When it comes to my gardening, I tend to have a lot of big ideas and not nearly enough space in which to implement them. And the more I try to source my food locally, the more I want to try growing things myself to fill in the gaps of what I can't find at the local farmers market.
Last fall, when I picked up a first edition of Gene Logsdon's "Small-Scale Grain Raising," I knew I'd have to try growing some of my own grains for bread or other baking projects. After reviewing the new edition of Logsdon's book earlier this year, I was ready to put my plans into action.
I let optimism guide me into buying seed for winter wheat, hull-less oats, and buckwheat — along with a broadcast seeder — with my other seeds from Fedco this year. I didn't really have a place to plant them, but in winter, details like that seem immaterial.
Suddenly, spring arrived, and the place where I thought I'd be able to plant my grain crops turned out not to have enough space. That's when the seeds of a beautiful new friendship were sown.
Thanks to my involvement in Local Roots, I've met a handful of other enthusiastic, like-minded people: some have a good deal of farming experience, and others are just learning. One of the wannabe farmers in the group, our computer guru Jessica, immediately embraced my desire to grow grains and offered space on her few country acres.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited her on her small homestead, and as she tilled one 10' x 10' patch, I sowed another with buckwheat seed. (The second patch ended up getting a cover crop to prepare it for this fall's planting of winter wheat.) We celebrated our endeavors with a hearty home-cooked and almost all-local meal, and capped it off with a couple of local brews.
As the weeks passed, Jessica sent me periodic photo updates of the buckwheat patch, showing its growth from a scattering of small rounded leaves to a thick, lush mini-forest of heart-shaped leaves — just tall enough to hide a small dog (seen in the top photo…barely). I visited a couple of times, but with a patch of grain, there's really not much to do with it except watch it grow, and that loses its appeal pretty quickly.
By mid-August, though, Jessica had reported that the buckwheat had bloomed and was starting to yellow. That sounded like my cue to start harvesting.
Sure enough, the hip-high stalks held small clusters of pointed, dark brown grains that were dry enough to gather. Unfortunately, I didn't have much of a plan on how to harvest my buckwheat, so a couple of friends and I started by rubbing the grains off in our hands and dumping those grains into a bucket. That didn't last long. One friend had the wit to get a pair of garden clippers from his truck and cut down several stalks at a time before chafing them all together in his hands over a towel. That sped up the process, but not enough, and I was left facing a 10' x 10' patch that suddenly seemed much larger.
After a good deal of thinking and finally finding time in my schedule to return to the farm, I worked with Jessica to mow down the remaining stalks with my old hedge clippers: she gathered a bundle of stalks, and I chopped them off. We stopped periodically to thresh the grains, using flexible screens in large flat cardboard trays to chafe the grains off the stems. Once we had stripped the stems, we poured the seeds –- chaff and all –- into a large paper bag and continued our work.
It wasn't easy: weeks of ignoring the patch meant that a good many of the stalks had lodged and dropped seed to the ground. (We saw plenty of new buckwheat seedlings coming up under the brush.) Bending over to gather and cut the stalks took a toll on both our backs. But after a couple hours, we had cleared the patch, threshed the grain, and kicked back for the evening.
Back at home, I spread out the grains on trays to allow them to dry a little more, mostly for the sake of drying out the leaves and other bits that had gotten caught up in the seeds. I waited for an afternoon with a good breeze, then dumped some of the buckwheat into one of my mixing bowls, grabbed another bowl, and winnowed the grain by pouring the mixture back and forth between bowls, listening to the rattle of the seeds and allowing the wind to carry away the chaff.
By the time I had finished, I ended up with about three and a half quarts of buckwheat seed stored for winter: not, perhaps, a significant yield but a satisfying start to my grain raising plans.
It didn't take me long to test the quality of what I had grown, either. Shortly after the final harvest, I ground about two cups of the seed in my hand-cranked mill and then sifted out most of the hulls. The resulting flour had an almost golden tinge to it, surprisingly, along with the black flecks from the remaining hull pieces. And since the variety I had bought (Tartary buckwheat, Fagopyrum tataricum) was billed as being the kind used in French-Canadian crepes, I invited Jessica and a couple of other friends over for a potluck dinner that included fresh buckwheat crepes with sauteed vegetables. They unanimously agreed: the experiment was a success!
I'm looking forward to continuing the experiment in the kitchen this winter, making pancakes and breads and cookies and possibly pasta with my homegrown, hand-harvested, hand-milled buckwheat flour. I'm also looking forward to growing other grains as I take over more of Jessica's homestead (with her delighted approval) next year.
Will those crops be as successful as the buckwheat? You guessed it: we'll just have to wheat to find oat.
Top two photos by Jessica Barkheimer; bottom two photos by author.