Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Homemade Bread from Home Grown Wheat

Why grow your own wheat?
With bread flour being inexpensive and easily available, why would anyone want to grow their own wheat for flour? Certainly not to save money, since small scale grain growing is a long and labor intensive process. The ground must be prepared and planted, the crop needs to be tended for many months, then harvested and the grain threshed from the heads and cleaned of chaff, and finally ground into flour.

For us there are two reasons to grow our own wheat: First there is flavor. A wheat berry is a complex, nutritionally dense seed that will keep very well when stored whole and dry. But once ground into flour, oxidation begins to degrade flavor and aroma. Taste a nut right out of the shell compared to chopped nut pieces from a plastic bag on the store shelf, or fresh squeezed orange juice compared to that from a plastic bottle and you get the idea. Fresh baked whole wheat bread made from just-milled flour is an experience in taste and aroma that makes pre-sliced store bread seem a very sad imitation.

Of course one can easily buy wheat berries from a food coop and eliminate all the work of growing and harvesting, so reason #1 is not critical. But another reason to grow grain might be for the satisfaction. Just as someone might grow a vegetable garden even though great produce stands abound, or raise a few laying hens even though eggs are cheaper at the store, growing grain can be as satisfying as growing anything else. Since wheat is such an ancient and basic part of agriculture and a fundamental part of the human diet, growing our own feels an important way to connect to something greater than ourselves. So despite the fact that it doesn't "pencil out," it seems important and we really enjoy it.

What to plant
There are many varieties of wheat: high and low protein, winter or spring grown, white or red, modern hybrids or heritage varieties. Because I use wheat for yeast-raised breads, I want a high protein (high gluten content) wheat. And because I want maximum yield for my trouble, I want a high-producing modern hybrid. And having little water for irrigation, I plant a winter wheat, sowing in the fall so it can be watered almost entirely by rainfall. For the second year I am using this hard red variety.

TIP: When buying wheat berries at a coop or such to mill your own flour for yeast breads, you will want to know that it has a high gluten content that will produce a tall, light loaf. A simple seat of the pants test is to put a dozen or so berries in your mouth, lightly mouthing them until they soften enough to be chewed. Once they begin to break down keep chewing but do not swallow the grain. A nice high gluten wheat will soon transform to the texture of chewing gum. In fact you can easily continue to chew it just like gum. You can be sure that that wheat will have good yeast bread rising qualities. But if the wheat just becomes mush then it will make loaves the texture of bricks unless a high proportion of white bread flour is added.

Preparing the ground for planting
I will plant the wheat in rows about 8" apart, giving enough space to run a wheel hoe down the row while the wheat is small, but close enough together so that the tall spring growth will help shade out weeds later in the season. But the most important weed control strategy is to first pre-irrigate the plot to cause existing weed seeds to sprout. Then after a couple of weeks I spread compost and any needed amendments and lightly till the plot, killing all of the initial weeds.

This year's wheat plot has been irrigated to sprout weed
seeds, then for two weeks our mobile chicken coop is moved
across the plot for some free fertilizer and chicken feed.

Compost has been spread and the ground is lightly tilled

I use a simple Earthway seeder set up to drop about 16 seeds per foot with rows 8" apart, at a planting depth of 1-1/2". Another planting method is to make shallow grooves with a harrow or by hand with the corner of a hoe, then dropping the seeds in by hand and covering with a rake. In any case it is best to keep the depth between 3/4" and 1-1/2", and to firmly press the soil over the seeds to ensure good seed/soil contact.

The Earthway seeder has a variety of seed plates for
different sized seeds, and a scribe to mark the location
of the next row. 

Ideally enough early rain will fall (or irrigation is available) to germinate the wheat by mid November so it will achieve some good growth before the cold weather of December - January. Then as spring days warm and lengthen, growth will jump and form many large grain heads for a high yield. Weed control and adequate nitrogen, phosphate, and water are key needs in the spring. 

At the end of January 2012, last year's wheat plot was off to
a good start. Growth will stall over the coldest months,
then take off in February.

A wheel hoe is a real labor saver for weeding between rows,
possible only when the wheat is very short. The stirrup part
is available in different widths to fit row spacing.

In spring the stems are tall and the grain
heads emerge from the terminal leaves

Barley (left) and wheat (right) later in spring, with heads
well filled out and starting to lighten in color

As the crop matures the leaves and stems will turn dry. At that point it is time to test the grain by picking individual grains from a head and squeezing them. First they will have a milky liquid inside, then progress to a doughy consistency, and eventually the grains become very hard. The wheat should be harvested as soon as it is completely dry and hard. It will then be fully mature and will store without molding. But waiting too long will risk loss to birds or heads shattering during harvest.

The grain is ready to harvest when all leaves are dried and
the wheat berries can no longer be dented with your teeth
For our very small plot we have found it easiest to walk down the rows with fruit picking buckets and snap off the heads at their base. This avoids dealing with all the straw during the threshing step.

A Youtube search on 'threshing grain" will provide many methods of small scale threshing. We have found that dropping the heads into our chipper/shredder (with the engine just idling slowly) works well. This knocks the wheat berries out of the heads thoroughly but damages almost none. We then winnow using a fan to separate the wheat berries from the chaff. The secret here is to drop the threshed grain and chaff in a slow stream like a waterfall, starting the drop well above the fan. The grains, being heavier, separate and fall faster than the lighter chaff so when the mix enters the air stream the chaff is easily blown away. Shown below, two large bins and a trailer catch the material. the first bin catches almost all grain, the second a few grains and some chaff, and the trailer all chaff. The first two bins are then winnowed a second time and finally the grain is poured into shallow trays and any remaining bits of straw are pulled out.

Winnowing the grain after threshing in a
chipper/shredder. Dropping the grain from a bit
above the fan works best

Final drying and storage
Once clean the wheat needs to be more thoroughly dried before storage. We put the grain into a tub with a screened bottom and set it over the fan inside our solar fruit dryer. Other methods are to build a wooden box with screen on the bottom, set it up off the floor on blocks and attach a fan to the bottom to force air through. When thoroughly dry the grain will store well in an airtight(and bug tight) container in a dark place.

As with any crop, yield varies widely depending upon plant variety, growing conditions, soil fertility, etc. An average wheat yield could be about 5 lb./100 sq. ft. with reasonable growing conditions. Last year despite very low rainfall we were right on average with 35# of wheat from 650 sq. ft. and 39# of barley from another 650 sq. ft. We grew the barley for chicken feed.

Milling flour
We have used three different grain mills and are totally sold on our latest, the Nutrimill. It is extremely fast (4-1/2 cups of flour takes just over one minute), dust free, simple to use, and is adjustable from medium to very fine flour. We normally mill the flour just before making bread so the flour is still warm from milling and is as fresh and aromatic as possible.

Nutrimill grain mill

Baking bread the easy way
To simplify the process we use a bread machine since they do a wonderful job of kneading. But few do a great job of baking. We used to use an older machine just for mixing and kneading, then we would remove the dough, form the loaf, let it rise and bake in the oven. Results were good but it took lots of baby sitting the dough through all the steps. Recently we've upgraded to the Zojirushi Virtuoso and can report that it does the job start to finish perfectly, turning out beautiful loaves just by adding the ingredients and pushing a button. It's expensive but worth it.

The Zojirushi bread machine

The finished product, 100% whole wheat bread from
home grown wheat!