If it weren’t for my friend Howard, my wheat would still be in the field.
When I got home from vacation last Saturday, I found a message that the wheat was ready. Howard had toured my plot, and found the grain passed the crack test. When the wheat is ready, the seed should feel hard, like your tooth will chip.
So Sunday morning I ignored the car full of stuff and went out to meet Howard and his thresher. He brought his scythe and sickle, too.
I haven’t spent much time on this lot, which we bought last year. It faces the street below our house, and there isn’t much reason to be there, though it is plenty inviting to kids, who yanked some of our garlic, and chased a squirrel through the wheat, lodging a good chunk of it in the middle. The area is only partially fenced.
Lodging means the stalks lay down. I kept looking at the bent stuff, as if a disappointed glance would make it stand straight.
Things other than kids make wheat lodge, like winds and rains. There is a yield penalty to lodging, I’ve read. Given our harvest and handling methods, we faced a boatload of yield penalties, anyway. There’s no way we could get as much wheat from the heads with Howard’s thresher as a combine could.
Howard’s set up is a small garden cart lined with plastic sheeting. He made a screen from hardware cloth to beat the wheat onto, and drapes a cape of row cover over top to catch most of the flying seeds.
The wheat – which we planted last October – is warthog, a hard red winter wheat. Our plants got about 2 ½ feet tall, and Howard harvested the ones that weren’t lodged with his scythe. Then he got out his sickle and bent to work. Jack, my husband, found some hedge trimmers, and he and Felix cut bundles with them. I started threshing.
I’d spent the last few days of my vacation looking at combines, tractors, grain cleaners and grain wagons. The boys and I visited Oechsner Farms for a field day, and got a full tour of his equipment. Thor Oechsner farms 600 acres in Newfield, New York, growing different kinds of grains for different uses – he’s part owner in Farmer Ground Flour and Wide Awake Bakery, and his grains travel elsewhere for other food (think Breuckelen Distillery and Hot Bread Kitchen) and animal feed.
Whacking my wheat on a homemade screen made me feel like I was working in Whoville. Not that we were under any threat on our speck of dust, but the scale of what I was doing seemed kind of silly.
Especially since the day before we went to a farm auction with Thor. He wanted to buy a plow that was up for sale in Smyrna. Since that was on the way home, the kids and I joined him.
Eighty years of dairy tools and equipment were laid out on a field. Lots of little stuff like electrical cords, wheelbarrows and shovels. An anvil, and three carts that looked like pushcarts for shaved ice, but dispensed oil from a hand pump, not syrup. Grain trucks, and grain boxes, and grain dryers, hay balers and hay wagons. Six tractors, and two plows.
I’d never been to a farm auction, and the day was like visiting another planet, one where the sun beat down on a lot of farmers and a little Martian observer, aka me. We walked around the field as the stuff sold to the music of the auctioneer, and ate hot food from a fleet of crock-pots under a tent. We tried the kielbasa with kraut, goulash and pulled pork. Never has root beer tasted so good.
Thor bought the Kverneland 6 bottom plow, and most everything else sold. Farmers hooked up hay wagons to their pickups and drove down the road. Loaded wheelbarrows onto crowded flatbeds. All of these pieces of one dairy shot out into other farms, and I drove past fields up to the Thruway, to home.
Back in Troy the next day, we looked like we were trying to re-enact a painting of a wheat harvest. The temperature was in the 90s, and I was so grateful Howard was spearheading our day. The kids have grown rye before, but we never got any food from the effort. Harvesting grains is not obvious like beets or greens. Figuring out when to do what is a hurdle we’ve not jumped, and we’ve ended up with straw and ergot. Howard has grown grains for a few years now, so we had his plan to follow.
Plus he grew up on a farm in Iowa, and he said that working in the heat felt right. “Just because it was hot on the fourth of July didn’t mean you didn’t harvest oats,” he said. I was happy for his good attitude, and the conviviality, which continued all week.
We harvested the 1000 square feet in three sections. Felix is the family winnower. Francis has a lot of jobs all of a sudden, and Jack is busy with tree work, so after Sunday, the wheat fell to Howard and me. I did a lot of threshing, and on the last day, used one of Howard’s sickles. I tried to flick my wrist, rather than hack with my elbow at the bundles of stalks I gathered. I’m not sure I got the motion right, but the field is now stubs.
“Thank you,” Howard said as he packed up his thresher.
I redirected the thanks. This wheat is supposedly mine, and he gave me 8 hours this week, plus the benefit of the hand harvest infrastructure he’s developed. But he said enjoyed the work. I did, too. We both enjoyed each other’s company.
“Back on the farm, we used to share my uncle’s hay chopper till Dad could afford one,” Howard said. “Not everyone could afford equipment, so everyone had to share. It was more communal up until a certain point.”
Maybe if more of what we do to feed ourselves had more engagement, more people would be happier in the kitchen and garden. Do people say they hate laundry the way they claim to hate cooking? No. They just do the necessary work, or find some way around it, like a laundry service.
I don’t think everyone should grow their own grains. I’m not sure even I should. But I do wonder why we farmed out our responsibilities for feeding ourselves, and experiments like these help me test the waters as I follow my wonder.