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Is small-scale grain-production worth it? | New World Seeds & Tubers

One of the quintessential jabs that the relatively self-sufficient hear from friends and family goes something like

“And when they want to eat bread, first they plant their own wheat…(SNARK)”

Modern people tend to think it is ridiculous to grow wheat. It’s OK to grow tomatoes, or even corn, but wheat is ridiculous.

Why is that?

My own guess is simply that people haven’t done it for a while. The idea is novel because it’s been forgotten about. But chances are their ancestors grew wheat! Ordinary people in the Old World with access to even fairly small plots of land used to grow their own wheat. They threshed it themselves and bagged it for storage. When they needed flour, they took bags of grain to the miller, and brought home bags of flour.

When they needed bread, they took some of their flour, made it into a dough, shaped it into loaves, and sent it to the bakers to bake it. Often they wrote their initials or a family symbol on top of the loaf, to make it distinguishable from other people’s loaves.

The general principle is “division of labor”. The idea is that it’s more efficient if the farmer owns the plow and the reaping equipment, the miller owns the grinding equipment, and the baker owns the ovens. That way

  • You eliminate redundant investment in equipment.
  • Each producer keeps the equipment busy full time.
  • Production is assigned to a specialist who develops expertise

Globalization is the process of extending the division of labor on a global scale past the point of diminishing returns. It’s turned into an end in itself. It starts getting expensive to grow soybeans in Argentina, ship them to China to make into soy sauce, which is then shipped to New York City. Most of the assumed savings have more to do with creative manipulation of currency exchange rates than with efficiency.

Even to the extend that division of labor creates efficiencies of scale, there is a tradeoff for reliability. Some redundancy of productive capacity is desirable so that if some production is eliminated for whatever reason–war, natural disasters, strikes, financial crises, and so on–then you still have production going on somewhere else that isn’t impacted.

Instead what you’ve got is extreme concentration of production on a global scale, so that earthquakes or fires have taken out single factories in Taiwan and Japan that produce all or most of specific critical electronic chips.

Similarly, wheat production is relatively concentrated, generally in parts of the world that have climates too harsh and too unstable for most other crops. Now wheat is tough, but having been pushed to the margins, it doesn’t take much in the way of weather extremes to push it over the edge. Cold, wet springs in recent years have hampered planting on the Canadian high plains and in North Dakota, which usually grows a high fraction of Durum wheat (read that: stuff you make pasta out of). Meanwhile, much of the winter wheat in northern China and the southern wheat belt of the USA was lost to either cold and drought in the winter, or heat and drought in the summer. Heat, drought, and resulting fires also destroyed a great deal of wheat in southern Russia and the Ukraine. Flooding recently destroyed much of the Pakistani crop.

The U99 fungus has wiped out a lot of African production and is making it’s way to the Middle East. From there, it could threaten Pakistan and India’s massive crop.

At this point, shortages are so severe that many countries that were buying cheap wheat on the international market are now seeing food riots. Arguably the UK is one of them whereas the riots in North London have been perceived by some informants as being exacerbated by soaring grocery bills.

I don’t know what portion of our diet wheat is anymore; it used to be about a quarter, and back at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, it was fully HALF. It’s still a major food item. It would make sense to disperse some of the production, and have some of it in relatively more stable climates than where it is now. People tell us we’re crazy to grow wheat here, but we still have our crop after farmers in “conventional” growing areas lost theirs to weather disasters.

It would also make sense to grow other grains that can grow where wheat is too marginal, that can substitute for wheat for some purposes.

Contrary to common misconception, grains are fairly productive. It doesn’t take huge amounts of land to grow useful quantities of grain.

Although not suitable for every climate, hardy grains are not particularly hard to grow. Some potential obstacles include drought while they’re trying to get established, excessive humidity while they’re growing (breeds disease), or excessive precipitation (including hail) while trying to ripen or harvest.

