Harvest Time!

Finally, the wheat fields have transformed from pale green to golden brown. The seed heads have dried and their husks turned brittle. The wheat berries are practically popping from their hulls. It’s time to harvest.

Sheaves of harvested wheat

We start harvesting by hand. It’s a simple enough process, snipping the straw about two feet down from the seed head with tools no more complex than scissors, then you collect everything – push the seed heads down and bind the sheaf with twine. Since this is a breeding program, the first passes over the field are especially important because it is one of the last stages in the selection process. It’s vital to only take the best of the best – approximately 15-20% of the total crop. Eli looks for height, robustness, thick straw, fat & long seed heads, and resistance to disease. It’s been a wet summer, which is a challenge to the wheat because it fosters the growth of fusarium which naturally occurs in the soil. A fusarium stricken wheat looks like this:

The visual signs include: black powder (looks like black spots – which you can see if you look closely at the picture on the left), bright orange discoloration (left), and cobweb like filaments that resemble mold (right)

A musty mildew-like smell is also an indication of fusarium infection.

Some varieties are more susceptible than others. I noticed a great deal of the ukrainka wheats were stricken with the fungus to the point that the seed heads were shrivelled, stunted, and almost entirely black. Rouge De Bordeaux, a French baker’s wheat, has been very resilient – with very little evidence of fusarium. The purple Emmer appears to be virtually immune.

Avoiding fusarium can be tricky, because each wheat plant has approx. 3-10 stalks. In some plants, a few stalks are severely damaged by the disease, while others appear robust and ideal for harvest. My method of dealing with this is to scan the plants for one particularly healthy stalk, then follow it down to the base so I can identify where the whole plant starts and stops. If there is no fusarium in the whole plant – I will cut the entire thing. Afterwards I perform another selection, discarding individuals with other undesirable qualities – like a puny seed head (poor yield), or weak stalk (tendency to lodge, or fall over).

Repeat, repeat, repeat – until a solid fistful of wheat has been gathered.

Here are examples of a few different varieties – note the difference in morphology, color, shape, awns etc.

Rouge De Bordeaux: Hard awnless French wheat prized by artisan bakers

Emmer: Ancient wheat first cultivated in the fertile crescent, this variety has a purple color, flat seed head, and long straight awns

A better look at the beautiful purple shade of this variety of Emmer

*Note: I will add more varieties to this post as I encounter and photograph them.

It’s a unique experience to be working with crops that have such a long and important history in agriculture, and amazing to watch the whole process from preparing the soil, to harvesting the crop.

*Sheaf of the hairy Russian Banatka wheat on the far left

A Surge of Updates/Selecting and Protecting Wheat in the Field

I’ve been out in Maine for the past week – spending time with family after the Convergence ended on the 4th. I’ve got a lot to catching up to do, about the baking I’ve been doing at home, how the wheat project is progressing, a little about Nuestras, not to mention the whole convergence where I went to 4-5 workshops covering a diverse topic range which were all revolutionary in their own ways.

Unfortunately – my camera really did bite the dust this time. Literally. I was using it at the Colrain Seed Farm and so much grit had lodged itself in the lens and sensor that it no longer opens and closes and even if I could take pictures they would all be covered in little black dots. Sigh. So I’m going to go ahead and post pictures/commentary up until the point of my Lumix’s demise (rest in peace you wimpy hunk of metal and plastic) – then tackle the convergence. Sadly I have no pictures from the event. However there will be links and information galore – you excited yet?

—————————————————————–

The Heritage Wheat Conservancy Project currently has two sites: one at the Colrain Seed Farm, the other is at the UMass Agronomy Research Farm in South Deerfield. Eli has several acres dedicated to conducting growing trials of different wheat varieties over there. These varieties are from all over the world – Georgia, the Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, and France, to name a few.

Wheat Fields at the South Deerfield Research Farm

Some noteworthy varieties being cultivated are Rouge de Bordeaux – a prized French baking wheat, and Red Lammas – the first wheat to be grown successfully in Massachusetts.

