Self-Sufficiency Series

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Harvesting wheat by hand

This is a very long post, so grab yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine and follow us as we harvest our wheat.

We've been keeping a strict eye on our wheat field because we knew harvest was imminent.


According to our reference book Small Scale Grain Raising by the incomparable Gene Logsdon, grain is ready to harvest when it's crunchy hard. If the grain is chewy-soft, it's not yet ripe.



Don tested the grain every few days. On August 16 it was still too chewy.



On August 23 it was much crunchier...


...and the field had turned a beautiful wheat-gold.


We have four scythes, which Don carefully sharpened. (Before I hear the howls of protest, please understand these are American blades, not European blades. Peening works with European blades but not American blades.)


Meanwhile we had spent the last couple years on the lookout for a cradle for a scythe. A cradle attachment catches the grain and pushes it over in one direction, making it easier to bundle into sheaves. Without a cradle, the grain falls every-which-way.

Scythes are fairly easy to find, but not cradles. I took a screen shot of a scythe-and-cradle for sale on eBay some time ago (no, I have no idea who these gentlemen are). But because they're so bulky, scythes and cradles cannot be shipped.


Last year I made inquiries at a local antique/junk store. The store owner said she had a cradle she would be willing to sell for $50. Last week we asked if she could bring it in.


We brought along one of our own scythes to see if it could be attached.


However, knowing my interest, the woman said the price was now $75 instead of $50, so we said thanks but no thanks.

So early one morning before sunrise, Don and I got to work. (He wore his Hawaiian shirt so, he told me, I wouldn't accidentally scythe him.)


Here's what the first two passes (one for each of us) looked like.


Meanwhile the sun rose.




It took us awhile to decide which scythe worked best for us. It's one thing to take a few whacks in an overgrown lawn. It's something entirely different to scythe a half-acre. I'm shorter and needed a shorter snath (handle), for example.


Also, being older, the grips on the snaths needed to be duct-taped into the correct position, otherwise they slid around too much.


But once we got those difficulties ironed out, we were on our way.


It takes about ten minutes to become an expert with a scythe. It doesn't leave you breathless and panting. It's not physically hard -- it can't be, otherwise farmers from an earlier age couldn't keep it up all day as they did -- and once a rhythm is developed, it goes rather rapidly.  It took Don and me ten minutes to scythe one row the length of the field. It's rather soothing and satisfying. The scythe does the work -- that's the important thing to remember -- and as long as you allow your body to go with the flow, you can keep it up for a long time.


We stopped after every second row to re-sharpen the scythes. Dull scythes merely push the wheat over. Sharp blades slice right through the wheat stems like butter.



Then it was back to work.




Although we didn't (thank God!) have the cheat grass problem we had last year, we did have a few thistles. At first we didn't think much about them -- we scythed through them just as easily as the wheat -- but later seriously regretted it. Those thistles hurt our hands all out of proportion to their size when it came time to bundling the wheat into sheaves.


One thing we discovered during the scything process is the importance of even seed distribution. When we planted the seed late last May, there were times when seed got dumped rather than broadcast (one of the perils of amateurs trying to broadcast seed -- broadcasting is truly an art).


Well, this is what that dumped seed grew into. Can you see the darker, shorter patch?


Doesn't look like it would be any big deal, but in fact the seed heads were smaller and less mature, and the stalks wouldn't slice. They just pushed down in front of the scythe and wouldn't cut at all. This meant that when we finished scything the field, we had lots of little dense patches of uncut wheat. Oh well, live and learn.



This is what the bases on better-spaced plants looked like -- much easier to cut.



Rocks -- the enemy of scythes. Trust me on this.


When we finished cutting, it was time to start raking and bundling. Here's where the girls' help was essential.


But we only got a small start on this process before we called it a day. It was brutally hot and none of us felt like working under that blazing sun.


Besides our muscles were starting to ache. And ache and ache. Scything isn't bad over short spurts, but several hours of it brought out muscle groups I never knew I had. By evening I was horribly stiff and sore, and even my hands were seizing up with cramps while using a knife and fork.

