paddock to sow wheat is therefore based on a range of issues. Economics, risk of production due to disease or weed pressures, herbicide options, seasonal forecasts, stored soil water and achieving a balance of risk with other crop types are some of the considerations which form choice of crop.
Fig 1: Wheat sown between the rows of stubble from a previous cereal crop.
Preparation of a seedbed to ensure good seed soil contact was an important element in successful crop establishment. Minimum and no till crop production systems have however proved that a fine tilth for a seedbed is not so critical.
Advances in equipment for minimum and no till systems has incorporated sowing implements with tynes and press wheels that create furrows. The furrow harvests water into the seed row and the press wheels ensure good seed soil contact.
Shared knowledge within farmer groups has led to many of the changes in farming systems and these groups are a good source of advice relevant to a particular district.
Timeliness of operations is a gift that farmers owe themselves. Seasonal variability always modifies a calendar decision, but whether the season breaks early or late, farmers need to be prepared. Every year there is a weather limit on the window of opportunity for sowing. Sowing requisites and equipment need to be ready to exploit that window.
A season which breaks in April is ideal because of the opportunity to use all options. Long season (winter) wheat varieties are sown first at the optimum time of mid-late April through to mid May (SW and NE Victoria), and mid season varieties follow in May/June. If the ‘break’ is later, the same principle applies except that in an extremely late season farmers would forego sowing long season wheats.
Recent experience has demonstrated the benefit of sowing a portion of the crop dry if a seasonal break has not been received by late April. These crops germinate rapidly when rain falls and generally make the best use of limited growing season rainfall.
Wheat yield and quality is an outcome determined by the genetic potential of the variety interacting with the environment. The same variety may perform differently on a different soil type and rainfall regime. In the past, few options were available and meeting the segregations available at a local silo often determined choice of wheat variety.
Farmers now have a wide choice of wheat varieties and a range of marketing options. Individual research is required to determine the best choices. Sources of information are;
- the companies which market varieties,
- National Variety Trials, an online database
- local advisers and agronomists,
- Winter Crop Summary
Virtually all wheat varieties are now covered by Plant Breeders Rights which means a royalty or fee is payable to the breeder or owner of that variety for each tonne of grain that a farmer produces. Collection point for the royalty or fee may differ between varieties and growers need to be aware of individual arrangements.
Depth of sowing
Deep sowing may delay or stifle emergence, while shallow sowing risks seed damage from herbicide uptake. The length of the first shoot (coleoptile) has a bearing on depth of sowing. If a variety is sown deeper than the natural growth extension of the coleoptile then the seedling may not emerge. Most current varieties are derived from so called semi-dwarf lines which have shorter stems and shorter coleoptiles than older varieties.
Seasonal differences in depth and availability of moisture influence decisions about depth of sowing. A sowing depth between 25mm and 50mm, depending on soil type and available moisture, is a useful guide to sensible seed placement. In moist conditions shallower may encourage faster emergence and crop establishment.
To achieve total ground cover and establish the foundation for maximum yield, a crop density of 150-200 plants per square metre is needed. This equates to a seeding rate of about 60kg/ha in lower rainfall zones (up to 400mm annual rainfall) and about 80-90kg/ha in the higher rainfall zones.
Sowing rate can be calculated by knowing the seed weight, germination percentage and the required plant density. For example: wheat seed with a seed weight of 4.5gm/100seeds, germination percentage of 95 per cent and a required plant density of 170 plants/m² = 4.5 x (10/95) x 170 = 80.5 kg/ha.
The source of seed is very important. Most farmers grow and store their own seed for use in the following year. However, when introducing a new variety or extra seed, it is sensible to source the best quality seed. If certified seed is not available, a thorough inspection for insects, weed seeds or mixed grains prior to purchase is the obvious precaution.
Seed dressings for the control of smuts and bunts should be applied to all wheat seed prior to sowing. Although major losses from these diseases are now rare, this is due to the routine use of seed treatments. Seed not treated prior to sowing may result in yield losses as high as 85 per cent. Information on seed borne diseases managed by seed dressings is available in the Agriculture Note; Bunts and Smuts of Cereals.
Some seed dressings can also suppress a selection of wind or stubble borne diseases, however some chemicals can reduce coleoptile length. For more information on this refer to the factsheet on Cereal Seed Treatments, from the PIRSA Factsheet Library. Advice on products and application rates is also available from cropping advisors or chemical resellers.
Soil tests are available to assist in the assessment of paddock nutrient status.
Adequate phosphorus is essential for the early growth of wheat. Most Victorian soils are low in available phosphorus, and much of the crop requirement will need to be supplied through the application of fertilisers at sowing time. Paddock history of phosphorus application and crop yields, in conjunction with soil test results and economics of application will determine the rates required.
The rule of thumb is a requirement for 3kg/ha of available phosphorus for each tonne of wheat anticipated. The application is then adjusted in the light of soil test results.
Table 3. Adequate soil phosphorous ranges (Colwell) for different soil types.
|Soil test reading (Colwell)||Soil type|
|20 – 30 mg/kg||sand|
|25 – 35 mg/kg||loam|
|30 – 40 mg/kg||clay|
Nitrogen availability is equally important. Besides its role in plant growth, the availability of soil nitrogen at grain fill, along with soil moisture, is the key determinant of grain protein. The farmer has a high degree of control over nitrogen build up and availability through the choice of crop sequences, use of long fallow and tillage methods. The availability of nitrogen in the soil will be affected by many factors: soil organic matter, paddock history including fallowing, soil type, moisture content, time of year and tillage methods. High yields are a drain on soil nitrogen. Conversely, low yield and summer rain to mineralise nitrogen can mobilise soil nitrogen for the next crop. Soil tests for N assessment should be done as close as possible to sowing time and at the same time each year.
Cropping advisors are a good source of support in determining fertiliser application strategies.
Fig 2: Healthy wheat heads
Crops should be monitored to gauge early crop growth: emergence, seedling density, weed population, presence of insects and disease and general crop health. All these factors impinge on the potential grain yield. Records of rainfall received and soil water to maximum rooting depth at sowing and harvest will allow the farmer to assess the WUE (water use efficiency) of the crop.
WUE = kg grain/mm effective growing season rainfall/hectare.
Wheat has a potential WUE of approximately 20kg/mm/ha. A crop reaching 80 per cent or more of its potential WUE reflects good management.
To achieve maximum potential yields, early planning for weed control is essential. Weed assessment of the paddock should commence the year prior to cropping. This will guide the farmer to choose the appropriate weed control strategy required: winter cleaning of pastures, control of grass weeds in broadleaf crops or chemical fallowing. Weeds encourage the transfer of disease and pests and use nutrients and moisture that could be converted into grain by the crop.
Once a weed problem is encountered there is a wide range of herbicide options available to control them. Not only is the immediate removal of weeds important but there is a need to avoid developing resistance to a particular herbicide or group of herbicides.
Rotation of herbicide groups is an important consideration as well as any potential residual issues for subsequent crop choices.
Consulting cropping advisors and resellers is recommended for both the choice of a tactical option to control weeds and to develop longer term weed management strategies.
An estimated 50 per cent or more of the wheat produced in Victoria is consumed locally, within the state. This is as milling wheat, stockfeed and other uses such as starch production. The rest is exported where prices are very dependent on the volatile world market.
In years of high yields a greater portion of the crop will be available for export.
Deregulation in 2008 has meant that the dynamics of the Australian Wheat Market is less certain. Growers now have four major options from which to plan a marketing strategy; sell for cash, warehouse and sell later, store on farm and sell later or pool.
Plant breeders are producing varieties which offer a range of traits, one of which is grain quality. Wheat growers are responsive to market demands and choose varieties which offer the best financial returns. It is important for growers to determine which varieties are best suited for their district and one factor in that choice is which market will that product be suitable for and will that market accept the grain produced.
- Cereal Disease Guide and a range of agriculture notes on wheat diseases
- Victorian Winter Crop Summary
- SARDI Fact Sheet: Cereal Seed Treatments, from the PIRSA Factsheet Library
- Wallwork, H (ed) (2000) Cereal Leaf and Stem Diseases GRDC, ACT.
- Wallwork, H (ed) (2000) Cereal Root and Crown Diseases GRDC, ACT.
Updated by the Wimmera Grains Team, from an agnote drafted by Margaret Hillman and Ian Smith in 1996.