Learn more about the different wheat varieties being trialed and grown by the HWC.

When I went out to the research farm, my main task was “roguing” which is a part of the selection process vital to maintaining healthy robust genetics in crop varieties. Roguing is more necessary when dealing with landraces or heritage varieties because the gene pools are far more diverse, thus the wheats that spring up from a handful of “Mida” seeds are likely to express a range of phenotypes. Some have better pest tolerance, some are shorter, or prone to lodging and so on. In a breeding program the farmer selects for the traits which are best adapted to his/her needs. Roguing is simply the removal of plants of “inferior” quality that do not match the traits that are being developed. We did this with either a pair of pruning scissors or a small saw blade.

Roguing with my "lethal" weapon

It’s far from an exact science. The hope is that by removing unfit individuals, you are “weeding” those genes out of the pool – narrowing the variation expressed in a variety to more ideal types. My question is, how do you know exactly what you are taking out of the gene pool? Phenotypes do not mirror genotypes exactly. The result is a slow process of selection and stewardship over generations and generations to get the desired result; but if you look at how much has been accomplished agriculturally with this method – seems like its probably worth the effort.

The wheat is maturing quickly. It’s ready to harvest once it turns completely brown.

Almost ready to be harvested

By the time I post this, it is likely that the majority of what is in the field in Deerfield is ready to go. It’s important to get roguing done before the harvest begins – otherwise you lose an important window and everything starts getting lumped together.

The biggest threat in the field right now is birds. Imagine you just discovered another animal cultivated a whole field of your favorite food and for all intents and purposes you have free access to it. The birds are having a complete rager. When the whole field turns light brown they’ll be happy to go to town, stripping the seed heads bare. Eli is concerned about her harvest, so she put up several large beach balls with “eyes” along with big animatronic owls that swivel their heads and occasionally hoot.

Scared yet?

How about now?

The birds are entirely unconvinced. They are practically laughing in our faces as they swoop down for the attack. We had to resort to a physical barrier.

Bird Net

We’ll see how well it works… definitely better than nothing. Other than that, things have been pretty quiet around the Seed Farm. Eli is planting a large bed of mustard because apparently it kills the fusarium that lives in the soil. So I went out and helped CR turn the beds (which had been heavily manured about 2-3 weeks ago) to prepare it for planting. I also did a bit of weeding and grazing on CR’s beautiful peas.

“]

End. [pea glamor shot


Baking Einkorn Pita

Yesterday was way too hot to work outside. Shying away from imminent heat exhaustion, I spent the whole day in the kitchen – milling, packaging, and labeling einkorn flour to ship across the country. Eli’s clients are from all over the country – Colorado, Oregon, California… What she’s operating in right now is a very niche market – gluten-intolerant artisan bakers. It was interesting to see where the orders were coming from, and imagine who had sought out the Heritage Wheat Conservancy looking for wheat that could side-step their dream shattering allergies.

Flights of fancy aside, for the better part of the day I made my first pita loaves. Exciting, because I have quarts of homemade hummus and hummus requires pita like coffee needs pie. So I picked a simple recipe out of an awesome Flatbreads cook book. I didn’t write it down but it went something like this:

5-6 Cups All Purpose Flour (or half wheat, half white)

2 tsp. yeast

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp salt

2 1/2 cups of water

Well, I started with good intentions of following directions – but I had to reduce the amount because I didn’t want to use too much einkorn flour so 5-6 cups turned into 4 cups of flour. Since my math on the spot skills are dismal at best all the amounts were results of my tinkering with the moisture of the dough and white to einkorn flour ratios until the dough held together nicely and was not sticky. It might be difficult to reproduce, I definitely want to get recipes and use them closely enough to have the basic form down pat – then start improvising. Next time, anyway,

My recipe looked more like this:

2 c. einkorn flour

2+c. hi-gluten white flour (i threw a bunch in at the end so its hard to be precise)

