Farm School Week 28: The Grain Harvest

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We have hit the six-month mark at the Greenbank Farm Training Center. We spent the spring planning, prepping and planting. In the summer we watered and weeded. And now, with the onset of fall, we are in full harvest mode. Each day the zukes and cukes seem to double in size, the green beans generate new fruit by the bushel-full, and the tomatoes redden and ripen into globes of goodness.

Many of these crops are under our constant supervision. Zucchinis the size of baseball bats don’t sell, and if we don’t pick the beans they will stop producing all together. We check on our vegetable crops daily and tend to their ever-present needs. We weed. We trellis. We sucker. If a crop is ripe, we harvest it for our CSA or try to sell it at the farmers market. We move the goods we grow from farm to table. Or farm to grocery store to table if you count the produce we sell to independently owned grocery stores. We check radishes to make sure they don’t get to pithy, peas to make sure they aren’t too fibrous, carrots for crispness and arugula for spice.

We do a good job keeping on top of our game, but there are those few projects that get forgotten about during the deep of summer. It took me by total surprise when I finally noticed that the experimental grain crop we had planted in spring was losing color and the little grain heads were hardening up and falling to the ground.

In June, we planted one-hundred feet of two-row barely and one-hundred feet of hull-less oats. This was strictly for fun. None of us, with the exception of our program director, had ever grown grains. This was one of the experiential learning projects that we were not going to have to sell at market or give to our CSA members.

My memories of the grains’ life cycle are vague. We planted. A few weeks after the grains germinated we had some issues with Canada geese, but the grain bounced back. We watered throughout the summer and a flock of birds made the thigh-high grain an afternoon hang out spot. At some point we tasted the grains, taking in the milky, under-ripe taste of oats and the chewy hulls of barely. Those grains seemed to grow themselves, and they made farming seem easy.

This was a small operation. You don’t use a combine to harvest two hundred feet of grain. You can imagine that we had to be innovative with our harvesting method. We cut down the grain with a hand sickle and tied armloads into bundles. We let the bundles dry in our barn house for a few weeks.

Then came time to thresh and winnow the grain. Thresh: to separate grain from a plant. Winnow: to remove chaff from the grain. These are age-old practices, taking us as far back to the earliest days of humanity’s agricultural roots.

Threshing Experiment One included holding a bundle of grain like a bat and beating it over the edge of a wheelbarrow. This was somewhat successful, but quite an arm workout. Threshing Experiment Two included jumping, dancing, and sliding on top of the bundles of grain. This was very successful. If you danced on the grain for a few minutes you could not only get in a little bit of a cardio, but also get 95% of the grain to fall off.

After we threshed the grain, we pushed it through the two screens we use to sieve our potting soil in the spring. This removed any large pieces of straw that had made their way through the threshing process. We set up a few Rubbermaid containers outside on a tarp. We poured buckets of grain from shoulder height into the containers. The wind blew away the chaff while the force of gravity sent the grain right into the container. After a few passes with this technique, the grain was almost entirely clean. It took six of us an hour and a half to process and clean one-hundred feet of barely. Not bad, eh?

I don’t want to make this process sound too easy, but, from start to finish, this process was easy. Call it beginner’s luck. Call it case of sowing seeds in the right place at the right time. All I know is that I will do this again. I encourage any home gardener with a little extra space to try planting a few seeds in the spring. Who knows, you might be able to bake that homemade loaf of bread with homegrown wheat. Or what about brewing a batch of beer with homegrown barley. Now could be your chance to make that morning bowl of oatmeal really special!

What about for me? For now, I will take my share of grain home. I’ll probably put it in the pantry and forget about it for a few months, just like how I forgot about the grain as it was growing. There are other things fighting for my attention. Like the zucchini about to go soft in the crisper, the fresh basil that it starting to wilt in the fridge. I could never let a late-season strawberry go moldy, and lettuce doesn’t last long, no matter how you store it. I already feel the grains drifting away, only to come back on a cold winter day as a nice porridge when the cucumbers and cabbage are months away.