Early the next morning -- shortly after the girls stumbled out of bed -- we hit the wheat field again. I'd already been at it since 6 am, when it was light enough to see. There was a chance of rain coming in, so we had a lot to do.



It took us awhile to figure out how to do things, but we finally fell into an efficient rhythm. The girls were the rakers, and I was the bundler.





The wheat field is roughly triangular in shape, so we started at the apex and worked our way down. Can you see the sheaves?


Hour


after hour


after hour


after hour we worked. The girls were absolute troopers.


We broke at noon to pack about a hundred tankards for shipment to our booth at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, which necessitated a trip to Spokane. When we got home in the evening, we tried shocking some of the sheaves (just a fancy way of saying we stacked the sheaves against each other in an upright position). In theory shocks protect harvested wheat from rain and allows it to dry faster.



Very picturesque to be sure, but the reality was we needed to get this wheat under cover.



But first we had to finish raking and sheaving it. So early on the third morning we were back at it.



Working our way down the triangle, the girls raked the wheat into long rows, like windrows, while I followed and bundled.


To make a bundle, I took hay bale twine and cut it in half...


...and used it to tie the bales. Traditionally sheaves were tied with wheat strands and couldn't be more than about eight inches in diameter (limited by the length of the wheat strands), but I could make the sheaves bigger by using twine.


It was tough work on my fingers, the constant and repetitive jerking and pulling the twine tight, so I wrapped them in duct tape to cut the pain. (Can you see where the term "farmer's hands" comes from?)


I don't know if this was the "right" way to make sheaves, but here's how I did it. Since we weren't using a cradle and therefore the wheat fell every-which-way, I piled wheat into a pile big enough that I could "embrace" it. Here I'm running twine below the pile.


I pull the ends of the twine around to the top of the pile...


...and yank the twine into a half-hitch.


Then I pick up the bundle and give it a good shake to shake loose all the wheat strands that didn't get gathered by the twine (the girls would then come behind me and rake up the fallen wheat into the next windrow).


Then I stepped away from the loose wheat and put the bundle on the ground, where I completed the knot.


Gradually the girls and I worked our way down the field until by about noon of the third day, we got everything raked and bundled into sheaves.


It may not look like much from this perspective, but I assure you it was a massive amount of work to harvest a half-acre of wheat.


But what to do now? Last year we didn't have a rodent-proof place to store the cut wheat, and ended up losing every last grain kernel to the @&%$ chipmunks. After all this hard work I was darned if I would let that happen again.

We seriously thought about buying a giganto cargo net and suspending the wheat from the rafters in the barn (which we may yet do). But for the moment we decided to use a friend's trailer, which he had loaned us a couple of months ago, to store the wheat.


This trailer isn't huge (about 6x8 feet) but it's entirely rodent-proof.


We laid a brand-new clean tarp on the floor, then I brought sheaves while Don stacked them tightly. Wheat kernels were rattling down during this process, giving us hope that when it comes time to thresh the wheat, it won't be too arduous a task.


Don packed those sheaves into the trailer more tightly than I could imagine. We knew we couldn't fit all the wheat into the trailer, but we wanted to fit as much as we possibly could.


Can you see the wheat that has come out of the seed heads?


Don did a remarkable job, packing it in.



This left us with about one-quarter of the field still full of sheaves. Where to put it?


For the time being, we decided just to pack the back of the truck full, hoping that chipmunks are unlikely to scale the sides of the truck to access the wheat. Not a great plan, but about our only option at the moment. So we opened another clean new tarp and spread it over the truck bed.


I handed up the sheaves to Don, and he packed them as tightly as he could. He paused to strike some manly poses, which had me laughing my head off.




It felt good to laugh and be silly after such long days of hard work. After 22 years of marriage, this man can still make me laugh and feel silly.

After the truck was full and the field was empty, we threw another tarp lightly over the top...


...and Don carefully ratcheted it in place to hold everything down while he drove to the barn.


In contrast to the long and back-breaking work of harvesting, raking, and sheaving the wheat, loading the trailer and truck only took about an hour. While it was a relief to get the bulk of the wheat safely picked up, there was unquestionably still a huge amount of loose seed heads scattered on the ground. Don estimates about 20% of the wheat simply fell.


