The Year I Accidentally Grew Wheat, by Gonzo In Virginia

I’d like to share a recent adventure in practical survival skills that I stumbled upon by accident. Luckily for me this was not a disaster that forced this, but instead the natural friction that occurs between man and wife. In the course of a year I grew a crop of wheat, harvested, processed, and made a loaf of bread. The adventure was that I did not start out to do any of those things! In the course of this learning experience I found out that things “everyone knows” are not, in fact, easy to find out.

The adventure started innocently enough with the typical chore item. The wife asked for a flower garden in the front yard. The spot designated for this garden was a small section of grass in a ¼ oval shape. It was About 8 feet wide and 15 feet long that existed between the front porch and the sidewalk.   Over a course of a weekend I dug the hard soil, tilled it with a hand tiller attachment on my weed trimmer, and amended the soil.

This was the first lesson I learned in my growing of the wheat, even though I had not started to grow it yet!  The typical suburban yard is a mess when it comes to growing anything but grass. My yard, being typical, at one time was farm land, but 40 years ago the farm land was converted into a subdivision and the front yard has had nothing but grass in it for those 40 years. This leads to the soil becoming as hard as rock over time underneath the thin layer of sod on top of it. There is no aeration or other activity to break the soil up. When I went to till the ground I found my tiller jumping all over the place. It would scalp the ground, chewing up the thin layer of sod, but not dig into the soil underneath.

Finally I had to set the tiller aside and grab a spade. A spade differs from a regular shovel in that it has a point like a spade on a playing card, a flat shovel will not work in this situation. I then began to break the soil in my garden up with the spade. I would put the tip in, step on it and drive it into the soil, lever a hunk out, take a step back, and repeat. I found over time that working in a straight line back and forth helped as it relieved pressure on two sides, the side I had taken the previous bite out of and the row that was missing next to it. This process is often referred to as turning the soil.

What I was doing, and had not realized until later research, closely mimicked what the settlers had to do on the Great Plains. To create any sort of acreage you first cross the field with a plow and break the soil up into large chunks. A plow is the large, single bladed, instrument pulled by a tractor or a horse. The next step is to run a disc tiller across that field and break down the loosened chunks into a finer soil.  The disc is the item that looks like a bunch of saw blades on a rack. Once you have done that you amend the soil by spreading manure or other fertilizers on the field and till it again. Finally you can return with your plow of similar device and turn the soil into rows if that is what you need.

After I hand spaded the flower garden, which was back breaking even for this small area, I used my handheld tiller to simulate the action of the disc and broke the soil up. When that was done I tossed some random fertilizer and peat I had laying around onto the garden and worked that in to improve drainage and amend the soil. After 40 years of growing grass it turns out that yard soil is extremely depleted of nutrients. I suggest a nice 10-10-10 fertilizer if you are not growing something specific. It is a nice balance of nutrients without so much of any one you have to worry about hurting a crop. I then re-tilled to work this in.

This whole adventure had gone from a couple hours on a Saturday to almost 30 hours over two weekends. So I informed my wife that if a weed grew anywhere in that garden after all my work I was going to be very displeased, and as this was her garden, she had to keep the weeds out. In order to do this she did not want a layer of plastic and then a layer of mulch as I expected but wanted straw. To kill two birds with one stone when buying Halloween decorations I bought three bails of straw from the local feed and seed. Once they were done with their decorating purposes she spread them all over the Garden as weed control, which they immediately failed at when green shoots started sprouting everywhere. I brought this up to my wife she said not to worry, the winter would kill these shoots and she would make sure there were no weeds in the spring.

After a fairly wet and mild winter we had, as you probably can now guess, a nice crop of winter wheat in our front lawn. The bails of straw I had purchased were wheat straw and they took to my freshly tilled garden very nicely. By March I had a nice thick crop in the yard that was waist high and nicely forming heads. I then informed my wife that I was now taking over the garden as my wheat project as I had decided I was going to make a loaf of bread for all my hard work. I figured this would be a great opportunity to practice a couple skills that I was sure were easy. How hard could they be? Subsistence farms had been doing exactly this for a thousand years.

Once I had decided that I was going to do this project I began researching how to go from a stand of wheat to a loaf of bread on the table and found out something interesting. There is a huge gap between theory and practice. You can find tons of information online on how to grow wheat, and tons of information and how to make processed wheat berries into bread, but there is a major drop out of information between the two.  I found it very difficult to find information on when to harvest, how to harvest, what to do with the harvested wheat, etc etc. It seemed that if a 15th century French peasant could do it, then anyone could and no one has bothered to ever document the process.

So I watched my wheat yellow and dry on the stalks until it was completely dried out. I decided to harvest my wheat at this point. Further research has shown that I waited too long. What I should have done was waited until there was just a hint of green left in the stalks and then cut the wheat down and made sheaves out of it. A sheave is a 6 inch diameter bundle of wheat tied around the middle with a wheat stalk. You make groups of sheaves, and then stack them into a pyramid shape to allow air flow through the stack to finish the drying process.  If you wait too long then your wheat is prone to shatter, which is where the wheat berries fall off the stalk when it is cut by the scythe or when stacked and the wheat berries are lost. The idea is to cut the wheat before this shatter point, stack and dry it until it crosses that point, and then use this tendency to separate the wheat berries from stalks in a controlled matter.

