Our rabbi, Jonathan Rubenstein of Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs, runs a non-profit bakery out of the temple. Most Friday mornings he is there, baking challah and babka, plus his kick-ass granola. When we sold our house and garden in Argyle, New York three years ago and were moaning about where we would go to garden, Jonathan’s wife, Rabbi Linda Motzkin, said, “Take our front yard.” Linda, it turns out, hated their front lawn, which was kind of a deserted expanse of patchy grass on infertile sandy soil. They didn’t have the time or interest to work on it. Thus community sharecropping was born.
After our first season in their yard, Jonathan asked us if it would be possible to try growing wheat in the garden. He has a dream of using locally produced wheat in his bakery products, and already uses many other local and organic ingredients. We had never grown wheat before, although we had dabbled in rice, but my husband Michael soon became obsessed, studying paintings by Millet and Van Gogh to learn about hand harvesting techniques. This year he attended the New England Grain Conference in Amherst to learn more about wheat growing in our region. The conference was the brain child of Eli Rogosa of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, a group dedicated to restoring ancient wheat varieties in the Fertile Crescent. Michael is now a fanatic.
Our wheat does not quite meet Michael’s expectations, but we are learning. We have included winter wheat as part of a three-year rotation in the rabbis’ front yard. We divide the garden into three parts and have the following rotation in each section: a year of cleanly cultivated family vegetable garden with tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, herbs, etc., followed by a year of cover crops, followed by a year of winter wheat. So where the wheat was grown this year, we will grow a vegetable garden next year, where the cover crop was grown, we will grow wheat and where the vegetables were grown, we will put in a cover crop. In as much as we can, we follow the excellent crop rotation and fallow advice given by Anne and Eric Nordell in all of our gardens.
This year we grew Expresso wheat from Peaceful Valley Farm Supplyin the rabbis’ yard. We also grew a little Arapaho wheat, a variety produced in Maine by Fedco Organic Growers Supply, in another garden. The Expresso did not do that well, so next year we will grow Arapaho at the rabbis’. We are coming to the realization that the hard red wheats preferred by bread bakers just may not do as well as the soft reds of pastry flour fame traditionally grown in the northeast. This fall we will grow our local hard red and fertilize with composted horse manure more heavily than we did in the past. If that doesn’t work well, we may give up and try soft red wheat.
There is nothing difficult or mysterious about growing wheat. It is the harvest and processing that is difficult. We plant winter wheat in mid-September into heavily manured soil that was cover-cropped and tilled several times earlier in the season. Prior to preparing the seed bed, we do about a month of fallow weed control. It is almost impossible to enter a patch of growing wheat to remove the weeds unless you plant in rows, so we try to have our soil as weed-free as we can get it before planting. At planting time we till up the ground, broadcast the wheat seed, bury it with the cultivator, broadcast an understory of short white clover and then pack it down with a lawn roller so the seeds have better contact with the soil. The clover helps suppress the weeds the following year, but is short enough so that it doesn’t shade out the wheat. The winter wheat and clover emerge early in the spring and shade out the spring weeds.
After the wheat is planted we just water it as needed and watch it grow, sway in the wind, and finally turn brown over the spring and early summer. Then in late July or early August we harvest, or reap, the wheat.
The first year reaping perplexed us. A local market gardener grew some wheat for Jonathan but it was incredibly weedy and hard to harvest. We took a bunch of people with us and whacked at it with scythes, making a terrible mess as we went. Our own wheat that year was much less weedy, so a little easier to harvest. We generally use a scythe, rather than a sickle.
I have never gotten the hang of scything, but Michael isn’t bad so I follow behind him, hunched over and picking up small bundles of wheat in my arms, stacking them on a tarp at the end of the wheat patch until the harvest is done. When all the wheat is reaped, we tie it into bundles with twine.
In our tiny wheat patch, the whole thing takes about an hour. We marvel at the European peasants who grew and harvested enough wheat to feed their villages all winter. If I were a European peasant, I would definitely stick to potatoes, much easier.
After we finish reaping, we drag the wheat home on to our covered front porch to allow it to completely dry down for about 10 days before threshing.
As difficult as scything may be for klutzes like me, it is not the hardest part of wheat production. The hardest part of wheat production, and the limiting factor for small growers, is threshing. I don’t think anyone has satisfactorily solved the threshing problem for small-scale commercial production, but with home production you can get creative.
Threshing is the removal of wheat kernels from the chaff. Traditionally it involves lying the wheat down on the threshing floor of a barn and pounding it with flails. Large scale commercial threshing is done by machine, using huge combines that harvest, thresh and winnow the grain in the field. With our tiny amount of wheat and lack of a barn, we have tried threshing with a flail on top of a tarp in our driveway, but have not felt it was the best way to go. We found a lot of wheat kernels still clinging to the hulls after we had already exhausted ourselves flailing about. So we invented pillow case threshing.
To use a pillow case to thresh small amounts of wheat, you put the wheat plants into a king-sized pillowcase, heads down. Hold the open end of the case bunched up in your hands and bash the pillow case repeatedly over the edge of a chair or other stationary object. We use the side of our garden cart. When you have bashed it enough, you shake out and remove the wheat plants from the pillow case. Make sure that most of the kernels are out of the heads before you discard the plants. You never get them all, so don’t worry about it too much. Then shake or sieve the contents of the pillow case into a tub. We use a compost sieve if the pillow case has a lot of big stuff, like leaves, in it.
Pillow case threshing works on the wheat we grow because it is short in stature. Most traditional wheat stalks are much taller and would not fit into a pillow case.
The chaff/grain in the tub is then winnowed. To winnow our wheat, we set up a fan on a upright log, then pour the wheat at around chest height from a bowl into a pot on the ground in front of the fan. The chaff gets blown away and the wheat kernels fall into the pot. Simplicity itself.
Once the wheat is winnowed, we pick out any debris and then give it to Jonathan to grind into flour in his electric food mill. We are not able to give him enough wheat to make more than a couple of loaves of bread every year. But he really likes seeing the wheat in his front yard and we really like the challenge of growing something basic and traditional. Next year we are thinking of expanding the wheat in one of the other community sharecropping gardens and maybe trying our hand at traditional Iroquois and Native American crops too. I have visions of making masa for tamales from my own dried corn. Why not? Gardening provides food for the imagination as well as the stomach.