Some time about June of 2006 I decided after long months of listening to James, the editor of The Bison Newsletter talk about storing wheat that I would try to grow some in an exercise in Post-TSHTF Farming/Gardening.
On page 172 of the Readers Digest Back To Basics book it states that a 10’ by 109 ‘ foot plot would grow about 100 pounds of wheat, enough for a family of 4 for a year. I figured that a plot twice that size would be perfect for two people and a dog and a cat. I also question if 100 pounds of wheat is actually enough for a family of 4 for a year.
I am a firm believer that we are headed for 1880’s technology, therefore, I was going to try to use the tools from 1880. I started by going to the field with my trusty dirt turning spade and small pitch fork. I started on July 1st and stopped on July 2nd. I t was just too much back breaking work. Soooo… I roto-tilled a spot about 20 by 100 feet. So much for 1880!
In September, I got about a gallon of wheat out my storage and proceeded to use my hand-held grass seed spreader. I spread those little wheaties just like a pro. I then raked the whole plot to work the seeds into the soil. That took a day.
Over the next two months until about December 1st the little guys actually came up just like winter wheat is supposed to. From then until March we got some snow, about 1/2 of a normal Wisconsin winter and it got below 0 a couple of times. Winter was just no big deal like it is supposed to be here.
In March I noticed they were turning green again and starting to grow. We two snow storms and temperatures dropped below 0 a couple of nights. It got warm and the wheaties were growing again. In April we got frost about 10 nights in a row, but my little green buddies were okay. Along come May and guess what? More frost and no rain! The wheaties were looking dismal. They grew to about 18” in height. In early June we got some rain and they were looking good again.
It had not rained in 20 days as of July 1st. It was close to 100 degrees a couple of days in there. On Sunday, July 1st I checked on them at about 6:00 am and they were all falling down. I checked some of the heads and there was grain, small but all the same its was grain.
I decided it was time to harvest. I went to my storage building and got my razor sharp scythe. I confidently entered the field and made a sweep with the tool…. Much to my amazement the wheat just leaned further over and did not cut. I tried and tried, faster, slower, adjusting the pitch of cut, nothing worked. Remembering that this is a really dangerous tool, I decided to cheat and cut down the wheat with my walk-behind weed whip. The 20th century made a come back. The weed whip did a nice job. I didn’t give it full gas and laid the stalks down nicely.
I went and got my wife. I told her she was drafted to help rake the wheat up. Between the two of us we had it raked by 11:30. By the way we used leaf rakes. This may be the biggest error of all. A proper hay rake is absolutely required.
We loaded the truck up with the bundles of stalks and moved them to my garage. We put down a huge tarp and spread the wheat out.
Back to the Readers Digest Book! It showed a process on page 173. I saw it called for a flail. I don’t have a flail, but I do have the chained Kung-Fu [Nunchaku] sticks that I confiscated from my wayward son 20 years ago. So I began beating the pile with the Kung-Fu sticks. I only hit myself in the back of the head once before I realized I had to slow my swing down.
I kneeled in the pile; I stood by the pile, swinging madly at a pile of straw. After about an hour I decided to find out how much wheat I had. Of course I was expecting huge kernels and lots of them.
I turned a section of the pile to find chaff, dirt, dried deer and rabbit poop and a few wheat kernels. Once again I checked my trusty Back to Basics and found it called for winnowing. I went to the house and got a sifter. I got a 5 gallon bucket and filled up the sifter with a pile of “stuff”. The dirt fell through but that was it. I decided to get an old window screen and try it that way. This worked better but still too much trash in the mix. So back to the 20th century, I got a small electric fan. This helped immensely. It blew much of trash away and left me grain, no dirt, but left the dried animal poop. I poured the remaining stuff back to the kitchen sifter and hand picked out anything not wheat. A very time consuming job.
I have completed perhaps half the pile and have about a cup of wheat. I think I have negative return.
My little experiment in basic farming skills has taught me the following. Remembering that I wanted to do this without the benefit of modern tools and on a small plot:
1. The seed/plant count was way too low. I need a lawn spreader or a very small grain drill. I bought a small hand operated push unit at a garage sale for $2.00 for next year. I should be able to get a more even and consistent spread of seeds.
2. The weather/climate is/has begun to change here. I cannot rely on “normal weather” to nurture the crop. I need to find seed that is more drought resistant. Non-hybrid, but something that will survive on less moisture. I am considering buying a bag or two of wheat Seed at my local coop.
3. Irrigation may be needed. I am building a rain water catchment system for the house and barn. I believe I need to extend the system to where the wheat plot is, move the plot closer to the barn or build its own system. Both are easier said than done.
4. I can extend the existing house water system 600 feet to the plot and use a sprinkler, but that is hardly 1880s technology.
5. I think I need to get a hand held scythe for cutting. I need to find a grain/hay rake. I am going to see if the local Amish have something.
6. I have got to have a winnowing machine. It does not need to motorized, just designed for the task. I have seen one at a local farm for sale. I will be going that way soon and will check. I have also found several designs on the web for small winnowing units. One that uses an electric fan, the other is hand operated. Both are at the Victory Horticultural Library. This entire exercise was to see how I would do using 1880s technology. It was also a test of skills and ability to adapt. I learned much. The most important being that skills and tools do not come from books, but experience. I live at my retreat so I have the luxury to try learning different things.