Reviewed by Mary Raynes in December 2010 and reviewed by the Grains Team in July 2012.
Published and Authorised by:
Department of Environment and Primary Industries
1 Spring Street
This publication is copyright. No part may be reproduced by any process except in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1968.
The advice provided in this publication is intended as a source of information only. Always read the label before using any of the products mentioned. The State of Victoria and its employees do not guarantee that the publication is without flaw of any kind or is wholly appropriate for your particular purposes and therefore disclaims all liability for any error, loss or other consequence which may arise from you relying on any information in this publication
By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
The Role of Wheat in Worldwide Agriculture
Wheat is the principal grain used to make most breads and pastries. Grown mostly in the middle latitudes and Northern Hemisphere, annual wheat harvests are watched carefully. As the “staff of life” to multitudes, annual harvest assessments are important. As harvest time approaches, government agencies, flour, bread and pastry manufacturers, farmers and international traders need these predictions.
A host of agencies, regional, national and international, use numerous inventory techniques to estimate the annual harvest. These include random sampling of farmers’ fields, looking at the plants’ maturity, sampling a few “heads” of grain and documenting the overall quality of the fields, as well as using satellite imagery. U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies use more statistical and high tech methods for doing their own inventories. When the data from most sources are tallied, a reasonably accurate harvest prediction can be made.
Although wheat is one of the oldest cultivated grains, it is under attack for its high gluten content. Nonetheless, most of the world still demands wheat for breads, pasta and pastries, critical food sources in the diets of most societies. Gluten-free diets are recommended, however, for people with gluten allergies, a relatively newly recognized health concern.
Wheat is the most versatile of all cereal grains. Wheat grows best in middle latitude climates, but most of the world’s countries cannot produce enough to satisfy the demands of their own populations. The United States is the largest exception–the world’s largest exporter.
There are five major wheat-growing regions in the world today. The North American region extends from North Texas into the prairies of Canada, the Palouse of eastern Washington and Oregon and the Snake River Plain of Idaho. The European wheat region extends across the European subcontinent from Spain to the Ukraine. Asian wheat production is divided into three subregions, Southern Russia and the former Soviet states along Russia’s southern border, northern China and northwest India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Australia’s wheat region lies mostly to the west of the Great Dividing Range and around Perth on the west coast. Argentina’s wheat region is in the Pampas and Patagonia.
There are a few other smaller concentrations of wheat production, but they tend to be in isolated regions, such as the Nile Valley of Egypt, the Maghreb of North Africa, northwest Mexico, Middle Chile and South Africa.
Two climatic factors help determine the concentrations of wheat production worldwide. Wheat grows well in the wet-winter, dry-summer Mediterranean climates of Southern Europe, Australia, South Africa and Middle Chile. Semi-arid regions also are conducive to wheat production in the North American Great Plains, Ukraine, North China and the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan axis and Argentina.
Ninety percent of the world’s wheat exports comes from the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the states of the former Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan). The United States produces about 10 percent of the world’s wheat, but on average is responsible for 20 to 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports.
As the Chinese have become more affluent over the recent decade, China has become a major force in the world wheat market. It is not only the world’s largest wheat producing country, but China also imported 882,000 tons (800,000 metric tons) in 2010. Droughts in Australia and Russia created recent turmoil in the wheat markets a few years ago, with Russia stopping all wheat exports one year, driving the prices of bread to double in many places.
Similar situations can occur because of conflict. The current Ukraine-Russian conflict is causing turbulence in agriculture markets of Europe. Potential impacts on Ukraine wheat production and pricing are still being assessed.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) evaluation of U.S. durum wheat (high quality hard wheat) exports vary enormously, from 18 billion bushels in 2008/09 to more than 61 billion in 2007/08. Much of this variation is related to the volatility of worldwide wheat markets, often tied to variations in harvests and fluctuations in politics in other countries. All of this can increase or decrease demand for wheat imports and exports. But natural disasters and political and military crises also can have a huge short-term impact, as in the Ukraine and Middle East.
So it is imperative that annual estimates of the potential wheat harvest be accurate. The livelihoods of the many producers, traders, shippers and exporters depend on the predictability of the estimates’ accuracy.
And that is Geography in the News.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.
Farming 101: Planting Wheat
Beck calls spring wheat a “tough crop” because it keeps its growing point below the ground during early spring, which keeps it from being harmed by late spring frosts. Beck says the timing for spring wheat fits well with other spring farm work in her region of the country. A typical crop rotation for the area is two years of wheat, one of corn, and one of sunflowers, allowing for clean up weeds that are difficult to kill in wheat.
A good spring wheat stand at the southern end of spring wheat country is 1.2 to 1.4 million plants per acre. Areas to the north into Canada are planted at a slightly lesser rate, but there the growing season is longer and plants have time to develop more tillers. While not as high yielding, spring wheat grown farther south can often produce higher protein content.
“We put spring wheat through its growth stages fairly fast here,” says Beck. The wheat is harvested around the end of July, then often followed by a crop of winter wheat planted mid to late September.
In winter wheat country – from Texas to Nebraska – winter wheat is generally planted the end of September through mid-October. The southern area of this region may use wheat as pasture. If so, planting begins a few weeks earlier, according to Stewart Duncan, agronomist at the Kansas State University Northeast Area Extension Office, who recommends a seeding rate of 60 to 75 pounds per acre. Areas with more moisture may use a heavier rate and adjusted planting dates. Duncan says to be sure to check the seed size and adjust the rate accordingly.
Formerly, planting was into a prepared, fallow seedbed, but in more recent years the trend is to follow a summer crop such as soybeans, sorghum, or corn. Soil temps need to be below 80˚F. in combination with favorable soil moisture levels for proper germination and emergence.
“You want to get seed to moisture, but don’t bury it,” says Duncan. No more than 3 inches deep is a general guideline, but varies by variety and field and weather conditions. Duncan says most modern air seeders do a good job once the cross wheel is set up.
No-till seeding, drilling the seed directly into untilled crop residue, is gaining in popularity across the country. The residue protects the soil from erosion and helps maintain soil health, and wheat easily emerges.
Seed and inputs
Choosing the right variety for your soil and climate can be overwhelming with so many options. Seed companies provide detailed information, as do producer groups. Beck suggests checking universities’ seed variety trials, which offer a wealth of reliable information.
Growers in some areas of the country depend on seed treatments to help protect against disease, weeds, and pests, as well as boost yield with fertilizers. Many crop threats flourish in warmer, wetter climates, making treatments more frequently used in southern winter wheat crops than in northern fields. Beck says the dry, cold climate there makes producers question the profitability of the extra cost.
For southern producers, a good disease seed-treatment package is essential and needs to be adapted yearly to seed genetics and environmental conditions, including pest resistance to treatments.
Duncan says to select varieties that have good disease tolerance against leaf and stem rust. He urges caution if selecting a stem rust susceptible variety. Stem rust is a devastating wheat disease once thought to be eradicated or of little consequence. In recent years, several high-yielding varieties with stem rust susceptibility have been released.
He also says to make sure there is no volunteer wheat, one of winter wheat’s greatest threats, in the area. Volunteer wheat harbors the wheat curl mite, which can lead to wheat diseases such as wheat mosaic streak virus. Any volunteer wheat within 2 miles should be killed at least two weeks in advance of planting.
Some producers clean their own seed rather than buying commercial product. Great care must be taken to ensure proper cleaning and sorting. “It is essential you make sure your seed is pure and comes from a reliable source,” says Beck.
Producers planting their own seed need to have it germination tested to evaluate seed emergence, just as you need to have a soil test performed on your field prior to planting to determine what nutrients are present and what type of additives are needed. Wheat is hearty and versatile, but fertile soil is required. Winter wheat producers generally like to split nitrogen application, with half in the spring and half as a top dress later in the season. Spring wheat producers are more likely to apply all fertilizer at or before planting.
Ready to roll
Once you have the inputs lined up and have made sure your equipment is in good working order, you are ready to plant. Duncan says to make sure you have good moisture, set the drill, then begin.
He recommends not checking your progress until you have planted at least 100 feet of crop. “Don’t go by the first 50 feet,” says Duncan. “It will be better at the edge where you were going slower.” Make sure the middle of the field is satisfactory.
No matter where you farm or what you plant, safety comes first. Mother Nature often adds a sense of urgency to planting time, but hurrying is what causes mistakes and accidents.
