Small-Scale, No-Till Heritage Wheat Experiment

This year we harvested wheat from our neighbor’s field. It was a learning experience. As we didn’t have a teacher with real experience with this harvest, we made a lot of mistakes. I plan to put these together in an upcoming post, but the first thing we can correct is the type of wheat we were harvesting. This year we harvested common, modern wheat. This is short and harvested once it is completely dry on the stalk. Traditional wheat is tall and harvested when it is almost dry. More on this in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say, we’re trying out a traditional wheat this coming year.

Maris Widgeon

Maris Widgeon is a variety of red winter wheat (Triticum aestivum) bred for thatch straw and bread wheat. This is perfect for us, as we’re always looking for sustainable ways to construct buildings and bread is one of our staple foods. With a name like Maris Widgeon it may be no surprise that it came from England. For a while, this was the only thatch/bread wheat allowed by EU regulations. This is a shame, really, as landrace wheat (wheat bred over generations in a single location) was almost surely lost, but then I don’t know the full ramifications of this. What I’m most interested in is an available wheat seed that is not modern dwarf wheat. We purchased 5 lb from Adaptive Seeds.

No-Till Field Preparation

No-till field preparation is becoming more common or at least is getting to be better known. Typical agriculture tills fields each year, essentially plowing up the top layer of soil, turning it over to bury weed growth and organic matter back into the soil. It exposes rich soil from below the surface. The problem is that the lower layers of soil are a finite resource, and by plowing them up each year, we deplete the overall soil structure and health. At its worst, it can lead to massive erosion, as happened in the 1930s Dust Bowl:

With insufficient understanding of the ecology of the plains, farmers had conducted extensive deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains during the previous decade; this had displaced the native, deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture even during periods of drought and high winds. The rapid mechanization of farm equipment, especially small gasoline tractors, and widespread use of the combine harvester contributed to farmers’ decisions to convert arid grassland (much of which received no more than 10 inches (~250 mm) of precipitation per year) to cultivated cropland. During the drought of the 1930s, the unanchored soil turned to dust, which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky.

Wikipedia Dust Bowl

If we let natural soil and vegetative cycles guide us, we get to no-till cultivation. A grass prairie (which we’re trying to replicate for a wheat or other cereal field) never has its soil turned over. Instead, dead plant matter accumulates on the surface and new growth must push up through it. The natural mulch traps moisture in the soil and protects it from erosion and runoff during rainstorms. We’re also learning now about the complex web of fungi and microorganisms in the soil that are disturbed by plowing.

No-till, then is essentially planting into an unplowed field. This goes against at least three millennia of plow agriculture, but bare earth is really only found in one other biome: deserts, which are not known for their fecundity. Nature abhors a vacuum and modern no-till ends up using lots of herbicides to control weeds in the unplowed fields.

Field after mowing, furrowing, seeding, and harrowing. Next will be mulching and top seeding with clover.

We’re fighting weeds by biological controls instead of herbicides. First, the field, which was our potato field this year, was mowed as low as possible, cutting back the weeds and mulching organic matter. Planting was accomplished by cutting furrows at 8-in spacing. No-till planters cut furrows, plant in them, and then seal them back up. I don’t have one of these, so I have to cut the furrows, plant in them, and then cover them up in separate steps. This does disturb some of the soil, but much less so than full plowing. The whole area will be covered by a layer of composted mulch and then top-seeded with clover. What should happen is that the mulch suppresses the knocked-back weeds and the clover has a chance to crowd them out. The wheat will grow up through the mulch and get established this year. By next year, it will have an established root system that it can use to grow up faster than the weeds, suppressing them by shading and out-competing them. Some manual weeding will be necessary, but it should be less than if we didn’t take these initial steps.

Experimental Wheat Planting Density

We can’t find much definitive information on the best planting density for tall wheat. Most of the modern resources refer to industrial dwarfed wheat grown for mass production of high volume, lower quality grain (but see this guide from the early 1900s). It does make sense for the plant to spend less energy building tall, strong stalks, and more on creating large heads of wheat seeds. It is almost certain that our yield will be less than modern wheat, but we’re willing to make that trade to get a better bread wheat (we hope) as well as a useful resource in the thatching straw.

Modern wheat is planted at about 75–120 lb per acre, depending on the local variables: plant more densely later in the fall, as germination rates fall and frost comes sooner. Traditional wheat is planted at as low a density of 8 lb per acre, just a tenth of the modern wheat’s minimum.

What happens with low planting density, according to Eli Rogosa in Restoring Ancient Grains, is that the more space each plant has, the more tillers it sends up. A tiller is a secondary stem, giving each plant up to fifty stems, instead of the single stem that is typical in tightly spaced modern wheat. She has found grain trials from the 1800s and other locations suggesting a planting density of 11 lb/ac for production.

Illustration of the plots and planting densities.

To study what works best with this wheat in this location, I planted at a variety of densities. I’m sorry about all the repetitive data here, but it is hard to find information on small-scale wheat growing. Most planting densities are simply given in pounds per acre. The plot is about 100 ft long. All seeds were planted to about 1–1 1/4 in deep.Starting on the west, I did 3 ft (300 ft2) of wheat at 8.5 lb/ac, which amounts to 2.9 seeds/ft2 by planting two seeds per foot in rows spaced 8 in apart. Next to that was half the density of the industrial minimum: 43 lb/ac for 6 ft (600 ft2), or 14.7 seeds/ft2 with ten seeds per foot in rows spaced 8 in apart. Most of my wheat (2,700 ft2) was planted at 85 lb/ac, or 29.4 seeds/ft2 in 8-in rows with ten seeds per foot. I was mostly constrained by planting with a seed planter designed for garden vegetables. I also tried 6 ft (600 ft2) of widely spaced planting (16-in rows) with 20 seeds/ft, amounting to 43 lb/ac or 14.7 seeds/ft2. This might be easier to weed, so I gave it a try.

Vegetable seeder used for planting.

Interspersed within my wheat plot is a 3-ft strip of wildflowers to support pollinators and a 6-ft strip of potatoes. The wildflower strip is where I spread all the seeds from the milkweed and other plants that sprang up in this plot this year. This way we can give pollinators support but not have to weed around specific plants in addition to the food crops. My neighbor wants to grow potatoes next to where we grew them this year, so we left another area open for him.

Rye Also

I also planted winter rye. This was originally a weed plant in wheat fields, but eventually came to be cultivated as well. Now it is used for food for humans and animals as well as a cover crop to grow in the winter and cut down in the spring. It helps hold bare soil and builds structure with its roots. We bought 5 lb from High Mowing Seeds.

I used the same seeder for rye as I did for wheat. I planted 1,000 ft2 in the north field and another 1,600 ft2 in the southern field. These were all planted at about 20 seeds/ft in 8 in rows for a density of 29.4 seeds/ft2 or 85 lb/ac. Rye likes to be about 3/4 in deep.


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