Luckily for me I did not have a scythe, I had bunny rabbits. The bunnies had taken up residence in my small wheat patch, making a warren beneath the wheat straw. My wife was worried that the hawks would get the bunnies (BTW bunnies is the correct term as rabbits are things you eat apparently.) She requested that I not cut the stalks down but instead just pull the heads off the stalks. So I found myself one weekend with a 5 gallon bucket picking wheat like it was huckleberry season. The things we do for love. This, on the other hand, got me around the shatter problem; I did not even realize it was a possible problem until later. I also got to inspect each head for signs of mildew or mold as I went.

As a trade off to save the bunnies, my wife agreed to shuck my wheat heads for me and sat on the porch running each one through her hand to pull the berries out and put them in a container. Again very slow going, but did have the advantage of keeping the chaff down. This, of course I learned later, was not the normal way. Normally you would have taken your sheaves of wheat you made earlier from your pile once they dried and taken them to some sort of processing ground. Usually a cleared dirt space shaped like a bowl, if you are in sub Saharan Africa, or a tarp will work as good. The idea then is to beat your wheat until all the berries fall off the stalks on to your surface, using the natural tendency for wheat to shatter I mentioned before.  A sharp strike from a flail or other implement is what you want here. A pressing force, such as walking on the stalks, will not knock the wheat berries loose from the stalks as well as a sharp strike will.

Quickly it became obvious to me that shucking these heads was not going to work for me and the wife, the bunnies seemed to have no opinion. I was not about to go buy a thresher or other device to work these buckets of wheat so I had to improvise. While rooting around in the garage for a solution I found a concrete mixing paddle that was fairly clean. I then grabbed my cordless drill and had a solution! I put the bit into the drill, shoved it into the buckets of wheat heads and turned it on! Success! The flailing paddle in short order beat the wheat out of my heads and fell to the bottom of my bucket. Now I had a bunch of short stalks, a bunch of chaff (the small leaves that surround the wheat berry), and a bunch of wheat berries. Then came the next problem, how to separate these items?

Grabbing some wire mesh I poured wheat between buckets through the mesh and cleaned the stalks out. The berries, and that dang chaff, passed through the screen and left the stalks behind. If the stalks had been longer, or my mesh finer, this would have been quick, unfortunately this step took a pass or two.  With these two steps what I had recreated was the basic thresher. These were simply a paddle that moved and flailed the wheat across a conveyer belt with slots in it causing the wheat and chaff to drop down to the bottom of the thresher and the wheat to come out the other end. Powered by farm animal power or steam they greatly sped up farm production of wheat in the 1800s.These early threshers were simply a set of flails and a conveyer on a shaft turned by a belt attached to an animal walk system. It would have been easy to reproduce I believe, except I had no farm animal except the bunnies, and they continued to be no help in this process.

After a day of my work with the drill and my improvised thresher I now had a 5 gallon bucket about ¾ full of wheat berries and chaff.  I had heard that the way that has normally used to remove chaff was the wind. So I started pouring my wheat from bucket to bucket held high so the wind would take the chaff, which it did, but it was slow and prone to spillage. So I went and got a fan and started passing this wheat in front of the fan. This worked pretty well. After about a dozen passes I finally had my end product, about 10 pounds of wheat berries nicely cleaned. Excited I went into the house and check to see how much a bushel of wheat (60 pounds) sold for thinking of all the money I had saved. The price of a bushel of wheat turned out to be just around eleven dollars. Please note that the eleven dollar price is for a bushel of wheat delivered by the train load, so don’t use that price to price shop with your local dealer. I figured that after four weekends of hard work I had made almost three dollars! At this rate it would be a race to see if I starved to death before I went broke. Still determined I was going to get my loaf of bread I set on my next task, making this wheat into flour.

Now I should mention the sort of prepper I am. I like to figure out how, from a zero starting point, how a guy can make the tools he needs to survive. This often means making the tools, to make the tools, to make the tools. I have found out that things that were so easy an illiterate 15th century peasant could do it does not actually work out to be that simple after all. It turns out that simple things are really hard to do.

The problem I now faced was, I had wheat berries that were inedible. Wheat is an interesting plant product. It is a very hard outer shell surrounding gluten filled starch. To get to this little pocket of flour you have to break the rock like germ on the outside. Human teeth cannot do this so the wheat has to be processed into some other form to make it edible.
I had three avenues to turn my wheat into a food source. I could sprout the berries by soaking them in water until a sprout forms breaking and softening the outer germ. This process is surprisingly quick, only taking about 12 hours. You then dry this and grind it to make bread and other items, or put the sprouted berries into hot water and eat them like porridge. I could feed this wheat and its straw to live stock and turn the wheat into protein that way. Like a lot of conversions though you lose a lot of calories doing this, and we had already established that the bunnies are out of bounds as a food source, for me and the hawks. So my third option was to grind my wheat berries into smaller bits and make some flour.