Growing Wheat of Your Own
Cover the seed by rototilling or raking it in to a depth of 2 to 2 1⁄2 inches for winter wheat and 1 to 1 1⁄2 inches for spring wheat. For best results, roll or otherwise firm the bed to ensure good seed-soil contact.
As you admire your wheat stand, you’ll notice in midsummer (later for spring wheat) that the color of the stalks turns from green to yellow or brown. The heads, heavy with grain, tip toward the earth. This means it’s time to test the grain. Choose a head, pick out a few grains, and pop them into your mouth. If they are soft and doughy, the grain is not yet ready. Keep testing. One day the grains will be firm and crunchy, and it will be time to harvest.
At harvest, how should you cut the wheat? If you have a small enough plot, you’ll just snip the heads of wheat off the stems. It goes quickly if your wheat field is no larger than about 6 feet wide by 25 feet long.
Using a scythe. If you like the old-time way of doing things and are going to harvest a larger amount of grain, you might use a scythe and cradle. The cradle is a series of long wooden fingers mounted above the scythe blade. The scythe cuts the wheat, and then the cradle carries the cut wheat to the end of each swing and deposits it in a neat pile, stacked with all the heads grouped together. You could cut with the scythe alone, but you would spend a lot of time picking up the cut wheat and arranging it for easier handling.
Harvesting with a sickle. Another possible tool for cutting small amounts of grain is the sickle. It’s a matter of grab and cut, grab and cut. Hold a handful of wheat in your left hand and swing the sickle with your right to cut the plants at nearly ground level. It’s possible to kneel or crouch in various positions to avoid getting too tired. As you cut handfuls, lay them in small piles with all the heads pointed in the same direction.
Binding sheaves. The next step is to bind the grain into sheaves, each about 12 to 14 inches in circumference — a bunch you can hold comfortably in your hands. Bind the same day you cut the wheat. It’s nice to have two people taking turns cutting and binding. You can bind with cord or baler’s twine or even with some of the wheat stems, twisting them in a way that holds the bundle firm.
Curing the grain. Stack sheaves upright in a well-ventilated, dry location safe from grain-eating animals. Our ancestors stacked sheaves to make shocks in the field, but with small quantities, it’s easy to bring the sheaves in out of the weather. The grain has been cured when it is hard, shatters easily, and cannot be dented with your thumbnail.
Threshing. Now it’s time to thresh the grain — to separate the straw and chaff from it. You can go about this in any number of ways. One method is flailing. A flail consists of one piece of wood about 3 feet long — the handle — attached with a leather thong to a shorter piece about 2 feet long. The shorter piece is flung at the heads of grain repeatedly, shattering a few heads each time. If you are using this method, you can expect to produce about 3 pounds of wheat in 20 to 25 minutes. That’s slow work. Also, there’s a trick to learning to swing the tail without rapping yourself on the head.
Another way is to beat the individual sheaves against the inside of a large, clean trash can. In two hours a thresher can produce a can full of wheat, but with a lot of chaff and even solid heads in it. This is faster than flailing, but produces more debris that has to be separated from the wheat.
Winnowing. The usual method for winnowing is pouring the grain from one container to another, letting either the wind or the breeze from an electric fan push the lighter chaff out of the grain. Repeat the process a few times to get the grain as chaff-free as possible.
The Best Ways to Store Wheat
The way you store grain depends on how much you’re dealing with. Storing it properly means protecting it from heat, light, and moisture, as well as from rats, mice, and insects. You can keep a small amount of grain in plastic bags in the freezer practically forever, but it takes more effort to store larger amounts.
The general recommendation is to store hard winter or spring wheat with less than a 10 percent moisture content — a moisture level that is actually difficult to attain without additional drying (see below). Five-gallon metal or plastic buckets with friction lids are ideal for storing all grains. One hundred pounds of grain can be stored in three of these containers. (Garbage cans are not good for storage because making them bug-proof is difficult.)
These cans prevent insects from getting into the grain, but you must take another step to eliminate any eggs or larvae already in the grain. A simple method is to heat the grain in the oven for 30 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which also will help reduce the moisture content. If you’re not sure about the accuracy of your oven’s thermostat, check it with an oven thermometer: temperatures higher than 140 degrees may damage the grain.
Some books suggest using a blender to grind the grain, but that doesn’t work well. You won’t be able to make nice, fine flour — only a coarse meal with particles of uneven size. At first, buying an inexpensive, hand-cranked mill sounds right and romantic — back to nature all the way! But how much flour are you going to be grinding? You’d have to grind all afternoon to get enough flour for six loaves of bread, and that’s apt to discourage you from baking at all after the first few tries. Using an electric flour mill is a better way to grind large quantities. When you’re selecting a mill, ask the following questions:
- Will it handle the amount of flour you expect to grind in a reasonable amount of time?
- Does it grind without overheating the grain?
- Can it be adjusted to grind different degrees of coarseness?
- Is it easy to use and clean?
- Will replacement parts be available if you need them?
- Is it manufactured by a reputable company that will honor the warranty?
When grinding grain, avoid the temptation to grind large amounts for future use. Grind what you need for perhaps a week, and refrigerate the unused portion in an airtight container. Whole grains can be stored for months without loss of taste or nutrition, but this is not true of whole grain flour.
Adapted from The Backyard Homestead, edited by Carleen Madigan. Originally published in Homegrown Whole Grains by Sara Pitzer. Both books from Storey Publishing, 2009.
What Does a Wheat Plant Look Like?
The wheat plant is a tall and slim, single-stalk, bright-green plant with a few long, slender leaves and a head that contains an average of 50 kernels with prickly hairs called beards, according to RobinsonLibrary. Wheat is a grass-type plant that turns golden when ripe from stem to kernels, which are processed into products including flour and cereals for human consumption and feed for animals.
The wheat kernel resembles a small egg, one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch long, with an elongated oval shape. The kernel is made up of four parts: the outside husk, called chaff when harvested; the bran or coat, comprising several protective layers making up about 15% of the kernel, and used in making livestock feed; the endosperm, which is the meat (about 85 percent) of the kernel; and the germ, which is at the bottom of the endosperm. RobinsonLibrary contains color diagrams of the wheat plant and the kernel, a list of the fourteen species of wheat grown in the world and a history of wheat. Originally a wild grass, wheat was first developed into a yeast-leavened bread by the Egyptians between 2000 and 3000 BCE. It wasn’t introduced in the United States until 1777.
Today, the way we grow wheat has not changed a lot. But like planting most crops today, farmers now use computers to check weather patterns, tractors that run on gas to plow and plant, as well as use modern machinery to harvest the crop.
Photo courtesy of National Association of Wheat Growers
Different regions in the U.S. grow different types of wheat. Not much wheat is grown in Iowa today, but many surrounding states still farm this popular midwest crop. Check out the map above to see where each kind of wheat is commonly grown.
Preparing the Soil
Before it is time to plant, farmers need to prepare the soil. Some use a machine to plow the soil. However, today most farmers are switching to a method called “no-till.” “No-Till” farming is a way for the farmers to maintain a better soil structure by not plowing the fields. Once the soil is ready, a machine called a grain drill is used to plant the seeds.
Photo courtesy of Prairie Californian
Planting and Growing
Wheat is planted at different times depending on a region’s weather conditions. Some farmers grow theirs in the winter while other grow theirs in the fall. Once the soil is ready, a machine called a grain drill is used to plant the seeds. Wheat grows through stages. At first, the wheat is green and can look like grass. Then it grows taller and becomes a golden brown color as it dries.
Harvesting and Storing
It depends on the type of wheat and when it is planted, to determine when the wheat will be harvested. Some are harvested in the summer, while others in the fall.
When the wheat plant reaches its final stage in the growing process, meaning it is dry enough and no green is showing, it is ready to be harvested. A combine is used to harvest the crop. This machine combines reaping, threshing, and winnowing. The edible wheat is put into the back of the combine. It is then put into a grain cart, and then into a semi truck where it is transported to be stored in a grain elevator.
Uses of Wheat
Wheat is typically milled into flour which is then used to make a wide range of foods that we eat everyday. These foods include bread, muffins, pasta, biscuits, cakes, pastries, cereal bars, snack foods, crackers, sauces and confectionery such as licorice!
Other non-food products containing wheat include kitty litter, golf tees, play-doh, and glue.