As time permits (ha!), we may carefully rake the field again and try to gather it up. It's hard to waste grain we worked so hard to grow and harvest.


Nonetheless as Don drove out of the field, it made me realize how much we'd accomplished. We'd also done something few other people in America have ever done: hand-harvested a field of wheat.


For the time being, we parked the truck under cover in the barn...


...and parked the trailer off to the side.


As the sun set after these three days of harvesting our wheat, I remarked to Older Daughter how glad I was it was done. She replied, "That's why they used to have harvest parties." Suddenly her words made perfect sense. During a time when a good harvest meant the difference between life and death, who wouldn't want to pause and celebrate God's bounty?


It's important to remember that this is only Step One on the road to flour. We still have to thresh, winnow, and grind the grain before we can make bread.

But that will come later. We're too busy right now to do anything more.

Will we grow wheat next year? Probably not. Not necessarily because of the work involved, but because harvest falls at exactly the same time we're at our peak of busyness with our woodcraft business. The woodcraft business takes precedence since that's our source of income.

It remains to be seen how much wheat (in pounds) we got from this experiment. We started by planting 200 lbs. of seed wheat. If we didn't get a significant amount more in return, then the experiment wasn't worth it.

On the other hand, we grew wheat. That's saying something.

By the way, it never did rain. But that's okay. It gave us the motivation to get the job done. And if we hadn't gotten the wheat under cover, it would have rained buckets. Ain't it the way it always works?

51 comments:

  1. I LOVE that you grew wheat! One of my dreams is to grow our own grains. I have no illusions on it being easy. I have grown and hand harvested field corn...also a job that'll wear you out!

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  2. Ahhh dear lady, but you WILL grow wheat next year. All the seed that fell off while harvesting your crop has seeded your field for next year.

    Maybe simpler to graze it off, sure the cows will like it.

    Winston

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  3. I remember my mother telling me about shocking wheat before I was born in Missouri. It made her hands bleed. After the wheat is dried in the field, a thrashing machine moves into the area and you gather the shocks & feed them into it. The machine removes the grain from the stalks. The Amish here in southern Indiana still shock their wheat, they probably thrash by hand. Good luck with the thrashing.

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  4. Wowwie, wow, wow, wow!

    I knew the moment I saw the new header picture that it was wheat time.

    My first experimental pancake patch was only about 200 square feet. I cut the stalks with a pair of scissors and "sheaved" (is that a word?) them just like you did.

    The entire harvest fit into a big wheelbarrow. For weeks I admired my work - all those beautiful stalks standing upright in my wheelbarrow.

    Then came the threshing and winnowing by hand. Oh my aching arms. Later, it occured to me that a baseball bat might have worked better than the broom handle I did use.

    The harvest always comes during the hottest part of summer.

    I'm so impressed that you all were able to get in that much wheat the old fashioned way. The REALLY old fashioned way. Yee-Haw! It's done.

    Just Me

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  5. WOW! I am so impressed! Having cut many acres of hay by hand with a scythe years ago I KNOW what a job it is. Your family rocks! I used a different type blade then you two did. For grass and long grain I used an Australian grass blade. It was longer, thinner and came to more of a a point. The type of blades you were using I used to cut brush and heavier weeds. Grass blades, brush blades and the scythes could all be bought at the local feed store back then. Also the sycthe stones used to sharpen them. I still have that stone and still use it.
    Leslie

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  6. Congratulations! I'm sure interested in your final poundage. We'd starve in a hurry if suddenly we became responsible for our daily bread.

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  7. Patrice,

    Great pictures of your experiment. I truly hope that when you get totally done with the experiment that it was totally worth it. Especially at the end with all the grain and bread you'll be making. This experiment was a great project for family bonding. Everyone in the family worked their butts off.
    As Winston (above) stated no need to broadcast seed next year :-) the process will automatically follow!
    The cattle will love grazing your field.