One obstacle I do perceive is the need to thresh the grain–meaning, knock the seed loose from the heads. That’s even assuming the grain in question is free-threshing, which some, such as Spelt, are not. Threshing without machinery is hard work–ask me, I’ve been doing it for several days now! Once threshing is done, winnowing (separating the seed from the chaff) is relatively easy using a fan.

Once the seed is clean, whole grains tend to be relatively easy and inexpensive to store for up to a few years. That’s why they became the staples of ancient civilizations in the first place, and why they remain very popular with modern survivalists.

Whole grains store well because the seed is protected from oxidation by the seed coat–that is, the bran. Whole-grain flour does NOT store; it goes rancid quickly. That’s one reasn a lot of people THINK they don’t like whole grains: they were fed rancid grain.

Duo -Steinm├╝hle + Flocker mit Stahlwalzen

A gizmo like the one on the left, from hawos, will grind it into flour or flatten it into flakes–like oatmeal–on demand just before you use it. That way it’s always fresh. These types of mills tend to come almost exclusively from Germany, where whole-grains are generally preferred and considered healthier than white flour. They grind or flake it only just before use, to keep it fresh. It’s a fairly quick an simple process, and the mills are not prohibitively expensive.

What might make the most sense is to start growing grains on small farms to sell locally. That’s already happening on a small scale that we’re aware of, in several places.

Something that would help is to get people used to using grains per se, instead of just buying flour. I’ve discovered that cooked whole grains and flaked whole grains are easy to use in large amounts. Baking with whole-grain flour of variable gluten content will take some getting used to but I understand what the issues are and know how to work around some of them. I think part of the issue is not just accepting but actually making the best use of the differences, and adjusting the concept of “bread” accordingly.

Mostly because the bran slows down the digestion of the carbohydrates, thereby reducing their negative impact on the body, whole grains could have some significant health benefits including:

  • stroke risk reduced 30-36%
  • type 2 diabetes risk reduced 21-30%
  • heart disease risk reduced 25-28%
  • better weight maintenance

The germ also happens to be rich in essential fatty acids, protein, and vitamins, thereby improving overall nutrition.

If you’re interested in small-scale grain production, here is the reference I’ve been using, which was recommended by my friend Chris Homanics. It’s one of the few references on the subject that was written by someone who was serious about grain production on a small farm. Most of the few other books on the topic are missing too many details to be useful, because the authors were only growing very small amounts of grain as a hobby not as a serious pursuit.

Speaking of hobbies, Tom thinks that people should grow cereals as ornamentals. Many hardy cereals have rather handsome seedheads that look good in dried arrangements. Sorghum’s seedhead is dowdy-looking, but the plant as a whole has a luxuriant tropical look, as does corn. That’s because they’re tropical in origin. I’ve known a few people who’ve planted them in tropicalismo-themed landscapes.

I have a feeling that one of the most common uses for some of the grain we’re going to sell will be chicken-food. Chicken-feed is soaring in price, and I’ve gotten a few inquiries about Sorghum and xTriticale for that purpose. Tim Peters’ fast-growing Sorghums would make good chicken food. The interest in using xTriticale as chicken-food is because it’s highly productive, high in total protein, and a little better protein-balanced than wheat, so that it takes less soy to balance out the amino acids.

What do you think? What kind of scale do you think would work to grow and process grains? Would you be willing to try them? Maybe on a small scale first to see how it goes?

Tom wants to grow wheat so bad it hurts. It’s in his blood. I just want it because I know too much of the bad news about commercial production. Until I actually started trying to buy it, I did not realize that most wheat is controlled by monopoly licensing in the USA, and in Europe by a registration requirement ostensibly for preventing monopolies! Either way, it is difficult to legally own seed for one of humanity’s most basic foodstuffs.

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6 Responses to “Is small-scale grain-production worth it?”

  1. Very interesting topic. I’d love to see a chart comparing a few varieties of grains, how much grain could be produced from different portions of land, and how much bread that would equal (per portion of land). I think that would greatly aid the discussion about whether it’s practical or not.