We spent a lot of our time talking about creating sustainable gardens at home. Interestingly enough, there are two foods that are missing from practically every home garden. These are foods which we use every day; however, no one grows them at home.
What are these foods that we rely on quite regularly but do not grow? Sugar and flour.
As a society, we use sugar in almost everything from our morning coffee to our favorite soft drink to many of the processed foods we consume. Flour is another integral ingredient essential for baking breads and many other common food items.
If you are one of the many that does not currently grow these crops at home, good for you! They are not crops that are good for your health nor do well in home garden environments anyway. Let’s take a look at each of these crops to determine exactly why they are not practical in most situations.
Let’s start off by stating a little-known, but important, fact about growing your own wheat. Believe it or not, it’s illegal to grow wheat at home.
In the 1930s, a law was enacted that prohibited US citizens from growing wheat at home unless the crop was properly documented and the associated fees were paid on an annual basis (surprise surprise) to artificially inflate commercial wheat prices.
Yes, large corporations like Monsanto have been influencing regulations since before you can remember. Their latest regulatory ventures have ensured their monopoly of genetically modified seeds.
But we digress…
The 1930s law represents a very gray area, but even as recently as 1995, people have been ordered to pay fines and destroy personal wheat crops following the 1940 Wickard v. Filburn Supreme Court decision.
Commercial wheat operations are often very traumatic to otherwise fertile land because they rely heavily on commercial pesticides and fertilizers for production.
So not only is growing your own wheat illegal unless you decide to jump through some bureaucratic hoops, it is also relatively difficult to manage in a home environment – especially when we strive for organic processes whenever possible.
Sucrose (table sugar) has absolutely no nutrition value. Like flour, commercial sugarcane operations are devastating to local land. Worse yet, the pesticides used in commercial sugarcane production are responsible for numerous cases of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) every year.
In addition to the difficulties inherent to growing your own sugarcane, the refining process sets the tone for just how unhealthy sugar is. Countless chemicals are added to create table sugar and the result is a product that provides absolutely no nutritional value and it is one of the only “foods” that the human body treats as both a carbohydrate and a fat simultaneously. This can lead to complications including diabetes.
Another common sugar is fructose. Although fructose is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, you may know it best by its use in popular soft drinks (high fructose corn syrup). It is also found in natural sweeteners such as honey – a sweeter many people trying to lead a healthy lifestyle rely on frequently as a natural sugar substitute.
Unfortunately, fructose is not necessarily good for the body. It can only be broken down by the liver and some studies have shown that it can be as harmful for the liver as chronic alcohol use. Experts recommend a daily fructose intake of only 25 g; a figure that can be exceeded with just a couple pieces of fruit in some cases.
You may be thinking – “But I eat raw sugar, isn’t that healthier?” In a word… No. Unfortunately, raw sugar is one of those products designed to trick the public into thinking they’re making a healthier choice. Raw sugar, even found in health food stores, is nothing more than table sugar with molasses mixed in. Some companies go so far as to use a special crystallization process to give this “raw” sugar the appearance of unrefined sugar. But make no mistake; it is no healthier than common white table sugar.
What’s the Solution?
Now that you know that growing wheat can be illegal and that sugar is unhealthy anyway, what’s the solution? After all, morning coffee is pretty bland without a spoonful of sugar and dinner rolls go with practically any meal.
In terms of flour, cut it from your diet. The refining of wheat into flour adds bleach and eliminates any nutritional value. In fact, recent research is showing that wheat (at least the commercial GMO wheat that is impossible to escape) is about as bad for you as sugar.
If you’re stuck on it, consider growing wheat grasses. These do not fall under federal guidelines and are much easier to grow successfully in a home garden environment.
As much as it pains me to say this, we can all do without sugar. Although it tastes good, it has zero nutritional value and can impact our health adversely. It’s difficult to be self-sufficient when you depend on weekly dialysis treatments because of complications due to excessive sugar intake and who knows – dialysis treatment may not always be available anyway.
The point is simply that these foods are not essential. In the short term, we can procure flour or raw wheat in other ways while using our gardens for other food items. Just as rabbits are a much more sustainable protein option compared to beef, sugar and wheat are highly inefficient in our own gardens (no matter how good they taste).
Eating simple, natural foods helps to ensure our health and resiliency in the future. Don’t feel bad if you have omitted these items from your garden as your space is much better used with more traditional and nutritional crops that provide significant health benefits and a sustainable way of life.
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(Ivory Harlow photo)
Grains make a great addition to the home garden. Although it is difficult to grow enough grains in a small plot to achieve total food sufficiency, dedicating 1000 square feet of garden space to grain production can yield 50-60 pounds of whole grains.
Grains must be reaped, threshed and winnowed before they can be processed into flour, meal or flakes. Large scale operations have heavy equipment for fast and efficient grain processing. Small scale equipment is available for minor operations and home growers (see resources), but most of us use old-fashioned hand methods to process grain.
When to plant grains
Whether you plant in fall or spring depends on the grain you wish to grow. Here in hardiness zone 6, we plant fall grains from late summer to mid-fall, allowing enough time for grains to sprout before cold weather sets in. Grains go dormant in winter, and emerge in spring. Fall planted grains are harvested mid-summer.
Grains to plant in fall: winter wheats, rye, spelt
Less hardy, short season grains are planted in spring and harvested late summer to mid-fall.
Grains to plant in early spring: spring wheats, millet, barley, oats
Grains to plant in late spring/summer: buckwheat, sorghum, quinoa, amaranth
*I recommend hulless grain varieties for the home garden.
Cover crops and intercropping
Cover crops revitalize soil health and improve tilth. Some grains make good cover crops. Rye is my favorite cover crop to overwinter. Overwintered cover crops are typically tilled into the soil in spring. I leave a small portion of rye to grow to full maturity and harvest for grain in mid-summer.
Intercropping grain between rows of vegetables benefits gardeners in 2 ways: as a cover crop and as a grain crop to harvest at summers end. Short season grains like barley work best for intercropping. I plant barley in early spring alongside veges, and harvest for grain late summer. I till plant residue into the soil the following spring.
How to harvest and process grains
Harvesting and processing grains by hand is a tedious process, but a good learning experience that will deepen your appreciation for the grain farmers who provide your daily bread.
- Use a hand scythe or other cutting tool to cut stems close to the ground.
- Tie in sheaves (bundles).
- Hand sheaves upside-down or prop upright in a well-ventilated area. It’s a good idea to place a sheet underneath to catch fallen seed.
- Separate grain from stem. You can create your own threshing system by spreading dried stems over a sheet, covering with another sheet, then stomping and beating grains loose. Another method to dislodge grains is filling a pillowcase and smacking it with a bat like a piñata, or beating it against a wall.
Plants with larger seeds like popping sorghum and quinoa are easily removed by hand.
Whole grain bread. (Ivory Harlow photo)
- Remove the hull from hulled varieties. The easiest way to remove the hull is a dehuller machine. Home growers who don’t have or wish to purchase milling equipment can run toasted grains through a hand grinder on the largest setting to crack hulls.
- Toss to remove chaff (paper-like coating), hulls and/or debris from grain. A plastic strainer in front of a box fan worked for me. I sift the strainer, gently working hulls to the top, then hand sort.
- Store in airtight containers until use.
How to use homegrown grains
Home grown grains taste delicious in everyday dishes. Use them in baked goods and home brewing projects.
Grain mill. (Ivory Harlow photo)
- Mill grains into flour using a coffee grinder, food processor, or specialty grain mill.
- Roll oats by steaming groats and then rolling flat. Dry completely.
- To make your own instant grains: soak at least 3 hours and then drain. Dry in a food dehydrator at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This reduces cook time significantly.
- To finely flake oats without a flaker, run through food processor shredder.
- Crack grains by chopping in a food processor.
- Sprout grains by soaking overnight, draining, then rinsing and draining 2x daily until sprouts emerge. Sprouted grains are highly nutritious and easy to digest.
- Ferment grains by soaking in room temperature water with an acidic medium such as whey or vinegar for 2-3 days. Drain and rinse.
- Toast grains in the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance color and flavor, and prolong shelf life.
Your local feed store is the best local source for traditional grains: rye, wheats, oats, buckwheat, millet, and barley.
Bountiful Gardens, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Sustainable Seed Company offer a wide variety of grains for the home grower.
Small scale grain processing equipment
- Pleasant Hill Grain
- Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon is an informative and entertaining guide book for beginning grain growers.