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  8. Two comments: You waited a bit too long to cut, that's why you lost so much to Mother Earth. Cut it a bit greener and let it finish drying in the shock. In the old days, they'd twist a few stalks of grain together and use that to tie the bundles.
    Next, get the girls a couple of those old, homemade, wooden tooth rakes. You'd be amazed at how much better they are at that job than a steel garden rake or broom rake. Much faster and more gentle, too.

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  9. This reminds me of a song we used to sing at my grandma's old country church. Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheaves. Your explanation makes the words of that song mean so much more now!

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  10. That is indeed always the way it works.
    You did a great job. And your daughters, too. Congratulations!

    It was very rude of that lady to raise the price. I would not have bought it either, after that.
    I hope your experiment is a wonderful success.

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  11. WOW!! Congrats Lewis family!! I've been following your awesome blog for awhile now, and recall that you have attempted to grow wheat in the past...to "no avail" one might say, but clearly y'all have been living and learning and BY JOVE YOU'VE DONE IT!!! Love your persistance! I..and I'm sure others too, have been learnin' a few things with you along the way. Thanks for sharing your journey!!

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  12. It is amazing what people will do the hard way! Nobody in their right mind will try this now, for sure. After stone tools were invented, along came the scythe, after wich was replaced with horse drawn tools & machinery. If your going to homestead, for god sakes put them useless horses to work. And you can buy horse drawn eguipment cheaply, may need some fixen, but you can do it. Even the tractor if it runs. Cut the wheat a little green, shock it up for several weeks to dry, let it dry in the shock, and the grain will come out easier. Educate yourselves, before trying to educate us!

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    Replies
    1. Well, meow to you too. Jeff

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    2. You may be missing the point of this blog. We set out to conduct an experiment: to sow and harvest wheat BY HAND. We didn’t set out to educate YOU, we set out to educate OURSELVES. We have become more educated. Now we know more of what works and what doesn’t. There’s always more to learn, but the quest for self-sufficiency is a **journey** not a **destination.**

      I agree we probably waited too long to harvest, but that’s because we had a zillion other projects on our plate, including making a living. But if the day ever comes when we MUST sow and harvest wheat by hand because the bleep has hit the fan, we won’t be plagued with trifling things like earning an income. Our entire existence can be dedicated to food production.

      Oh dear, that sounds like I’m trying to educate you. Never mind.

      Next?

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    3. Dear Patrice, those of us who have followed you for many, many months, even years, knew exactly what you were doing here. We knew you weren't trying to educate us, although you DID educate those of us who have no idea what it's like to harvest a field of wheat! Most of your good readers write in and give you excellent advice, and some just try to impress us with their smarts, without really understanding the situation. Hopefully, Jeff "gets it" now! Best regards.
      --Fred and Deb in AZ

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    4. Thank you! But I should point out it wasn't Jeff who made the snark -- Jeff was defending me (bless his heart).

      - Patrice

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    5. Continuing anonymous' thought, then you should progress to using a tractor and diesel and then get really modern and get you some good GMO seed and drench it in Roundup. Some people...

      I, for one, was educated on how to do this by hand and appreciate it.

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  13. What an amazing job and excellent experiment! Thanks for sharing it with us! I can't wait to hear how much flour you get from it!

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  14. Thank you for your example. I've been eyeballing doing some winter wheat just ot get the experience on board but have been negligent with other issues.

    Your post motivates me to get er done so I can do my trial and error prior to needing it. I guess that's why we prep, to become prepared.

    Wisdom came to you with this planting. I need to gain that wisdom.

    @ AnonymousAugust 29, 2012 4:53 PM
    Dear Poster,

    Nobody forced you to visit this site. Don't like it? Go elsewhere. I notice you're long on words but short on proof. You even lack the courage to post your name let alone a detailed blog on how "you", the expert on wheat growth, might show us your examples. Go away.

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  15. Patrice and family,

    Way to go! I often try things just to see how they come out, good or bad. That first loaf of bread could be brick and it will still be awesome. Just the knowledge that you did the work and didn't have to depend on others to provide your bread is a soul satisfying accomplishment.

