We have been growing wheat for three or four years in our community sharecropping plots. Wheat is not hard to grow and not all that hard to harvest although there are some pitfalls. The hard part is removing the teeny wheat berries from the inedible straw and glumes that surround them, which is called threshing. Threshing is the limiting factor in home wheat production. You can thresh with your fingers, which is fine if you only want to grow a cup or two of wheat, but if you want enough wheat to make into flour you need to figure out a better threshing system.
We have tried threshing two different ways so far, neither of which was very satisfactory. The first two years we used flails, which are the traditional tool for threshing. We made a flail out of a maple branch and then bought a second flail at an antique store. After heaping our wheat onto a tarp and flailing around at it, we were exhausted and had very little wheat to show for it.
The second method we tried was pillow case threshing, which worked better than flailing but was only good for small quantities of wheat since it was kind of finicky.
We grew more wheat this year, expanding to a second 10 x 40 plot in a second friend’s yard, so needed a better system. My husband decided to design a threshing machine.
Michael is an eternal optimistic. He is always embarking on new projects, many of which involve building things – skateboard ramps, bridges to small islands, chicken coops and garden sheds, mechanized scythes. 90% of the time they don’t quite work they way he intended, which doesn’t seem to deter him in the least. So when he told me he was going to make a wheat threshing machine, I rolled my eyes and made fun of him. Probably not my most endearing trait as a life partner. But I have had to eat my words. He did it. It worked.
The main reason it worked was because he took advantage of the generous offer of a friend of ours, Ron, who actually has carpentry skills. Michael went to Ron’s garage workshop for a day with a handful of drawings and Ron figured out how to turn those drawings into a working gloppeta-gloppeta machine, including figuring out how to make a functional axle/hand crank. Drawing on Ron’s experience, they built a 17-inch diameter drum rotating on an axle made from a length of metal pipe. The drum is comprised of two wooden disk end pieces attached to 26 twelve-inch long one-by-twos studded on one side with raised staples. The drum is enclosed in a wooden box that has a door on one side and a feeding slot on the opposite side on the top. The axle passes through the outside of the box where it is threaded on to a hand crank.
In this case, photos are worth a thousand words.
This is what it looks like, with captions to see what you are looking at:
To use the thresher one person feeds stalks of wheat head-first into the slot on top while the other person rotates the crank clock wise. The person feeding the wheat does not let go of it, just holds on to the stem ends and positions the wheat. We turned the wheat over several times, making sure that all the heads made contact with the bumpy staples on the drum.
When we finished threshing the wheat with the machine, we banged it against the side of our garden cart lined with a tarp to knock out remaining loose grains. We then put the stalks aside for use as mulch in our garden.
Since there was a lot of plant material mixed in with the grain that came out of the thresher we sifted it to get the big pieces out, then winnowed it in front of a fan to get a reasonably clean wheat crop:
This simple machine threshed our wheat far more efficiently than anything we had tried before. We captured about 80% of the wheat kernels. Most of the grain we lost was because our stalks were not all the same length, so some of the heads simply didn’t get stuffed down into the thresher far enough to have the staples actually hit them. If we had one more person, we would have rubbed those short heads with our hands to get the grain out of them, but as it was we were pretty worn out after three hours of threshing so didn’t really bother.
There is room for improvement. Too many tip grains came out entirely enclosed in glumes. The machine was a little too violent so we had to sift out lots of crud that was mixed in with the wheat berries. We missed some grain in the shorter stalks since they didn’t get bumped by the staples. The heads should have more points of contact with the drum so you don’t have to turn and spread the wheat stalks as much as you feed them into the thresher. It would also be nice to attach the crank to a bicycle, since bicycle threshing would be less tiring than turning a hand crank for hours. But overall, it was a huge success.
Total yield this year: 26.5 pounds of cleaned wheat. Not exactly commercial quantities, but enough to make us happy.