1 tsp. dry active yeast

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp salt

2(?) c. lukewarm water

1 heaping spoonful sourdough starter

Foremost, the yeast has to be activated. Warm water to about blood temperature, any hotter could kill the yeast organisms. Sprinkle yeast on top of water and stir, allow to sit for 5-10 minutes. Mix the flours together, and add 2 cups mixed flour into the warm water – stir well (the book said 100 strokes in one minute) to create a “sponge” and allow to sit and ferment for 20 minutes – 2 hours (the longer the better). Once plenty of bubbles are visible on the surface of the “sponge” add olive oil and stir. Sprinkle salt on top of sponge, this stops the fermentation process. Add the rest of the flour and mix until you get a fairly strong dough. At this point I divided the dough into fist sized balls and on a floured surface, used my fingers to stretch and flatten the dough until they were a nice pita shape (amorphous and round); but you can really do any size you want. Then cover the dough with plastic wrap and allow to rise for an hour and a half or more.

Pita Rising

After the dough has risen, I found it best to degas it by pressing down with your palms and fingertips to flatten the dough. I baked a few without degassing or “punching down” and they were more of a foccacia than a pita. At this point I also had to divide the circles a few more times because of space constraint, but they were pretty easy to reshape – it’s just important to smooth out the creases or “seams” in the dough. Place dough on a floured cookie sheet and season. I brushed each bread with olive oil and sprinkleld za’ater seasoning on top.

To bake: preheat oven to 450-500 degrees. Bake for up to 10 minutes, check at 2-4 minute intervals. When the pita balloons, you are getting close. I waited until mine browned to take them out, the crust was harder than most pita but it was soft and good inside.

Fresh Pita!

It turned out really well. The sourdough and einkorn make a delicious combination that is tangy, nutty and savory. The ones that ballooned well make great pocket breads. The texture is somewhere between pita and pizza crust, & it stayed nice and moist inside. So far so good! I’m want to have a bread recipe book done by the end of the summer. Maybe one of these days I’ll work at a bakery. I think that would suit me just fine.

Next time I want to try it in this thing -

The charred maw of the mobile oven.

About Seed Saving

There are few things in this world so poetic as a seed. It’s hard not to be awe stricken with the knowledge that something as small as an acorn contains an oak tree, and if you widen the scope of your imagination, a whole forest. Consider how many acorns a single tree can produce in one season… The abundance that one seed can yield is key to the success and survival of life on this planet, and has been an invaluable resource to humanity since we began cultivating plants and animals for our use. Seed saving is in many ways the core of agricultural traditions worldwide. The concept is a simple one, begin cultivation of a specific species of plant, and save the seeds of the individuals that exhibit preferred traits. After putting many generations through the selection process, eventually the farmer or gardener “arrives” at a variety that suits their needs. This method has allowed people and plants to adapt mutually to their environments and “lifestyles.” Before large scale industrial monocultures became the agricultural standard for feeding the world, the staples of our diets, corn, wheat, soybeans etc. existed in innumerable variation as landraces specifically adapted to their different environments and not far removed from their wild ancestors; or as heirloom varieties, unique to different family farms, or villages. These heirloom varieties are the result of the hard work of successive generations of farmers carefully saving the seed of their best crops.

Seed saving is a cornerstone of traditional farming practices – with non GM varieties, farmers and gardeners only have to buy seed once and from that point on they can improve on that variety to fit their needs, distribute seed to their neighbors, begin community seed banks, the possibilities are endless.

To start saving seed yourself, take a look at these fantastic resources. Each type of seed has slightly different needs for storage, and not all seeds remain viable for the same length of time – so it’s worth doing a little research before you get started. Enjoy!