    I play with numbers a lot and found it interesting that it took you three days to accomplish something you and your family desired to satisfy a yearning to be more self reliant. Three is considered to be the number of God's grace. Just a thought.

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  16. Patrice and Lewis Family,
    Way to Go! And Congratulations on the successful growing test field and the harvest experiment.

    There is no better satisfaction than doing this from scratch without machinery.

    Memories of this event will never be forgotten by your family. The first loaf of bread will be so appreciated and special!

    BTW, my hands look sorta like yours Patrice,only with alot more callouses, we just finished our harvest about 3 weeks ago.

    God Bless you and yours!

    notutopia

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  17. Hello Patrice, I have a question about the cradles. You and Don make a living making wooden tankards, Have you thought of trying to make a cradle during your craft's off season?

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    1. Yes, we have definitely thought about it. We may try using thin PVC pipe instead of the fragile wood frame though. If we do make some, you can be sure I'll post on it.

      - Patrice

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  18. What an AWESOME JOB!!! Bravo! You did it! Now you know you can...the entire point of the project. And yes, having animals help or the proper tools would have made things easier but...that was not the point of the project! How wonderful your girls are learning numerous & very important life lessons. Well DONE!

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  19. I am old enough to remember shocking oats back in Illinois on the farm. I have also run a scythe and now wish I had taken one when I moved to Texas. I too remember the sharpening stones and dressing the blade every 50 strokes or so. You are right in that the sharpness of the blade is key. You HAVE educated us all even with out trying and most of us sure appreciate your effort.

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  20. Love all the pictures, especially the funny pictures of your husband.
    Hard work, but many blessings.
    andy

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  21. Having tried our hand at wheat raising two years in a row now, I very much enjoyed this post. Sort of a mental comparing and taking notes. Your shocks came out so nice. Mine didn't and we just raked the whole mess into a huge tarp and dragged it out of the field and under cover.

    Threshing though, that's our shortfall. I've tried a number of methods but dang if it isn't work. I like Paul Wheaton's method, but threshing will have to wait until the weather isn't conducive to working outside. I'll be interested in how yours turns out.

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  22. Patrice, I'll call this an unqualified success considering how much better you did with this crop than the first one.

    I hope the numbers work, but even if it's not what you'd hope or need, I feel sure you're ready for round three, whenever that may be.

    Those old harvest feasts came about because they were all already there, together and hungry, having come together to help each other bring in their crops. Seeing these great photos of such an ancient task via this modern medium is sweet, indeed.

    God is good.

    Congratulations on a job well done, Lewis Family. The Lewis Daughters are impressive young women of fortitude and strong character. I know their parents are grateful and well pleased.

    And in case it hasn't been said, on behalf of your 'neighborhood' deer and chipmunks, thank you! lol

    A. McSp

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  23. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgyWaoVeVKw&feature=endscreen&NR=1

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvUsdvCda04

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  24. Interesting post. I have my great grandfathers cradle. It's a beautiful piece of history. Would happily loan it to you, but PA is just too far too drop it off!

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  25. the satisfaction that comes from success and hard work is wonderful...and sometimes that is exactly why i do things the old fashioned hard way too. some adventures with old fashioned farming/harvesting i try to never experience again, yet there are others that have made me a believer in never changing what works well.

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  26. Well done! I'm so proud of you and your family!

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  27. Wow! I just randomly stumbled on your blog and this post is amazing! Congratulations on such a great endeavor. I look forward to reading about how it all turns out in the end.

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  28. Just came across your site. Brought me back to the years when my grandmother, mother and us kids cooked and baked for days. When the day of threshing came at grandma and grandpa's farm we saw neighbors coming down the road to help grandpa in the fields. Mom and us kids helped grandma take the threshing tables outside (they were long and narrow) and put the food on the tables. At noon the men came back and had a big meal (my Mom is still a great baker and cook at 81). They ate alot since they burned those calories off and went back to the fields. It is a memory of the 1950's and how neighbors helped each other. Grandpa would then go and help his neighbors to get their threshing done. Hard days of work but wonderful memories and the beauty of God all around.

