Episode 260. Small Scale Grain Growing

This is The ChangeUnderground for the 13th of June 2021.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

Fertile Crescent Grains

At first sight this small scale grains seems a non-starter but bear with me.

Now the Fertile Crescent grains and their relatives were selected for with the technology the early farmers had to hand. As their technology developed the seeds were selected to fit the technology. This basically means wheeled vehicles and draught animals. From sowing to harvesting this technology suite affected every aspect of grain production. Seed drills, to combine harvesters and silos all reflect this.

The end result of this is a grain cohort that requires threshing and winnowing at the least. Many also require dehulling. These hulls are great at protecting the grain until it’s ready for grinding into flour but are a pain to remove at a small scale level. Each of these steps requires a level of technology that is possible at the garden or smallholder level but requires a little thought and a search through the past. 

Threshing, the removal of the seed from the seed head, can be achieved fairly simply by banging handfuls of harvested plants against the back of a chair or a beam set between two chairs and so on. A simple treadle operated rotating set of wooden shafts against which to bang the seed heads looks like an option. A quick YouTube search does provide an eclectic series of solutions to this problem. 

After the threshing which leads to large amounts of trash, non grain bits of the plant, being mixed in with the seeds, follows winnowing. This, at its simplest, can be achieved by throwing handfuls or basketfuls or bucketfuls of the threshed material into the air when it’s windy. The non seed bits blow away and the seeds fall to ground. Fans can be used when there’s no wind and, as ever, YouTube provides a variety of intriguing solutions. 

This leaves the dehulling problem. It can be overcome by planting hulless varieties. Easiest done for wheat. I did find a hulless barley back in the 1990s from a seed company here in Tassie but that’s gone out of business and didn’t have the variety every year anyway.

The other solution is to build a dehulling machine. YouTube again and there seems to be three options: rollers, spinners and scrapers. Rollers use two rubber covered cylinders rotting in the same direction at different speeds to rub the hull from the seeds. The spinners use centrifugal force to throw seeds against a hard surface to knock the hull from the seeds and scrapers use something like sandpaper to rub the hull from the seeds. I’m drawn towards the roller solution if I can find an old fashioned washing machine with a mangle on top to modify. The thing to remember is that dehulling is not required for animal feed only for humans. So the “only for human consumption” grains need this process. In our case here in the glorious North West of Tasmania that will be wheat, spelt and buckwheat.

Why bother? Well that’s a fair question.

There is this thing I have, maybe because I studied archaeology, maybe it’s just me but I like to trace things back to their origins. I felt a very strange sense of parallelism with the neolithic farmers as I sowed these seeds. That feeling and a desire to replicate a Fukuoka grain patch has always been high on my list of priorities. That and the idea that locally grown grains would produce a bread with more flavour than flour from commercial millers. Time will tell. At the very least, I’ll have plenty of grain for the chooks and ducks.


Let’s now consider a grain selected using a different technology set. I’m talking maize, or Indian corn or just corn depending upon where you live. Corn was domesticated from a grass called teosinte. This provided a couple of grains, maybe three, but was more useful as a plant for weaving material. Over time through whatever selection pressure humans applied to this species, we ended up with the corn we have today. Six types are now extant: popping, sweet, flour, flint, dent and pod. 

Popcorn and sweet corn, I think we can take as read. The same holds for flour corn. You need a mill to grind the seed but the flour is something we’ve mostly seen before. Dent corn is the major commercial variety. Cornbelts around the world grow this variety. When the seed dries sufficiently for harvesting a small dent forms in the top of each kernel. Flint corn is as hard a flint, hence the name. It has a very low water content. It can be used for popping or more usually for hominy. Hominy is made with flint corn that’s been soaked in an alkaline solution and then washed. The original solution was water and wood ash, known as lye. 

Lastly we come to pod corn. This is an oddity. Each kernel is wrapped in a leaf. It reintroduces the hulling problem of Fertile Crescent grains so it’s probably not an option for the smaller grower. Hopefully some people are growing it to maintain the genetic variation but I’d rule it out for the small scale.

Whilst maize has been adapted for large scale mechanical cultivation, it remains the obvious choice for the small scale grain grower. Depending upon your location many options open. In the Americas, the choice is almost mind bogglingly large. Elsewhere the choices become narrower but still exciting enough. Here on the Apple Isle, we have very tight biosecurity rules so that even importing seed from the mainland can become prohibitively expensive. Yet there’s always a way. Last year I ordered a couple of kilos of seed for home and work from a supplier in Queensland. They rang to let me know that the seed would need to go through biosecurity. But if I ordered in 800g lots, after each one arrived, there’d not be a problem. I went overboard and ended up bringing over three kilos this way just in case the rules change again. It turns out the same rules applied to the egyptian dwarf broad beans i wanted  so there you go.

Traps for young players: Corn has a few peculiarities in its lifecycle that need to be kept in mind. The plants are wind pollinated. Each of the silks that protrude through the leaves around the cob links to one kernel on the cob. These are the female parts. The tassels which form at the very top of the plant are male parts and they shed pollen in the wind. One grain of pollen for each strand of the silks or there’ll be missing kernels on the cob. This means three things: One, plant your corn in a block, not a long straight line of individual plants unless you’re going to hand pollinate. And Two: if you’re growing in a polytunnel or glasshouse you will need to shake the plants to spread the pollen. A quick left/right on the stem will see the pollen floating off and finally Three: if you don’t want to cross pollinate your corn it must be at least 150 metres or 500 feet from other stands of corn.

The answer then is to grow different varieties in different years, if you want to save the seed. Otherwise just plant away and see what you get. Could be a great way to create a local variety. Mind you, managing to find a selection that throws true will take time but surely it’s worth the effort.

So if you’re going to grow grain on a small scale, I’d stick with the maize option unless you’re particularly contrarian or have a plan. How much grain you receive in the process is subject to too many variables to give a definitive result. Currently I have oats, wheat, barley and spelt growing. The sudden burst of warm weather we’ve had this past week has pushed what should have been winter grains, ready to harvest late next spring or early summer into producing seed heads. Hopefully they’ll survive until the traditionally warmer weather. I’ll provide yield data then.

So have a crack if the idea appeals to you. It could be the start of a Fukuoka grain patch which is definitely a regenerative practice and I’ll work it into the ChangeUnderground System.

If you go to the website: https://worldorganicnews.com/freeebook/ you can obtain a free copy of the eBook outlining The ChangeUnderground System.

If you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions, I opened a Facebook group. I’ve called it, imaginatively, ChangeUnderground Podcast Group. You search on the FB or there’s a link in the show notes and in the transcript over at WorldOrganicNews.com/episode259. 

Decarbonise the air and Recarbonise the soil.

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.




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