Seed Saving Resources

Seed Saving for Beginners

Seed Savers’ Exchange: Instructions for Saving Different Types of Seed

SSE: About Heirloom Seeds

Organic Seed Alliance

Reflections: Day 1 at Nuestras Raices/Week 2 at Colrain (to be continued…)

Last week was full of hard work in the sun. I had my first day volunteering at Nuestras Raices on Tuesday. There was much to be done, and not many people around to do it – today they are holding the 6th Annual Sustainable Energy Summit. When I arrived at the farm, the manager, Amy described the event and pointed at a huge pile of wood chips saying, “see those wood chips over there? That’s where they want to hold all of the workshops.” Clearly it’s been a stressful week for everyone over there. I did my share of hauling wood chips next to the pony pen. It was tough work pushing a full wheelbarrow through a thick layer of mulch, ferrying loads of wood chips back and forth. I had to take frequent breaks to keep from overheating (I’m extremely heat sensitive). Luckily I was rescued by the coordinator of the Youth Garden, Lauren, who needed help preparing beds and transplanting tomato, basil and onion seedlings as well as planting some carrot seeds. We didn’t get as much done as we had hoped, but it looked really good at the end and Lauren had a nice garden plan that is diverse and will be beautiful when it all starts coming up.

Unfortunately, my camera got a bit dirty in the process clogging my zoom – so no pictures this week.

I’m heading back over to NR today to help out with the event.

———-

I spent Wednesday and Thursday at Colrain. Wednesday Eli was gone until late afternoon, so I spent most of the day with CR – who is a lovely old hippie farmer with tons of experience, a quiet, peaceful manner, and an impish gap toothed smile. CR heads the FEDCO Seed Co-op based out of Waterville, Maine, which he began in 1978 when he discovered he could buy spinach seeds in bulk and turn a profit by repackaging them in smaller units to sell individually. He has a beautiful vegetable garden on the farm which he grows for personal use and to trial the seeds Fedco offers in its annual catalog. CR also writes the descriptions for all of the seeds, which often involve bad jokes and amusing anecdotes. It’s about as entertaining as seed catalogs get, with great old style illustrations, boldly anti-GM articles, notes on seed saving, quotes from customers and Goethe, and lots of helpful resources. FEDCO ships all over the nation, it’s definitely worth checking out. I got to experience a little taste of CR’s trial methods when we picked a bunch of ripe peas off the vine and counted the number of peas in each pod, then analyzed the taste, color, ripening time and overall experience of what that particular seed has to offer. More on seed trials/saving soon…

Milling and Baking

So, when we last left off I had a pile of threshed and winnowed wheat grains. There are a lot of different ways one can go at this point – but for this post I’ll focus on the really fun part: baking. Bread is incredibly simple ingredient wise, the most basic recipe has flour, water, yeast and salt.

To obtain flour from wheat grains, they have to be milled (ground very very finely). Historically this has been done in many ingenious ways. There’s the labor intensive mortar and pestle – I have no idea how much hand grinding it would take to create flour using this method, needless to say people forced into this position were probably thinking, “there has got to be a better way.”

Enter the windmill and water mill

Windmill

Watermill

*note: images sourced from Google

These both utilized the natural forces of wind and water to rotate huge grinding mechanisms, thereby reducing the amount of manual labor needed to produce flour. That is only the tip of the iceberg in traditional milling methods.

Today, it is far more likely to be using electricity powered mills. Colrain is a small scale operation, and has not yet hooked up with any bakeries or started selling bread commercially. Eli uses a small electric mill that is older and produces a flour that is a bit coarser than some more expensive modern mills, but it gets the job done.

The Electric Mill

From top to bottom: Lid for grindstone, grind stone, grain chamber, flour catch

Operation: Pour grains into front chamber, make sure the flour pan is underneath the mill, close the top of grindstone (if you don’t want a face full of flour), put lid on grain chamber, and turn on machine.

Now that the flour has been ground, it’s time to start the bread. I was fortunate enough to have access to a swiss sourdough starter Eli had in her refrigerator. Sourdough requires a starter which contains a symbiotic culture of lactobacillus and yeast which are naturally present in a mixture of flour and water. The starter has to be cultivated with repeated “feedings” of flour and water. The lactobacillus organisms produce lactic acid as part of their metabolic processes, this is what gives sourdough its tangy, sour flavor. If sourdough starter is well fed and cared for, it can remain stable for years. (for more information about the history and chemistry of Sourdough visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sourdough).