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    1. This is one great aspect of present day life that seems to be lacking ... working together as a family/community for survival. No one sitting around with time to dawdle or watch stupid TV. I'm anxious to see how much wheat in weight you gathered.

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  29. Just found your site - memories. Kudos to you and your family. Brings me back to the time Mom and us three older girls (we were 6-10 years) went to Grandma and Grandpa's farm to help with the threshing. Mom and us helped grandma in the kitchen cooking and baking a lot of food. The men came down the road and went into the fields to help grandpa do the threshing. We had to take two threshing tables outside (these were long and narrow) for us to put the food on. When lunchtime came the men came out of the fields to eat and they really did eat. After all, they had been working since early morning and were hungry. After lunch back to the fields they went and we had all those dishes to clean and put away. No one used paper plates back then. My Mom is still a great cook and baker at 81. Thank you so much for bringing me back to a time when I was young and never minded helping grandma and grandpa. Grandpa would then go and help his neighbors to do their threshing. I remember the beauty of God providing for all.

    Simple memories but joyous ones. Nancy

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  30. Impressive! The amount of physical effort involved is incredible. As the daughter of a grain merchant I grew up learning about barley, oats and wheat without realising it. The harvest in Scotland is very late this year because of our poor weather this summer - several weeks late and now running into autumn weather. Moisture levels will be up, which is a problem for drying for storage. Also for drying barley for whisky distilling - that may or may not be considered an essential depending on how you view 'the water of life'!

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  31. Wow - I'm totally impressed!! Nice to know you can do it on on your own. Nice work:)

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  32. Patrice. Now I know what my great grandparents went through,

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  33. Considering a mule? First, this was very interesting. You put in a lot of work, and we all benefit from what you're learning. Thanks for that. I understand the need to avoid machines that need fuel - but using a horse or mule seems very appropriate. I see the need for someone to design or re-introduce small machines that a single mule could power. New technologies could create hIgher quality old-style machines that last longer and work better. I think you could triple your productivity and still meet your goal to be subsistent / independent during a complete economic melt down. This would increase output and bartering leverage for you when the limits of your own abilities are reached.

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  34. At this point there's there's little ground that hasn't been covered (in this post OR in your wheat field! Ha ha ha I crack myself up. Ahem.)

    Nothing except perhaps that when I saw the pics my first thought was, bet Patrice wishes she'd remembered the sunscreen. :)

    Jeff - Tucson

    P.S. As readily as I would jump to your defense on any occasion, I suppose I will henceforth be required to identify myself as the "Non-meowing Jeff" of this blog.

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  35. Thanks for sharing your hard work. God bless you and your family. Beautiful pictures :)

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  36. It's winter now, and I'm wondering how your harvest went? Did you manage to get enough to have made it worth it? I'm really curious to know how many pounts of wheat berries you got from that plot size. Great job this summer by the way. My wife and I live in NW Montana (close to you) and we are going to plant some spring wheat and do the same experiment you did. Thanks SO much for posting about your experience for us to be able to learn from.

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    1. Nope, believe it or not we still haven't threshed it. We're working on other projects, trying to get things ready for winter. Our biggest project at the moment is building an awning and long feed bin for the cattle on the east side of the barn, so they have better shelter and feeding facilities. Threshing can be done anytime, so we're trying to do the time-critical stuff first.

      - Patrice

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  37. I have a scythe with cradle which would makle this a little easier (if that is possible)

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  38. Thank you for a most informative post. I grew a small plot of hulless oats this year as an experiment and your post has helped tremendously in the how where and when of harvesting the crop. I hope to plant a different crop in that area each year. Looking for another organic possibility for next year.
    Donna

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  39. A question - how long would it take one man to cut a one-acre field of wheat, using a sickle or a sythe?? Just to cut it, not bind or stook it. Thanks.

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  40. According to Guide to Self-sufficency - one man can cut 2 acres in a day. ( Probably then died for the rest of the week ... lol )

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  41. For a guide on the proper use of the American pattern scythe, see this document. :)

    http://ep.yimg.com/ty/cdn/yhst-129988217023674/ScytheGuide1.pdf

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