I went back to my tools of tools method and started to work on the problem of how to make a flour mill. Now lots of places will sell you a mill, or mill parts. Lots of places will tell you that the 15th century peasant went to the mill, but if you want to make a mill then things get quiet. Eventually I found from a web site how to make a 15th Century quern and learned the magic of the wheat grinding process. This process lives in the matching faces of convex and concave shapes.

The most basic idea of wheat grinding is that you have to have two hard surfaces that are finely matched with each other. This could be as simple as two stones you are rubbing together or as complex as water driven mill stones.  There is a good chance that, as preppers, you own a mortar and pestle. Go grab it and look at it. You will notice that the two surfaces actually match up to a great degree. If they did not grinding with it would be impossible. Mill stones and querns work the same way. You have two stones , one of which is mobile and one of which is stationary. The top stone needs to be concave while the bottom stone needs to be convex and have their surfaces mesh. This can be a very shallow slope, but it does need to be there. Then in the surface of your two stones you need to put grooves that narrow down to nothing. On the stop stone you have a hole that the wheat is placed in dead center of the top stone. The idea is the wheat works its way, by gravity and the turning action of the stones, into those grooves and gets ground smaller and smaller against the face of the opposing stone until if finally falls off the outside of the stone where it is collected as flour.

You can make your stones from metal, or concrete, or even large chiseled river rocks if you like. Once you have your shapes close you can then place sand between the stones and rotate them until both surfaces mesh. This is the trick, if you don’t cast the stones from concrete on mirror forms, to making your surfaces mesh. Get them close and then grind down the stones with some grit in between. This grinds both surfaces equally removing distortions until they mesh perfectly. Then you can chisel your grooves in.  Once the chiseling is done on either way of making them run them for a bit to knock any loose grit out of the stones and then brush them off.

Once you have the stones you can power them any way you wish. A quern was powered by muscle power. It had an offset handle that was gripped and used to rotate the whole top stone around a central spindle mounted in the bottom stone. Wheat was placed into a hole in the top stone and fell down past the spindle in between the stones. The foxfire books show how to make barrel mills and other such devices to power larger stones. You could even go full size with a good sized stream to damn and create a sluice and wheel system.

After this bout of research and looking at the time and effort to making a quern, realizing I did not have a stream or river to damn for a traditional mill, and deciding I did not want to run a barrel wheel powered mill off my garden hose. Reality also set in. The fact of the matter was it was entirely possible that after all this work, once I made my bread, I might find out I hated it. This led me to believe that I did not want to spend a single dollar on this process, so I went and found an old electric coffee grinder and proceeded to grind up my wheat in it. I managed to get my 8 cups for a batch of bread before it burned up and it only took four hours. In other words this is not really a solution to the wheat grinding problem either.

Since my experiment ended I have procured a living grain mill from Ready Made Resources to use for grinding my wheat. I love this mill. The hand crank is on a flywheel that is already grooved to accept a V-belt. This makes turning this unit into a powered unit a snap. Gas, muscle, electrical, or bunny power is all possible with this mill. I find I can turn out enough flour to make a batch of bread in about 45 minutes using the hand crank, and I get a great cardio workout with it, too!

Once I had my 8 cups of wheat flour I then proceeded to make my bread. There are a ton of recipes in books and on the internet for making bread so I won’t take up space including one here. I decided to make mine with honey as the sweetener to keep it as true to what would have been produced by my model peasant. I also looked into making my own yeast for this process. I quickly found out that yeast is not as readily available as one would think. With thousands of possible strains in the world, and only a handful being useful, making yeast is not something to take lightly and outside of the scope of this article.
Once I had my loaves of bread I sat down to try them and they were wonderful! Since I had freshly ground the grain I retained all the nutrients. Since it was the whole grain it was whole wheat bread with the extra roughage. This produced some profound gastrointestinal benefits in addition to tasting great. I found I also had more energy over the next couple days. This might have been a side benefit of all the physical labor I had done, but it seemed like a missing nutrient had been replaced in my diet.

So in the end I had my loaves of bread after several weeks of work, at zero cost, and a lot of learning. I also still had several bunnies and a happy wife. I also now feel confident that I have taken some major steps in learning how to actually farm wheat. This confidence in my wheat using and growing abilities has allowed me to add wheat to my personal stockpiles. More importantly I now use my wheat regularly in my day to day cooking, allowing me to cycle my stores of wheat properly.

The lesson learned from my accidental experiment is that you should always check your assumptions.  I had assumed making bread was easy, I had assumed growing wheat was easy, I had no idea how much labor was really involved. I had assumed I could just use my stored wheat, not realizing that it needs preparation. Finally I also learned the power of names. When the family stops referring to it as that darn rabbit, and starts calling them the cute bunnies, you are going to have an issue.  Cute, it turns out, is a work creator, not a work reducer. So be quick with the three S conservation plan to these problems. Shoot, shovel, and shut up. It will save you a lot of effort in the long run.