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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Toast to Volunteers

Volunteer wheat and tomatoes

Down in Louisiana in cajun territory, they have a special word for a little extra given, but not asked for: lagniappe.  My compost pile has given me two lagniappes this summer: I have what my mother always called 'volunteer' tomatoes growing on one side of the pile, and around the perimeter, I have mystery grain that has sprouted from the straw I used in it.  It's patently obvious that I've not managed this pile particularly well, because if I had, neither the tomato seed nor the grain would have sprouted.  However, I'm nurturing both as assiduously as I would had I actually planted them on purpose, especially the grain.  I am pretty sure that it's wheat, because I know that it's not barley, which comes as two-row or six-row; this stuff has four rows.  Steve pointed out last summer when I pulled whole seed heads out of the first bale of straw we bought that we don't know the provenance of the seed, so we don't know whether it's been genetically modified or not.  He had a good point, so I decided against trying to grow it intentionally.  But since it's sown itself, I'm willing to leave it where it is as an experiment.

It's been my intention for a few years now to try to grow my own grain.  When we were still living in Beaverton and the idea of growing our food in the backyard was still a notion, I ran across a book at the local library called Small Scale Grain Raising, by Gene Logsdon.  It was out of print at the time, and I was sorely tempted to 'lose' the book, but happily it's back in print again.  I won't consider myself self-sufficient until I can grow our flour, maybe not all of it, but a good majority of what we use.  The grain mill we purchased this year was a step in that direction. Eventually, I want to be able to raise all the feed we'll need for chickens and rabbits too, but that's still in the very far future.  I just can't consider myself self-sufficient until I'm not relying on outside sources for essential inputs to my garden.

What the volunteer grain I'm nurturing offers me is the chance to learn on a very small scale and with no real skin in the game what it's like to grow, harvest, thresh and winnow grain for personal consumption. It's still at a very green stage, and, I expect, still in its 'milk' stage, but I'll be watching for the kernels to get hard.  Gene says that the wheat is ready to harvest when it turns flat yellow to a dead brownish red (depending on the variety), and that the seed heads will point down.  At this point you can pull off a few grains, thresh them in your hand, blow off the chaff, and take a bite. If it's crunchy hard, it's ready to harvest; if it's chewy, it's not.

But what kind is it?
The other mystery about this wheat, if indeed that's what it is, is that I don't know if it's a red or white variety, or if it's a variety that should be sown in the spring or winter, or if it's hard or soft.  I think I have the red or white question guessed pretty well- if I had to put money on it, I would wager that it's white, because white is the type of wheat most grown up here in the Pacific Northwest.  That's a good thing, too, because Steve and I have discovered a marked preference for white wheat; red wheat tends to taste 'good for you'.

If this experiment turns out well, we've lots of organic soft white and hard white wheat grain to try growing. I've really learned to prefer the taste of whole grain pancakes and tortillas, but to be sure, it's because we're grinding it right before we use it.  Most whole grain flours you find on the shelf were ground months ago by machinery which makes them pretty unpalatable- the machine grinding destroys the nutrition and flavor because of the heat it produces, and then the oils left in it by the germ go rancid while the flour sits on the shelf. Yuck.  If you want to try whole grain wheat flour but can't stand the way it tastes, you owe it to yourself to seek out freshly milled flour, preferable ground by hand or by water.  I guess in this regard we're pretty lucky that we live just around the corner from Bob's Red Mill, where we can buy twenty-five pound bags of organic wheat.  Our second fifty pounds (twenty-five each of soft and hard) are cooling their jets in the freezer.  By the time we go to pick up the pork, they'll have been in there for thirty days which is long enough to kill any insects and their progeny that might have been in them.  The other good thing that having to grind your flour first before you bake with it does for you is that it makes you find other things to eat.  We're not supposed to be eating so many flour-based products anyway, but at least most of what we do eat is whole grain.

So what do you think?  I'm interested to see if I can actually get the grain far enough along to harvest it. If I can do that much, I can do the rest, and I'll have a really good idea of what it takes to put bread on the table.

I guess we'll find out together that even if I can't do eggs, maybe I can at least do toast.


Holly House said...

That book is for sale on Amazon! What grain mill do you have? I've been wanting one for ages since the whole grain wheat flour I've bought before really IS gross, and sadly I can't get Erick near any whole grain stuff I bake for this very reason. I swear, every time I read something on your blog it's about something I've been planning or thinking about the day before.

Paula said...

Hi Holly- just goes to show great minds think alike, as the saying goes. I have a Country Living grain mill, which is made in the state of Washington. Eric Thomason and Kelli Coyne of the Root Simple blog did a survey recently because they were considering buying grain mill, and the first several people to comment (me included) recommended the Country Living grain mill. Stupid name, but great mill.