Swiss Sourdough Starter

To make Sourdough bread, start with a few spoonfuls of starter – and then add flour and water. I used a 2:1 ratio. You can also be loose about it and simply eyeball your amounts, adding either water or flour and mixing to get the desired texture. Rule of thumb: water thins, flour thickens.

I made two batches of dough, one using heritage Einkorn flour ground in the electric mill, and one with pre ground King Arthur White Flour. Sifting was especially important when using the Einkorn flour because of the bran content. Bran is the hard outer layer of the grain, it is high in fiber and nutrients and is denser than flour. Its good to separate it because bran can be used in many other recipes, for muffins and cereals.

Einkorn bran at bottom of flour sifter

Once you’ve added sifted flour and water, mix the dough – either with an electric mixer, or by hand. Not many people know that once you mix, it is not necessary to knead dough unless you are in a hurry. If it is left to sit, dough will basically “knead” itself, and the gluten molecules will form on their own creating a cohesive mass. I did the by hand method and the electric mixer method. Einkorn dough is incredibly sticky, and a little bit difficult to work by hand, so even though I generally like playing with food and working dough by hand, I preferred the modern method.

Electric Mixer with Einkorn Dough

I repeated the process with the white flour/sourdough starter combo and left them out to rise for the rest of the afternoon. The result was this…

The Two Sourdoughs: White on left, Einkorn on right

Note the difference in volume and consistency. The einkorn sourdough is denser, fuller and has more visible popped bubbles. The white sourdough has large noticeable bubbles forming, which is probably due to the much higher gluten content.

We ended up using the part of the white sourdough for pizza – which turned out beautifully. We divvied up the rest of the doughs for a small experiment in sprouted breads (pictures forthcoming) and then I took a nice lump of Einkorn home to bake a personal loaf. I wish I had some pictures of the final product. You can take my word that it was hearty and delicious and lasted our house about three days.

Wheat Processing: From Stalk to Grain

Because of the timing of my internship, the majority of what I’m going to be doing out at Colrain is harvesting and threshing wheat. Right now Eli is still trying to get through the back stock from last years harvest. She’s got huge piles stacked in the front room of the house. The sheafs are all bound and labelled. There are a dizzying number of varieties laying around. There are two main steps in transforming the hairy seed heads into bare wheat grains. These are threshing and winnowing.

Threshing is the process of separating seeds from hulls and straw. I, like most people (according to Eli), was pretty mystified by the prospect of efficiently getting all of those little grains out of the complex pods. I imagined using some arcane tool only the grim reaper handles these days. To my surprise, Eli’s method of threshing is more like a bacchanalian smashing of grapes than swinging around a scary curved blade.

The tools of the trade:

Wheat Sheafs and Shallow Winnowing Basket

Deep Threshing Basket and Car Mat (nubbins side up)

That’s it! Remarkably simple. All you need are two baskets, one deep and one shallow, and a car mat you can either get for cheap at any auto part story or take out of your own vehicle. The idea is to have two containers (I’ll explain why in a second) and something bumpy that you can crush the wheat against.

The process goes like this:

-place the car mat nubbins side up in the deep basket

-cut the seed heads off of the stalks, and pile them on the mat

-get in the basket, preferably wearing tough shoes with solid treads

-dance, stomp, twist and otherwise pulverize the seed heads until you are left with a pile of grains and detritis

Tada! Wheat threshed. Next question is how the heck do you get rid of all of the crushed hulls & less desirable wheat parts? This is where winnowing comes into play. Winnowing is the process of separating the grain from the chaff (that’s all the fibrous junk sullying your otherwise beautiful wheat). This part requires the shallow basket. It is handy because you can blow the chaff and it easily clears the low rim of the basket while the heavier grains stay behind.

