Lessons Learned in Small-Scale Wheat Harvest, Part I: Variety and Harvesting

This year we harvested a tenth of an acre of modern red winter wheat from our neighbor’s field. I wrote up a few impressions soon after harvesting the wheat in a previous blog post, but here I hope to summarize more technical aspects of this process and suggestions for myself and others who hope to grow and harvest their own wheat by hand.

Selecting Wheat Variety

I harvested modern dwarf wheat. These varieties are selected for a completely different method of harvesting and processing. They’re allowed to dry completely in the field so they can be reaped, threshed, and winnowed in a single pass of the combine harvester. By drying completely, more bran is produced.

Don’t use modern dwarf wheat if you can absolutely help it. It is harder to harvest because of its short stature. It is not selected to be harvested earlier, as hand-harvested wheat should be. By drying more completely on the stalk, not only does it create more bran in each wheat berry (reducing your overall flour yield) but much more wheat is lost through shatter (breaks off the head when being harvested, falling to the ground). Additionally, dwarf wheat is harder to bind into sheaves and the heads often end up at both ends of the bundle, making threshing much more time consuming.

Select a “heritage” type of wheat. At this point, any wheat that is not a dwarfed variety is certainly a better bet, but do your research to find what wheat would work best for your purposes. We want to experiment with the straw by using it for thatch and basketry (as well as for spreading on our garden beds), so we chose Maris Wigeon. It has been bred for both good bread flour and thatch-grade straw. We got ours through Adaptive Seeds, but shop around.

Experiment with different varieties. If you have time and space, try out a few different varieties to see what works best for you. Einkorn is popular. See if you can find any local landrace wheat being grown. Perhaps you live by Amish or other groups that use less mechanization in their farming and have nondwarf wheat that has been grown for generations in your part of the world. This is ideal, as the wheat has been able to adapt to local conditions. You could also check out Eli Rogosa’s website for a selection of heritage and landrace wheat varieties. They come in small sizes, so you’ll have to grow them out for a few years for any significant harvest, though.

Harvesting Considerations

When harvesting by hand, we can’t go on the same recommendations as for modern wheat. Dwarf wheat, as mentioned above, must be harvested when already dry and ready for threshing.

Hand-harvesting is done a week or two earlier than modern wheat; when just the head and top inches of the straw have dried out. The wheat is then bound and allowed to dry in stooks in the field before being brought in to thresh.

In every case, it is much better to reap the crop before it is ripe, than to allow it to stand until too ripe.

Henry Stevens, Book of the Farm, 1844, vol. 2, p. 329.

Just before the industrial revolution, Henry Stevens wrote the Book of the Farm (1844), covering every aspect of farming in contemporary Great Britain. Unfortunately, it is more convenient for us to refer back to reference works such as this than to find someone with first-hand experience of nonmechanized grain harvesting. Luckily, Stevens goes into extreme detail on every aspect of harvest, from determining ripeness to how to arrange workers most efficiently. According to him, wheat should be “in ear, and of 2 or 3 inches of the top of the straw under the ear . . . a uniform straw-yellow colour, and . . . prickly in the hand . . . on being grasped . . . [The grain] should feel firm under pressure between the finger and thumb . . . or when the neck of the straw yields no juice on being tested with the fingers and thumbs” (p. 329). If, too ripe, seed is lost during harvest.

Wheat should be cut down with either a scythe or sickle and bound into sheaves to dry in the field. Unfortunately, we’ve lost much of the direct knowledge of mowing wheat in the industrialized world and trial-and-error experimentation must replace instruction. A long description of the use of both the sickle and scythe can be found in the Book of the Farm (pp. 330–43) or in online resources, such as YouTube. We can also take in-person classes from places such as One Scythe Revolution. I offer some scything tips in a previous blog post, too.

Take your time and bind your sheaves with all the heads in one direction. I can’t stress this enough, as wheat bound with heads in two directions doubles the threshing time, which takes more time than binding. This is easier with traditional, longer wheat, as the stems and heads are less likely to go topsy turvy when being mown. With dwarf wheat, the stalks often become jumbled. It may take an extra minute per sheaf to straighten this out before binding, but it saves two or three minutes of threshing work later.

Make secure sheaf bindings. Traditionally, sheaves are bound with a wheat-straw binding made by twisting the straw just below the heads, wrapping the straw around the sheaf, and twisting and tucking the stems securely. This is not effective with dwarf wheat and the sheaves come loose during handling. This causes more work and trouble to gather up now-loose wheat and rebind it. Use twine for binding dwarf wheat. When using traditional wheat, practice the binding and then stress the sheaf by tossing and shaking it, to be sure your binding will hold up well in later handling, especially as the sheaf loses some bulk after drying.

Keep track of your time. Measure and record your data as you go to help you gauge your future work. Acreage, number of people, number of sheaves, amount of time, yield of wheat and straw, are all variables that can help you plan next year’s crop and harvest.

3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned in Small-Scale Wheat Harvest, Part I: Variety and Harvesting

  1. I grew a couple thousand square feet of heirloom turkey wheat last fall and finished harvesting with a scythe last month. I am STILL threshing. I can’t reemphasize enough the importance of aligning the wheat heads in the same direction and as close to the same height as possible. I generally did OK harvesting, but then I laid it down and it all shifted. I’m searching for a way to “comb” it to speed up this process of realigning the heads. Next year, I plan to harvest the tops first with a sickle or some pruning shears and then go back to scythe the straw or potentially trample it down for weed prevention. It’d be far less work to leave it in place.

    I used a bucket and a drill with chains to beat the wheat. I had to cut off the grain heads and put them in the bucket, which is extremely time-consuming. Even so, it still takes a lot to sift out the chaff, especially if you get longer straw bits in there. If you leave too much straw, it gets wrapped around the shaft and causes problems.

    I tried using a wood chipper to thresh the wheat to solve my wheat head alignment issue. The chipper uses flails inside so I thought it might work OK. But, again, too much chaff and probably 80% of the grains were broken.

    Next I’m going to try a chicken plucker, since the spinning drum has rubber fingers, which should be much more gentle to the wheat. If that works, I’ll probably see if I can hook up a treadle to it so I’m not reliant on the motor.

  2. As a follow-up, the chicken plucker worked a bit, but not sufficiently enough. If the sides turned, it might do better, but the wheat just gets spun and twisted, rather than beaten.

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