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How to Grow Wheat to be More Self-Sufficient
Learning how to grow wheat is something every aspiring homesteader should do.
And it’s easy enough to do!
One big step towards self-sufficiency is producing your own grain, so it’s at the top of my to do list this spring, and now that the weather is finally warming up, I can start spring seeding.
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In particular, I’m focusing on wheat, both for bread and for fodder. Wheat is commonly grown in my area (in fact, my house is surrounded by wheat fields), so wheat seed is easily accessible.
Sprouted hard red winter wheat seed
Uses for wheat
One use for wheat on the homestead, obviously, is that it can be ground and baked into bread. Wheat seed also makes an excellent fodder, and grows easily in a container. Add a tablespoon of bleach to a gallon of water before soaking your fodder seeds to reduce mold.
I’m also testing out wheat grass as pasture for horses this year. This wheat won’t be grown for harvest, but to supplement my horses’ diet (the main reason for this is for the added protein and because last year I was talked into disking a pasture and now nothing grows but weeds. Since wheat grows so well here, I thought I’d give it a shot).
Super important: if you’re using wheat seed for fodder, be sure to get organic seed. Seed wheat is tested and sprayed with chemicals. You don’t want your livestock eating it.
Different types of wheat
This is an important topic.
There’s different types of wheat, but the two main ones you need to know about when learning how to grow wheat are spring wheat and winter wheat.
Winter wheat is planted in late fall, before the first frost date. It starts growing in fall, stays green all winter (which makes it great to plant on your lawn – no dreary brown winter grass), and then really takes off in the spring. It’s usually harvested in June. Winter wheat requires a freezing period before it will produce seeds, so don’t try planting it in spring – you won’t get seeds. One example is hard red winter wheat (what I plant).
For bread, sow hard red winter wheat or hard red spring wheat. For pasta, you’ll want to plant durum wheat.
You can buy organic, non-GMO wheat seed from various sellers, or you can buy wheat seed locally. If you buy non-organic seed, realize the seed will be sprayed with chemicals.
Be sure to buy seed that’s been tested for germination. Both organic sellers and non-organic sellers alike test their seed for germination. It will save you a lot of hassle and time. No one wants to plant a garden that doesn’t grow. Just ask your vendor if the seed has been tested for germination quality.
Breaking ground and adding compost
Growing your own grains is fairly easy. When we planted wheat last fall, I had to do little more than broadcast them and cover. My husband has over 20 years of experience sowing and harvesting wheat on a large scale, so I’ve relied on him whenever I’ve had a question about how to grow wheat.
The wheat fields around the homestead
The best thing about growing your own grain is it doesn’t require much space. A 20′ x 50′ space is enough to produce a year’s worth of wheat for my family. I was able to break ground and add compost in little more than an hour.
The photos you see of endless wheat fields are photos of commercial operations. For the self-sufficient homesteader who wants to learn how to grow wheat for self-sufficiency, large acreage isn’t necessary.
I tilled the dirt a little so it’s not too hard to establish roots, then added rotted manure to the top. To the bed I created, I added about 4″ of rotted manure. You can add compost, I chose rotted manure because I have an abundance thanks to my horses.
Wheat likes a fairly neutral pH, about 6.4, and I already had our soil tested, so I know my soil’s pH is perfect for wheat.
Protecting your wheat from critters
I learned fairly quick, when I started learning how to grow wheat, that it’s necessary to cover your wheat seed to protect it from hungry critters. I’ve had more than one bed devastated by chickens and hungry squirrels, so this year I’m mulching with old hay. As the wheat grows, it will grow through the hay.
If you drill in your wheat seed, this step is not as important, but I would mulch anyway to keep down weeds.
Another option is to build a temporary hoop house over your seed. This is particularly a good idea if you live in an area that might have a frost after the frost date.
Young wheat grass
Watering and growing
In my opinion, wheat pretty much takes care of itself, but in the hot, dry summer, supplementing rainfall with water is a good idea, and since the area isn’t too big, it’s easy enough to do.
The compost or rotten manure you incorporated into your bed is enough fertilizer. You don’t want to add any more and alter your pH.
Allow your wheat to grow until it dries out, and the heads start to droop, and it’s time to harvest.
If you’re a savvy marketer, one way to bring in extra income for your homestead is to grow more wheat than you need, and sell your extra crop. Since it takes a fairly small area to produce a year’s worth of wheat, this is realistic for any homesteader.
You will have to harvest and thresh it yourself, but especially if you grow organic, non-GMO wheat, you will have a ready market.
In my next post, I’ll cover how to harvest and thresh wheat!
To read more in depth about how to grow wheat, check out The University of Missouri Crop Resource Guide.
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.
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Homegrown Grains: The Key to Food Security — How to Grow and Make Your Own Wheat Flour
Freshly ground wheat flour has a high vitamin content; vitamins that degrade all too quickly when exposed to the air. The whole grain flour that we buy from stores is often quite stale and may have significantly reduced vitamin content when compared to freshly ground.
GROW YOUR OWN WHEAT
(from breadinfo.com) Planting a plot approximately 10 feet by 10 feet will, when all is said and done, yield between 10 and 25 loaves of bread. To begin, find a nice backyard plot and choose the type of wheat you wish to plant. In the United States two varieties are grown, white and red. Red wheat is more common. Red wheat also produces bread with a much more intense flavor. Consider the advantages of growing winter wheat as opposed to spring variety.
Winter wheat can be planted from late-September to mid-October. It is the preferred variety because it tends to be more nutritious than spring wheat, protects the soil in the winter, and has less competition from the weeds in the spring. Try to plant early enough to get a good root system growing before winter dormancy sets in, but not so early that flies and pests become a problem. Spring wheat is planted in early spring and is most commonly found in the northern reaches of the country where the intensely cold winters create problems for winter wheat.
Finding a source for seeds can be a problem. Seed supply houses usually sell in large quantities to farmers and are not geared to individuals wanting to make a small plot in their back yard. The seeds they provide can also be laced with fungicide. Still, this is the best place to begin. You can also find wheat seed at your local natural food stores. The grain in the bins may be planted as well as eaten, just be sure you know whether you are getting winter or spring wheat so that you plant in the proper season.
Try to plant the seed on good rich soil. The ground should be relatively even. This can be done with a rototiller, or more naturally with a shovel and a rake. There are three methods of planting, one is the time honored broadcast method in which 3 ounces or so of seed is “sprinkled” over the garden bed for every 100 square feet. This is about 1 seed for every square inch. Planting density is largely dependent on the richness and moistness of the soil. More wheat per square feet will absorb more nutrients and moisture. Be sure to rake the patch to cover the seed and protect it from hungry birds. Another method, called drilling, creates a hole about every six inches and plants several seeds per hole. The plants come up in a bunch but spread out over the bare area. This method allows for weeding when the plants are young, but is more labor intensive. Similarly, tightpacked rows (about 6 inches apart) can be made in the soil and the wheat seed spread up and down the rows in the manner of beets or carrots.
HARVEST, THRESH AND WINNOW YOUR WHEAT
Wheat harvest usually occurs in June when the wheat begins to turn a golden color but still has a few streaks of green. Using a scythe or some other sharp blade, mow down the stalks then tie them into bundles, standing them upright in the garden patch. Then allow the grain to fully ripen into a golden color.
Twine could be used to tie the bundles, but the traditional method is to take about an inch thick bunch of stems. Tie the lower end, binding the stalks together. Then wrap them around the bundle tying the head and foot of the stalks at about the middle of the bundle, creating a shock.
Keep the heads dry, then thresh and winnow at your leisure. The simplest form of threshing involves grasping a quantity of ripe wheat in one hand and beating it around the inside of a barrel. The grain falls off the stalks and the stalks are discarded or composted.
Winnowing is the process of separating the wheat from the chaff and small bits of straw. Since time immemorial this has been done by pouring the wheat from one container to another in a stiff breeze. The breeze blows away the chaff and the resulting wheat is as pure a product as you may easily produce. Absent a stiff breeze, a fan may be used.
Your wheat is now ready for storage. Wheat may be stored in barrels, bags or what-have-you. The basic requirements are that the space be cool, dry and pest-free (think rodent and bug).
Throw some in a blender or food processor and grind to flour consistency.