    Do you think it’s practical for urban homesteaders whose entire lot is perhaps under 10,000 square feet to grow grain (in addition to other crops and livestock)?

    • Hello, Uri. Thank you for your comments and questions. 3,000 square feet will get you roughly 100lbs of wheat, or roughly enough to have a 2lb loaf of whole-wheat per week. Not bad.

      What I would probably do in that situation is allocate a smaller patch of ground to grain just to try it out, just in case you ever move to a rural homestead and want to grow it for real. Or, just for fun not to mention the possibility of growing specific wheats that will have full-flavored, high-ash flours (flavor is one of Tom’s hot button issues–he thinks a lot of modern wheats were bred too much for productivity at the expense of classic wheat flavor).

      I don’t have figures on productivity of all the grains, and of course it’s going to vary by climate, soil fertility, variety, and other variables, but I can tell you a few things. Wheat is VERY productive for a grain. It’s been bred to be for a long time now. Rye is not so much; you only get about half the yield of wheat. xTriticale was bred to combine the productivity of wheat with being a little easier to grow outside of prime wheat country. It’s potentially a bit more productive than even wheat.

      A little less productive, but growing during the warm season, and somewhat easier to harvest and shell/thresh, are corn and grain sorghum (milo). Nice thing about these cereals is that they are big plants that do not require awkward harvesting with a scythe or sickle. All you need is a knife and a bag. Corn and milo are similar in yield and overall food value.

      I know little about Barley, Oats, and Millet, never having grown them. Barley and Millet probably are not as productive, but they are ready for harvest quickly. That’s even more true of Teff.

  2. Rob,

    I think that you can stretch your 2 lb loaf a long way if you use Indian flatbread aka chapati. If you assume two 6 inch chapatis per meal you can get about 21 meals out of 2 lbs of flour if you assume that 1 cup of flour weighs 6 ounces and 1 cup gives you 8 chipatis which I can confirm that it does. And flatbreads have a lot more going for them than just the economic use of flour. No yeast is a plus since prep to plate is greatly shortened and you don’t have to source yeast. And if you really want to minimize the inputs a very hot rock over an open fire will take care of the cooking part.

    Looking for a simple thresher? See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDr8VF2QIPM Personally, I’d replace the drill with a handle and beef up the bushing. Then if would be truly low tech. Threshing 100 lbs wouldn’t take long if someone was threshing and someone was winnowing.

    Regards,
    Mike

    • Thanks, Mike. I do make flatbreads, though I prefer ones that are yeasted, fermented, or otherwise have the anti-nutrient phytates broken down. Of course, you can make yeasted flatbreads.

      I’ve been looking at plans for threshers myself. Thanks for the link; I’ll have a look.

      • Hi Rob,

        Whoops. I shouldn’t have dropped yeast without explaining. It wasn’t a health/diet based comment. I was looking at the field-to-table process and trying to make it as simple as possible with minimal requirements while maximizing the use of the crop. If your yeast comes from the store, you have a dependency. If you make your own, the net calories are reduced. Making you own yeast just for chipatis may not be worth it from that perspective. Having other uses for the yeast improves the net caloric ratio. For example, if you grow barley and you’ve used hops for yeast making, then you know what you can do with hops and barley. ;)

        Regards,
        Mike

        • Mike, it’s my own hangup about phytates. LOL. Ever since I heard what used to happen to Iranian and Egyptian men and boys from eating too much unleavened bread.

          Yeast is easy to harvest wild! Only trouble is having fruit readily available when you want it, but some usually survives on plain old raisins.

          Speaking of dependencies, I’m glad you brought that up, because I’m trying to come up with lists of crops (and propagation material for them) to make possible enough variety of food that store-bought is a choice not a necessity. I was just talking to Tim Peters about that this evening.

          Yes, I do know what is done with barley and yeast. I suggest adding some hops blossoms too. LOL. We’re going to sow some barley early October; Tom got hold of some he’s excited about. I don’t normally drink beer, but I probably would if I made it myself, to my own tastes.

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