I did a lot of research before deciding on it, and whoat sold me (in addition to the fact that it's made in the states) was it's versatility. It will grind a pretty fine flour, and Steve liked it because he can dial it back and crack malted barley, and some day, if I ever get the chicken conundrum licked and manage to actually grow corn in this rapidly changing climate, I can install a corn and bean auger into it and crack corn for the chickens. Or mill my own corn meal.

The two cautions I have for it are to make sure you bolt it down to a counter that's not going to move (using 5/16ths bolts, washer, lock washer and nut- you'll need four each) and to watch the video on their website to properly install the flywheel handle, which is counterintuitive, but does work when you do it correctly.

We love our mill, and expect many years of service from it.

Holly House said...

What type of corn are you growing next year? We're trying our and at is as well *blogging kismet!* I'll look into the grain mill. It's on the list right after a Berkey water filter lol. There are ones people have made that are also pedal powered! Mayapedal makes them for people who live in their town, I think in Guatemala? They have plans for you to DIY one if you want to switch it up.

Miriam said...

I'm waiting with bated breath for my first quinoa harvest, for exactly the same reasons you're looking ahead to future wheat harvests: how self-sufficient can we be? I think this is so exciting. What I'm not looking forward to so much is the actual harvesting/winnowing process. Quinoa grains are pretty small!

We had wheat of some kind sprouting EVERYWHERE I laid straw mulch this year - which means pretty much all over. I find that so infuriating - the mulch is supposed to help the plants in my garden by trapping in moisture, not compete by stealing moisture and nutrients! Argh...

How's the job going? I'm amazed by the fact that you're getting anything done at all, on top of a new full-time job.

Marc said...

Years ago when I was living in California, I was given a gift of a block of seed. You were supposed to put it in a dish and add water and it would produce sprouts you could put on your salad. By the time I went to use the sprouts, they had turned into a 3 inch by 4 inch block of lawn about 4 inches tall. So I took it out and planted it in the flower bed. It turned out to be wheat. In due course, the clump of wheat was 3 feet tall and eventually turned brown and dried. I cut the the seed heads off, thinking it would be a fun experiment to replant them the next year, harvest the seed and replant those the next year, etc. That original clump produced about a cup of seed that planted about a 1 foot by 3 foot area. Each seed makes a seed head with maybe 20 or more new grains, so that 1 cup turned into 20 cups at harvest. At that point my experiment was over because that would have filled up every flower bed and available planting space I had, and probably would have produced a bushel of seed at harvest. It sounds silly now, but it never occurred to me to eat the stuff. After all, bread comes from a grocery store, right?

Carolyn said...

I have borrowed Gene's book "Small Scale Grain Raising" from our local library so many times they don't even roll their eyes at me any more! I am still in the planning stage of grain raising, and while I was all for growing wheat once we move next year, I'm thinking more oats now, simply because the entire family eats oatmeal, whereas I am the only one who really likes whole grain bread.
Keep us updated on your wheat!

Paula said...

Holly- I didn't plant corn this year- I couldn't get to it. Our hot growing season seems to be getting shorter up here in the PNW- I chose Hickory King, which is a dent corn, for the this summer, but I'll have to try it next summer.

Miriam- the job is going well, although I'm getting busier and busier, Actually, it's becoming stressful, but I'm still glad I have a job!

Marc- you can always replace lawn!

Carolyn- the book is available again, and I don't think it's too much. I also understand it has some updated material in it, although I haven't done a comparison to see what that might have been about. Re: oats- if I remember correctly, oats have a difficult hull, so they may not be a good choice without some specialty equipment've probably read the book on it more times than I have so you know where to look. I will tell you that my neighbor who used to raise cattle told me this week that oat makes the best straw (even if it doesn't make the best pasta!)

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Paula, since I take my job as WFG resident crank seriously, I'm going to suggest that you think about your time in the same way you think about your acreage.

One of the reasons you chose potatoes is that it's the most calories per acre. If you were to do the same calculation for your time -- calories per hour -- I suspect wheat would come up very, very short. The processing of wheat is done very inefficiently by hand, and incredibly efficiently by machine. The people who have the machines can bring wheat to you inexpensively, and it is often very good wheat indeed.

If someone held a gun to your head and forced you to be self-sufficient, I think it's probable that, rather than grow wheat, you'd turn your attention to high-value crops that you could grow and process easily and quickly. I know I sure would.

End of crank rant.

Paula said...

On the other side of the equation, Tamar, is that the potatoes are labor intensive planting (for me anyway) and they take a bunch of water- the wheat may be a lot easier for me to grow than potatoes. But you're right; once it come to harvesting, and threshing, and winnowing and then grinding, for heaven's sake, then wheat gets pretty darn labor intensive.

I've figured out that if things go as far south as I'm preparing for, we're gonna starve anyway...