Start with a half cup of whole grain. Turn the blender up to its highest speed. If the blender seems to bog down, stop and reduce the amount of grain. Add a larger amount for the next batch if the blender handled the original half cup sufficiently. Continue to grind the grains until they reach the consistency desired. Grind the grain in batches until the desired amount is achieved.
Pick your favorite pasta, pancake, bread, cookie or muffin recipe and start baking!
The following is an excerpt from Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers, Second Edition by Gene Logsdon. It has been adapted for the Web.
Chelsea Green Publishing
May 28, 2009
I remember the first year we grew grains in our garden. A good gardening buddy dropped by one day early in July just when our wheat was ripe and ready to harvest. He didn’t know that though. His reason for stopping was to show me two splendid, juicy tomatoes picked ripe from his garden. After a few ritual brags — and knowing full well that my tomatoes were still green — he asked me in a condescending sort of way what was new in my garden. I remembered the patch of ripe wheat.
“Oh, nothing much,” I answered nonchalantly, “except the pancake patch.”
“The pancake patch?” he asked incredulously.
“Yeah. Sure. Until you’ve tasted pancakes fresh from the garden, you haven’t lived.”
“And where might I find these pancakes growing?” he queried sarcastically, to humor my madness.
“Right up there behind the chicken coop in that little patch of wheat. All you have to do is thresh out a cupful or two, grind the grain in the blender, mix up some batter and into the skillet. Not even Aunt Jemima in all her glory can make pancakes like those.”
My friend didn’t believe me until I showed him, step by step. We cut off a couple of armloads of wheat stalks, flailed the grain from the heads onto a piece of clean cloth (with a plastic toy ball bat), winnowed the chaff from the grain, ground the grain to flour in the blender, made batter, and fried pancakes. Topped them with real maple syrup. Sweet ecstasy. My friend forgot all about his tomatoes. The next year, he invited me over for grain sorghum cookies, proudly informing me that grain sorghum flour made pastries equal to, if not better than, whole wheat flour. Moreover, grain sorghum was easier to thresh. I had not only made another convert to growing grains in the garden, but one who had quickly taught me something. Grow Your Own Grains
The reason Americans find it a bit weird to grow small plots or rows of grain in gardens is that they are not used to thinking of grains as food directly derived from plants, the way they view fruits and vegetables. The North American, unlike most of the world’s peoples, especially Asians and Africans, thinks grain is something manufactured in a factory somewhere. Flour is to be purchased like automobiles and pianos. Probably this attitude came from the practice of hauling grains to the gristmill in past agrarian times. Without the convenience of small power grinders and blenders of today, overworked housewives of earlier times were only too glad to have hubby haul the grain to the gristmill. And that gave him an excuse to sit around all day at the mill talking to his neighbors.
But even with the advent of convenient kitchen aids to make grain cookery easier, the American resists. He will work hard at the complex task of making wine — seldom with a whole lot of success — but will not grind whole wheat or corn into nutritious meal, a comparatively easy task. I know, because I was that way myself. Until I saw with my own eyes that a good ten-speed blender or kitchen mill could turn grain into flour, I hesitated. Now it boggles my mind to remember that for most of my life I lived right next to acres and acres of amber waves of grain, where combines made the threshing simplicity itself, and yet our family always bought all our meal and flour.
The real tragedy of that ignorance was that the flour we purchased usually was the kind that had been de-germed and de-branned too. Most of the nutrition had been taken out of that flour to give the American home cook what she seemed to want: a pure white powder that would last indefinitely on the shelf and make pastries of fluffy, empty calories.
What has sparked a new, or renewed, interest in homegrown grains is the dramatic rise in grain prices, and rumors of shortages worldwide, that occurred in 2007. Whether these high prices and shortages are the result of ever-rising populations in so-called third world countries, the dramatic increase in the price of oil, or the greater use of corn and other food plants for making biofuels, we can’t say for sure. Nor can we predict whether these conditions will continue. But we have been warned. For a whole host of reasons, it is time to think about growing your own bread.
The nutritional picture for whole grains is getting better all the time, thanks to the progress being made by plant geneticists. There are, first of all, the problematical GMO advances (genetically modified grains), which make modern chemical and large-scale farming easier. It is too early to predict what this development will mean for the future. So far, these genetic wonder plants haven’t meant bigger yields or haven’t produced a farming method that third world (or perhaps even first world) countries can afford. But some of these developments, which can stack disease-attacking genes into grains (or into products like milk from cloned animals) may indeed have medicinal value and justification. It’s too soon to know.
But outside the gene-stacking laboratory, dramatic developments in grain quality and production are being achieved. Opaque-2, or high-lysine corn, with almost twice the normal amount of the proteins lysine and tryptophan in it, indicates the possibility of more improvements. Triticale, a cross between wheat and rye that does not always live up to its promises, sometimes outyields wheat, oats, rye, and barley and has more protein than ordinary corn. New varieties of oats, long known as the grain with the highest protein (excluding legume seeds like soybeans), range as high as 17 percent protein content. And the cholesterol-fighting benefits of oats are well established now. Studies of new buckwheat varieties have prompted the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to announce that this traditional crop, which made something of a comeback in the 1990s, has an amino acid composition nutritionally superior to all cereals, including oats. There’s also renewed interest in traditional grains like spelt, which a few gluten-intolerant people may sometimes be able to handle in place of wheat. And, perhaps most exciting of all, Wes Jackson’s Land Institute in Kansas is developing perennial grain from wild wheatgrasses and crosses with wheatgrass and wheat. Think of what it would mean if we could plant a grain like we would any other grass, and harvest it every year without any planting or soil cultivation needed.
All sorts of projects seeking to develop traditional grains and keep them inviolate from GMO grains are ongoing. The Farmers Breeding Club of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society is a project linked to a series of organic-variety trials with small grains being conducted through a partnership between organic growers and agronomists at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota (www.npsas.org/BreedingClub.html). In another example, Canadians are bringing old heritage varieties of wheat back into circulation, and using them in bread making (http://members.shaw.ca/oldwheat/).
This is probably as good a place as any to say something I will probably repeat until you get tired of reading it. I have discarded almost all of the general references to sources of grain information that were in the first edition. They were either outdated or too general to be helpful. The best way to stay abreast of new information on grains is to use the search engine of your choice on the Internet. Everything is on the Internet. But even better than that is to involve yourself in local activities in small-scale farming. There are all sorts of new organizations and efforts in place that amaze me, even though I thought I was more or less in the flow of this information. For example, I was looking for places where a small grain grower could get a small amount of seed cleaned (by and by I will talk about the need for seed cleaning). In earlier days, every farmer had a seed cleaner. Now, hardly anyone does. I was about to write that you would have to take your grain to an elevator or farm-supply service to get it cleaned when I happened to check the membership directory of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), of which I am a member. To my surprise, not only did one of our members offer seed-cleaning services at his garden farm, but he lived just a few miles from me in the same county.
Organizations like OEFFA flourish in nearly every state now, certainly in every geographical region. Home in on them. They all have newsletters about their projects, and these newsletters contain advertising from other garden farmers about the products and services they offer. This is up-to-the-minute information, which no book can promise. My latest favorite “find” is the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society mentioned above.
Almost all grains can be sprouted to make delicious salads, and in some ways are more nutritious than the dried grain. Beans, clover (especially alfalfa), and wheat make excellent sprouts for human consumption. But oats and barley, in addition to wheat, can be sprouted and fed to chickens and livestock as farmers sometimes do. That kind of feed supplement can keep farm animals healthy and well-fed even in winter without today’s expensive all-vitamins-included commercial feed.
Corn sprouts win no prize for taste, but corn makes up for that lack with other advantages. Sweet corn and popcorn are two of our most popular foods, but corn can also be parched, pickled (corn salad), or made into hominy. Popcorn made the national news in 2008 because of the prices being charged for it at movie houses. I found that simply ridiculous. There is nothing easier to grow than popcorn, or easier to prepare for eating. Pioneers in the Corn Belt survived some winters almost entirely on a diet of corn. They cracked, ground, grated, boiled, parched, squeezed, flaked, and baked it into porridges, cakes, muffins, dodgers, and “pone.”
