If you've been following this blog long, you might remember that last fall we planted an experimental wheat plot. (If you want to follow the progress, view these posts in order: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.)
We planted hard red winter wheat. Hard wheat is used to make bread flour; soft wheat is used to make pasta flour. Winter wheat is sown in the fall, it goes dormant over the winter, comes back up in the spring, and is harvested in the late summer.
We've always wanted to grow wheat; and since northern Idaho is wheat country, we decided to plant an experimental wheat field and see what happened. (The back posts listed above will guide you through what we did.)
Some of the issues we had with this experiment had to do with boggy fields, cheatgrass, pests, and the timing of the harvest.
We had a very wet spring, and we learned that the wheat field wasn't a particularly well-drained field. However to its credit, the wheat grew fairly well despite the boggy sections, which of course dried out once the rains stopped in mid-June.
The other major issue we had was cheatgrass. Here you can see the field in August, with the wheat thoroughly invaded by cheatgrass.
But despite that, what wheat we had looked beautiful.
The only way to harvest wheat on a small scale is to use a scythe. Here Don is taking some experimental whacks.
These experimental swings with the scythe were done on August 6. What we didn't consider was August is the time of year we're screamingly busy with our home business. So the next swing of the scythe didn't happen until August 15, which is when I took over.
It was brutally hot out, and I was wearing a thin muslin cape I use in the summer in lieu of sunscreen. It keeps the sun off my neck, chest, and shoulders while staying loose and cool.
I learned a scythe isn't hard to use, when done properly. In fact, it's rather soothing and gratifying to feel the stems of the wheat cut like butter before the blade. The blade must be kept very sharp, of course. And the trick is to let the weight of the scythe do the cutting -- you don't arm-wrestle it.
It's hard to tell from this photo, but the wheat is lying in swaths, sort of. Unfortunately the cut wheat is not all facing the same direction.
My fantasy is to get a scythe with a cradle, which catches the wheat as it's cut and deposits it on the ground in neat swaths, ready to tie into shocks. (This is a photo of some gentlemen selling a scythe with cradle on eBay. I wish. Cha-ching!)
Here the girls are pitching the cut wheat into a wheelbarrow to bring into the barn.
By this point the wheat was probably TOO ripe, which meant it had a tendency to "shatter" -- the heavy seed heads snap off and fall to the ground.
In fact, so many seed heads fell off (don't worry, we raked them up) that it's easy to see why gleaning was such an important part of the biblical economy. Collecting the heads by hand could yield a nice bounty.
For the time being, having no other place to put it, we stuffed the wheat into Matilda's pen. Stray grains were happily snapped up by the chickens.
The above photos were taken on August 15, then once more life got in the way. We were working insanely long hours on the business, plus I had a fast trip to Florida, plus a nasty heat wave hit our region, plus the barn was being built, plus we had to move hay bales, so the harvest attempts didn't resume until August 25 -- and then only in the late evenings after the sun went down.
Older Daughter waiting her turn with the rake. (We only have one.)
It was devilishly hard to find time to do much with the wheat, considering our work schedule. But we tried an experimental threshing session where we got two clean tarps, put the wheat down between them, and stomped around quite a bit.
It didn't work half badly, but it took time. And time was something we had very little of.
At this point, most of the wheat was scythed and collected and stuffed in Matilda's stall for the time being. We just didn't have time to thresh it. We had tankards to make and very little time in which to make them, so the unthreshed wheat stayed in Matilda's stall.
And then we heard it. Rustles.
Day and night, whenever we went into the barn, we kept hearing persistent, constant rustles. Gradually it dawned on us we weren't hearing rustles, we were hearing nibbles.
Yes, the chipmunks had discovered our wheat. And they nibbled, nibbled, nibbled at it until it was all gone.
Chipmunks, we learned, are nothing if not wildly efficient. And we have hundreds of them around here.
So we lost the wheat. You might say we were cheated by cheatgrass and chipmunks! That's what it comes down to.
Now before you all start saying what we should have done in terms of saving the wheat from the chipmunks, consider how many of you have the energy to thresh wheat after working twelve to fourteen hour days, seven days a week, in 90F temperatures. Just a thought.
Some of the things we'll do differently in the future:
1. Choose a different location to plant the wheat. We're thinking on fencing off a one-acre portion of our pasture, which is sloped and therefore better drained.
2. Plant a hard red spring wheat, rather than a winter wheat. This means we can plow under any growing cheat grass several times before we plant the spring wheat, which around here is planted in the first couple weeks of June.
With this in mind, we needed to get more seed wheat to plant next year. So in mid-September, I went to a farmer's coop and purchased treated hard spring wheat (not winter wheat). This wheat is known as DNR (Dark Northern Red).
The fellow poured the bin of wheat into a hopper for sacking.
He slipped a bag over the hopper bottom, which is attached to a scale. The hopper automatically stops pouring wheat when the scale reaches 50 lbs.
The hopper gizmo had a built in sewing machine for sewing shut the sacks. Spiffy.
So here is our 200 lbs of DNR spring wheat. We'll plant it next June.
As you can see, life on a homestead doesn't always go smoothly. Things get busy. Mistakes happen. Though we didn't make a single loaf of bread with this wheat-growing experiment, we learned what worked and what didn't. We learned our strengths and our weaknesses (such as having our busy season coincide with harvesting wheat).
Live and learn.