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Letter Re: Advice on Small-Scale Grain Growing, Harvesting, and Processing

I love your survival site. I was wondering about finding low cost or fairly low cost equipment to harvest, thresh, winnow and hull grains such as wheat, barley, millet, oats, etc. Also low cost equipment to extract oil from seeds such as sunflower seeds. I’ve done an extensive search on the Internet and can find very little that is meant for a family or small group of people. Manual (hand power) or electric/gas/diesel are all of interest. Being able to process and use grains is extremely important but I don’t know of any sites that sell survival equipment that sell such things. Many sell grain mills and some sell corn/pea shellers but not much more. – Nancy

JWR Replies: To begin, I should mention that the book Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon is an invaluable reference that every prepared family should have on their bookshelf. (ISBN 0-87857-134-5 for hardback or ISBN 0-87857-147-7 for paperback.) Used copies can often be found at bargain prices on eBay [1] .(I even once bought a copy of it there for just the opening bid of one penny, plus postage!) or at Amazon.com [2].

Your seed stocks should be all non-hybrid (“heirloom”) varieties, so that the seed that you save from each harvest will breed true and continue to produce, year after year. (Hybrid varieties won’t!) Heirloom seed is available from The Ark Institute [3], the Seed Savers Exchange [4], and Ready Made Resources [5]. Bulk quantities of grain seed should be stored in the proverbial “cool, dark, dry place.” They must be kept very, very dry to prevent mold or unintended sprouting. They must also be kept in sturdy, vermin proof containers. (Think steel, not plastic.)

One our preferred grains for growing on a small acreage is barley. As a general rule, you should plant winter barley in regions where winter wheat is grown and spring barley where spring wheat is grown.

If you live in deer country, you will probably find their depredations on your grain fields unacceptable unless you erect some substantial fences. If you can’t afford to install tall fences around your grain fields, one alternative is to plant “bearded” varieties of barley. (Deer generally won’t eat the awns of bearded barley.)

If you have any ground that is swampy from spring to fall on your property (“wetlands” in the modern politically correct parlance), consider planting domesticated wild rice in those areas. Technically “wild rice” isn’t really rice at all, since it is in the grass genus (Zirzania) rather than the rice genus (Oryza.) Like other grain growing, planting wild rice will also attract waterfowl and other birds, which can be a mixed blessing. So consider a shotgun and beau coup shotgun shells to be part of your assortment grain growing essential tools.

Tools and Equipment: Raising grain takes not only seed stock but also the proper tools and equipment. Buy the best quality equipment that you can find. Concentrate on 19th Century technology. This is low tech and easy to maintain. It is amazing what you can find on eBay [1] if you check there consistently. Unfortunately, however, some practical items such as scythes and hand mills are now sold as “decorator” antiques. Yuppies and retirees that merely want to decorate their homes have driven up prices. (Grumble, grumble.) In recent years, I’ve seen antique dealers that charge more for worn-out (filed down to nothing) scythes with rusty “patina” than you would pay for a brand new one bought from Lehman’s.

Planting. A seed broadcaster is a must. Get an adjustable hand crank seed broadcaster that you strap around your waist. For really big fields, you might need a wheeled (push) row seeder. Even on a small scale, a one-wheel “dial a seed” planter is a huge labor saver. These are all available through Lehmans.com [6]. One a large scale, horse drawn or tractor pulled equipment is called for. (That goes beyond the scope of what I’m writing here, but it is described fairly well in Logsdon’s book.) When to plant varies depending on the last frost-free day in your region. Look at standard references for planting depths, frequency, and crop rotation.

Harvesting and Processing: For corn, you will need a couple of corn knives and some husking pegs (to strap to your palm.) For wheat and other small grains, at the very minimum you will need for reaping is a hand scythe, but for any decent scale of production, you will need a large cradle type scythe. There are plans for building a small grain threshing machine in Gene Logsdon’s book. In a pinch, you can thresh grain by hand on a large clean concrete barn floor.

There are a variety of hand-cranked machines made specifically for hulling (‘pearling”) rice and barley, for pressing oil [7], for shelling corn, peas, and so forth. If you grow sorghum or cane sugar, you will need yet another type of hand crank press. Finding these machines may take some searching, because small hand cranked machines are now essentially obsolete outside of the Third World. (But they are eminently practical for folks like us, who are preparing for TEOTWAWKI [8].). Used machines that are still in good working order can sometimes be found on the Internet, but if you don’t mind paying a premium price for brand new machines, I again recommend Lehmans.com. [6]

The grain mill that I recommend is the Country Living mill (available from Ready Made Resources [9].) Yes, they are expensive, but they are built to last a lifetime. We’ve had one here at the Rawles Ranch [10] for more than a decade. Unlike the inexpensive Mexican and Eastern European mills (such as the Corona brand), the Country Living mill has proper sealed bearings and replaceable burrs, for long service life.You also need to consider the service life of your teeth. If you eat a lot of bread made with flour from an inexpensive stone burr grinder, it will be at the expense of your tooth enamel. The Country Living mill is also designed to be used either with its included hand crank, or by fan belt drive. (Adaptable to either electric motor power, or powered by a bicycle frame for someone with basic welding skills.) Nearly all hand mills have adjustable burrs. They can be adjusted all the way from rough cracking, down to corn meal grinding, and finally down to bread flour milling. To mill fine flour you will have to run the flour through the mill at least twice.

Storage: Whether for human consumption or for livestock feed, you will need to properly store what you harvest to protect it from spoilage and vermin. If the moisture content is low enough to prevent mold, then plain galvanized trash barrels (bought brand new) will suffice for small scale grain storage. On a larger scale, a prefabricated storage shed, such as those made by Butler are ideal. Corn still on the ear should be stored in a traditional slatted wooden corn crib or in a well-ventilated Butler building.

Handling: Buy a large aluminum scoop grain shovel. (The lighter the better, so that it will be less tiring to use.) For moving corn that is still on ears, you will want to have a corn drag. (A drag is a rake with just three or four very long tines.)

“Berry” Soaking: Whole grain wheat can be soaked for 24 hours to make wheat berries. This makes a quite palatable and nutritious breakfast food, when warmed and served with milk or cream and a dash of honey or molasses.

Sprouting: To get the maximum nutrition from the grain that you raise, you should plan to sprout the majority of it. For some details on sprouting, see the article “Wheat Sprouts and Wheatgrass as Survival Foods”, by SF in Hawaii. It is one the writing contest winners posted at the SurvivalBlog Writing Contest page [11]. Lay in supplies for sprouting and practice the art of sprouting before the balloon goes up!

Practice, practice, practice!: As with any other newly acquired skill, grain raising, harvesting, storage, milling, and sprouting will take practice. Develop your expertise now, when any mistakes will be merely humorous blunders rather than potentially life-threatening disasters.