A very important food use for grains is in making alcoholic beverages. The best moonshine I ever tasted was “made right” from fermented corn mash. It equaled in mellowness the most expensive firewater I can afford. Of course, other grains make other kinds of whiskey, and malt from barley, a leading crop in the northernmost states, is used for beer and other malt foods and drinks, and of course Scotch whiskey. Wheat beer has also become popular, as has vodka from wheat and other small grains. Whole Grains for Your Livestock
But the use of whole grains directly in your own diet is only half the reason for growing them. The other half, just as important I think, is to ensure yourself and your family an economical, steady supply of milk, meat, and eggs, and possibly cheese, wool, or other animal products you need or desire as part of your goal of homegrown security. I believe in and practice grass farming or pasture farming, where animals get most of their nourishment from perennial grass and clover pastures. Pasture farming makes a small amount of grain in the animal’s ration practical because small-scale farmers simply do not have the wherewithal to raise large amounts of grain even if they wanted to. Pigs and chickens, both of which lack the multiple stomachs of grazing animals like cows, sheep, and goats, especially benefit from some grain in their diets. If you have to go to a store to buy the grains you need for your chickens or pigs, your own home-raised meat and eggs will cost you nearly as much as if you had bought them from the store. Furthermore, if you have to buy your grains in the marketplace, you may have to settle for less nutritional quality than what you could grow on rich organic soil and then air dry by traditional, natural methods rather than with artificial heat.
Grain plants often give you other important products besides the grain. Wheat and oats, rice and barley give you straw as a by-product — the dried stalks left after the grain is threshed. Straw makes excellent bedding for animals and mulch for the garden. It can be woven into baskets too, and in recent years it has even been much in demand for building strawbale houses, a traditional form of “green” construction that is enjoying a renewed popularity. Corn leaves dried or silaged are good roughage feed for cows. Corn husks can be plaited into strong rope, fashioned into dolls and decorations, or used to fill a mattress in a pinch. Cane sorghum makes good syrup; buckwheat and clovers provide the bees with an abundant source of pollen for honey making. And, not to be outdone, oats provide the hulls that the manufacturer of Rolls Royce autos once used to polish the cylinder sleeves of their expensive cars. Maybe they still do. Cultural Pros and Cons
Finally, the special advantage of grains for the organic gardener and farmer is that you can grow them more easily with organic methods than you can fruits and vegetables. All grains except corn will withstand low fertilization better than vegetables. Field beans, especially soybeans, will add nitrogen in the soil. Corn is easier to cultivate mechanically than fruits and vegetables because it grows well in confined rows, making mechanical weed cultivation easier. Fungal disease is less of a threat in grains than in fruit. Grains have their share of insect enemies, but control is not nearly as critical as it can be in fruits and vegetables.
Dry beans and buckwheat can be planted as late as July 10, except in the far north, so they can be double-cropped behind peas, early beans, lettuce, or strawberries. A late sweet-corn patch may work out well as a second crop too. Barley and wheat can be planted in the fall after other crops are finished and harvested the next summer in time to double-crop that soil to late vegetables. How Much Grain?
Even a modest harvest of a peck of grain will make a lot of meals — believe me. Excess ears of sweet corn needn’t go to waste, either. Dry the corn, shell it, and make cornmeal in the blender. Or parch the corn over the fireplace on a winter evening.
Almost everyone who becomes familiar with the tastiness of whole-grain cookery wants to pursue it. Even if you don’t grow your own grains, you’ll not find a better way to make your food dollar pay than to buy grains and cook from scratch. And you’ll soon find out how much grain you need or want to use for a year. It won’t be as much as you think, even if you bake all your own bread and pastries.
We bake bread every week, and my wife makes a variety of cookies, cakes, pancakes, shortcakes, pie crusts, and cooked dishes with our whole grains. If the grain is ground fine enough, it makes good bread without the addition of any white flour, though we do add a little because we think it makes the bread a little lighter.
A bushel of wheat makes about fifty 1-pound loaves of bread. Two ears of corn make enough cornmeal for a meal’s worth of corn muffins. The grain expands as it cooks with water, and so gives more food to eat than you would think the uncooked grain represented.
At most, figure a year’s supply of wheat at 4 pecks (1 bushel); corn, 2 pecks; popcorn, 2 pecks; soybeans, 4 pecks; grain sorghum, 2 pecks; buckwheat, 1 peck; oats, 1 peck; triticale or rye or barley, 1 peck; navy or other soup beans, 2 pecks; alfalfa for sprouting, 1 or 2 quarts; lentils, field peas, cane sorghum (for flour), about 2 quarts each. But only experience can give you the precise annual amounts needed. We don’t grow and eat as much as suggested here, but could if we wished, without increasing our production labor noticeably. Of course you can gauge your own family’s consumption by estimating how much flour, cornmeal, and other grain products you use now. But your own grains may prove so delicious that you will want more than that. Figuring Space Requirements
You don’t need much space to raise at least some grains. A normal yield of wheat grown organically would be at least 40 bushels to the acre. So you’d need only 1/40th of an acre to produce a bushel. That would be a plot of ground 10 feet wide by about 109 feet long. A really good wheat grower with a little luck could get a bushel from a plot half that size. Wheat yields have been recorded as high as 80 bushels per acre and even higher.
But using the same kind of average calculations as above, the table below shows the amount of space you’d need to grow a bushel of the following grains.
Growing Grain by the Bushel field corn: 10 feet by 50 feet sweet corn: 10 feet by 80 feet popcorn*: 10 feet by 80 feet oats: 10 feet by 62 feet barley: 10 feet by 87 feet rye: 10 feet by 145 feet buckwheat: 10 feet by 130 feet grain sorghum: 10 feet by 60 feet wheat: 10 feet by 109 feet * for the larger-eared varieties; I don’t know per-acre yields for the smaller varieties, like strawberry popcorn.
Don’t hold me too tightly to these figures. They’re estimates to give you an idea of how big the playing field is. Weather, fertility, variety, and know-how could alter these figures. All I’m trying to show really is that 9 bushels of assorted grains might be raised on a quarter of an acre and provide you with the major portion of your diet.
The amount of grain necessary to support a few head of livestock is not large, either. You need about 12 bushels of corn to fatten a feeder pig to butchering weight. We don’t feed sheep any grain because we sell lambs fed exclusively on grass and mother’s milk. A hen needs about a bushel a year, but if she has ample free range, she needs hardly half that and in a pinch perhaps none at all. A milk cow, along with hay and pasture, needs perhaps 5 or 6 bushels; a beef steer, about the same. And we have raised tasty beef without any grain. In other words, an acre of corn could fill the grain requirements for one pig, one milk cow, one beef steer, and thirty chickens.
What is necessary to raise grains successfully in the large garden or on the small farm is an understanding of planting, harvesting, and processing methods that are no longer common in commercial farming. In many instances, the right way in commercial grain farming today won’t be the right way for small homestead growers. In some instances, the right way for you requires use of the latest technologies; in other cases it requires a reaching back for knowledge now almost lost. It takes both to make grain growing and grain eating the cottage industry it once was, and the key to food security it must become if personal independence is to be maintained and personal freedom preserved.
To some it may all sound like rather too much effort, but Whitley, who first grew wheat on four square metres of his allotment in Stoke Newington in 1974, disagrees.
“Many people see this as a terrible, ghastly, pathetic throwback to an era of grinding toil.
” it is a great way of getting control over what goes into your bread, to make sure no nasties get in.”
In the end most of us do not have the gardens to conjure up the wheaty romance from the end of movies like Gladiator or Witness.
But to look out over the kitchen sink at even a couple of square metres of gently oscillating wheat would be an achievement.
And, as Whitley notes, there is one fringe benefit – you can have your own crop circles.
Below is a selection of your comments.
It would be worth it just for one loaf you could really call your own.
Martin Comer, London UK
Funnily enough my brothers and I did this on a very small scale as children at about the same time as Mr Whitley. My father stopped the car one evening for us to look at a combine harvester at work, we took some of the wheat that was not harvested at the edge of the field home, threshed it and planted it the following spring. That autumn we harvested, threshed, and then ground it using stones from the rockery. Looks like we were 30 years ahead of our time!
John Boxall, Frome
I’ve been baking my own bread for six months and wouldn’t eat a shop loaf now if you paid me so growing it seems like the next logical step. I have about twelve square metres ready for ploughing – hmm – not quite enough is it?
As for not getting any “nasties” in it. British farmers and millers have to operate to some very high standards and as such the chances of having any rogue elements in your daily loaf of bread are slim to none, compared to organic grain that is high in mycotoxins and usually contaminated with ergot, a poisonous fungal infection of grain. So forgive me if I don’t take Mr Whitley up on his offer of sharing his loaves of bread. I think I’ll distil mine and make some alcohol instead.
Phil , Norwich, Norfolk
We have grown wheat on our seven acre smallholding for four years. It’s hard work and not as straightforward as one might think but fun. Rabbits have been the main problem. I have at various stages done everything by hand apart from ploughing and cultivating the soil. One highlight was getting 70 sheaves threshed for free by a traction engine thresher at a local fair.
Paul Lovatt-Smith, Hailsham, E Sussex, UK
Due to the small amount of grain produced I would not grow it. For experimental purposes I would be interested to see one day how it would work out. I think it would be far too labour intensive on this scale without machinery, leave it to the experts on a more productive scale (crop rotation required as well). I already grow sweetcorn, courgettes, beans, onions, shallots etc. Grow the expensive stuff to subsidise what is getting more expensive.
M Weeks, Worcestershire
It would be a lot easier to just stop eating wheat altogether and switch to potatoes. This is why the Irish potato famine was really, really bad – potatoes provided far more energy food per measure of area than wheat so families needed less land to feed themselves. Then when the potatoes got blight, there were big problems. Now we have blight resistant varieties so potatoes are the way forwards. You don’t have to do all that threshing and grinding stuff either – just dig them up, clean them up, prick them and stick them in the oven for 45mins.
Kate, York, UK
A few years back I got some wheat seed from a local farmer friend and put in a small patch of wheat, say 20′ by 40′. It grew beautifully and we were thrilled. When it was ready to harvest, we cut it down and bundled it up. Not so easy as we thought. Then trying to get the wheat off the stalk nearly did us in. We thrashed and thrashed and wore ourselves out. We did manage to finally get some grain loose and then threw it up in the air to blow the chaff off. I think we finally ended up with a few cups of wheat. The rest we stashed away for a year or two then finally threw it out in a field for the birds to pick at. Lesson learned: harvesting wheat is extremely labour intensive. And we gained an immense respect for those cultures who did it all (and some places still do) by manual labour and did it all day long, day after day, field after field.
Nina, Alberta, Canada
Having grown perhaps a million bushels of wheat in my lifetime should give me a little licence to comment. While I find it very noble and also rewarding to grow one’s own wheat it takes considerable effort to harvest and thresh the grain. One must also consider if they will plant a variety that lends itself well as to the proper milling and baking properties. Will it have the correct amount of gluten? Will it have a good taste? Will it have the proper protein content? You in the UK are known for your great gardens so by all means utilise your space for growing vegetables, but allow those with machines to produce your otherwise labour intensive wheat.
Greenbeanman, The Wheat State, Kansas, United States
As I understand it, UK-grown wheat has a lower gluten content than North American-grown varieties. This produces rather hefty wholemeal bread, not to everyone’s taste. But it can be mixed with Canadian wheat to lighten it up a bit. It would be satisfying to grow your own supply of wheat – couldn’t families sponsor farmers to grow wheat for them? Some organic farms run schemes like this already.
Elspeth Gibson, Glasgow
My garden is much smaller than the average size given in the article so no I won’t be growing any wheat. However, I do grow salad crops, beans, blackberries, raspberries, rhubarb, onions and potatoes which goes a long way to supplement my family’s diet. It might be more viable on an allotment site where land could be allocated for wheat growing and a group could work it together for mutual benefit.
Gwen Seller, Wirral, Merseyside
Well, I’m allergic to the stuff- it’s mildly amusing to see the price of ‘normal’ bakery produce catching up with the cruelly over inflated price of gluten free baked goods.
E Russ, Leics, UK
As lovely as it sounds to home grow our own bread, what about the attractiveness of wheat to rats? I don’t want hordes of them in my side garden. Shouldn’t we support our local farmers instead and the government provide more incentives for British farmers to produce the food we vitally need? Perhaps increase pressure on supermarkets as well?
Bread Lover, Herts
Not in the garden, perhaps, where vegetables and fruit close to the back door would be more practical. But a full-size allotment is 300 sq yds, not far off the required 297 sq m, so that’s an option. Trouble is, wheat doesn’t grow well everywhere, such as here in wet mid-Wales, and some of us might have to choose an alternative bread cereal like oats or rye instead. Certainly worth considering, though.
Andi Clevely, Llanidloes, Powys
There are other good reasons to have wheat in the garden. The taste of ripe wheat nuts fresh off the stem is incredible, an experience not available plastic-wrapped in stores. Green wheat stems themselves can be chewed on or sucked for a tasty sweet delight. In the USA, much more so than England, the growing of wheat has been “ghettoised” to distant portions of the country. It would be socially beneficial for a larger part of the populace to see and experience the growing of local wheat. A third benefit may come if the growing of local wheat were to become popular, and that would be an increase in genetic diversity and enhancement of qualities that are incompatible with industrial agricultural practice but may be of value nevertheless… like flavour.
Stuart Brown, Sharon, MA USA
It would be more environmentally simple just to cut down slightly on meat consumption – consumption which means vegetable protein is wasted on growing an animal to full size, on a high-protein diet, before slaughtering it.
As a childminder I encourage the children in my care to choose, grow and eat what appeals to them on the allotment I have. I would encourage them to grow their own wheat and then we could use it to make the pizzas they like cooking and eating so much.
Saran Andrews, Bedfordshire
I’m Growing Wheat This Year. And You Can Too.
No seriously, you can grow wheat in your average sized garden. You don’t need a lot of room to produce enough wheat to make you feel like a real farmer. Just a 4′ x 4′ plot is enough to give you wheat cred.
Wheat. You picture it blowing in the wind on acres of rolling land, a white speck of a farmhouse sits off in the distance with the music of John Denver floating on a breeze. Sure, that’s one way to grow wheat but what do the rest of us do? What about those of us who don’t have gravel driveways and relatives named Remington or Jeb? What do WE do?
We plant it just like we plant anything else; anywhere we can. I say this with all the authority of someone who has NEVER grown wheat before. But from what I’ve researched it really is as simple as that. Wheat is easy to grow, doesn’t need especially good soil and you can plant quite a lot in a small space.
To plant it all you need are wheat berries. Wheat berries = wheat seeds. I made the mistake of buying a very small packet of wheat seed from a seed supplier for $3. I got about 15 seeds which is plenty to make enough flour for a birthday cake. If the birthday cake is for a rather underweight mouse.
I got a bit smarter and ordered a whole bag of organic wheat berries for $17 in my chosen wheat variety (Red Fife) and threw a few in a cell pack of soil to see what would happen. In about 3 days they were sprouted and in just over 2 weeks they’re big enough to impress the cast of Hee Haw.
Plus I still have enough wheat berries leftover to plant my garden, grind several cups of flour AND cook a pot of wheat berries.
Wheat falls into 2 categories, spring wheat or winter wheat. Winter wheat is planted in the fall for a summer harvest, Spring wheat is planted in the spring for a fall harvest. Spring wheat can be planted “as soon as the ground can be worked”, which really doesn’t mean anything to me even after decades of vegetable gardening. So to me, “when the ground can be worked” generally means when I can go out and garden without swearing about how awful it is outside. So mid to late spring.
Which means I’m planting wheat in the next week or so at my community garden. I’ll be planting a 2′ wide by 15′ long bed with wheat. From what I’ve read I should you can plant a LOT of wheat in one square foot of space.
Wheat can be planted with 24 and 32 wheat seeds per square foot.
You might be wondering why I’d even want to grow wheat. Other than the sheer adventure of it, it comes back to what everything always comes back to; pizza. With this small amount of wheat I should be able to produce around 6 cups of flour.
I want to grow wheat so I can use it to make my pizza dough. I’ll also use it for bread. Before I can do that with the wheat I’ll have to turn it into flour by grinding it in my Vitamix. If I find I love the whole adventure then I’ll graduate to one of these beautiful wood flour mills and double the amount of space I devote to wheat next year. So back to that 4′ x 4′ plot of wheat. If you have one bed like that devoted to wheat you’ll get around 3 cups of wheat.
Did I mention I’ve never grown wheat before? But I’d never grown anything before I did.
If it turns out I don’t like growing wheat then I’ll just keep buying the wheat berries and grinding them up for my specialty flour. No big deal. I know how you just have to roll with the punches when it comes to tiny mini micro farming.
Have a good weekend and let me know what new thing you’re growing this year. And if you have any relatives named Remington.
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