The traditional methods are either powered by wind or your lungs. If you are lucky enough to have a strong breeze, you can pour the wheat and chaff from the shallow basket to the deep basket and back again. The wind carries away the light stuff, and the seeds fall back into the basket. Pretty brilliant, huh? On day one of my internship, we were lucky enough to have a pretty steady breeze and I was able to see this in action. It would have been my favorite, if I could snap my fingers to turn on a breeze… alas… I’m not that good (yet.) On a still day, simply take a deep breath and blow into the shallow basket with all the wheat etc. in it. The chaff flies away pretty easily, but it takes a more than few passes to get it clear. Good for building lung capacity, not so good if you are sensitive to hyperventilation. Take it slow and it’s not so bad.

My favorite method is the hair dryer approach. I’m a product of the modern age, I like electricity. I like the fact that I can turn the blow dryer on high and cool, aim it at the shallow basket and presto changeo – clean wheat! It takes a little finesse not to start blowing grains all over the place, but once you get the hang of it, it’s fantastic.

Of course its all a little more complicated then that because I never could get all of the seed heads properly crushed in one go, so you have to repeat the process a few times – but on the whole its pretty methodical and fun. Ha, we’ll see if I’m whistling a different tune during harvest when we are threshing “24/7″

If you really want to be lazy about the whole thing, there are threshing machines that do the threshing and winnowing for you. The machine looks like this…

Threshing Machine

It’s a battery-operated clunky thing that does the work quickly but is not nearly efficient as doing it by hand (or foot, rather). The seed heads go into the top chute where they meet a whirring quickly rotating thresher,

Threshing Mechanism

The threshing mechanism does the job of separating the grain from the chaff, and blows the chaff out of a chute on the side of the machine. You can’t really see it there, but it’s on the right side of the picture. The grains fall into the collecting jar at the bottom. I’d much rather do the dancing/crushing/blowing method. Its quieter, more active and allows for a greater degree of control and thoroughness.

Once the threshing and winnowing is done, all that remains is to bag it. At the Seed Farm there are so many varieties it is essential to keep track of which you are working with, and make sure each bag has a label. I threshed Rouge de Bordeaux, Bezostajay, Mida, and a few others.

And the result…

Bags of threshed and winnowed wheat

A bunch of high quality heritage wheat all ready for planting, milling, and a whole host of fun culinary enterprises.

Days 1 & 2 at Colrain


P1000884

Originally uploaded by well-i-declaire

My first two days at the Colrain Seed Farm were full and successful, if not a bit overwhelming. I have tons of pictures which I will be working on getting up in the next few days. Eli has the qualities of a great mentor – organized, driven, willing to share, productive, hard working and intellectual. My first task was to figure out a specific direction I want the internship to take so that I can come out with a final product that is presentable and ideally can be put on a resume. Easier said then done, since I was just trying to get my bearings at that point. Right now it’s either going to be me and Eli creating a curriculum that can be used in a three session seasonal workshop on “Bread Ecology” (I will explain later), or some kind of research project dealing with wheat. I have a few reservations about the latter only because it is late in the growing season and I don’t think I could successfully have my own plot to trial different varieties, even though that is more appealing than the workshop. At any rate, it is important that I figure out where I’m going with this. I’m super flexible, all I want is to
-learn how to bake amazing bread with all kinds of wheats
-learn how to plant, grow, harvest and process wheat
-learn about growing & harvesting vegetables
-learn about wild edibles
-learn about soil fertility
-learn about managing a farm/how to make money farming
-learn about what kind of government regulations farmers have to deal with
-make connections with farms around the pioneer valley

I would be perfectly happy doing all of this on a day-by-day basis, in increments. In the end I’d have a lot of knowledge and many little things to show for it. Eli is pushing me to be more ambitious, and do things on a larger scale. I have to think about it some more.

Other than trying to figure out a trajectory, I got a lot accomplished in the first day. I plan on doing a few more extensive blog entries about a few of these things, but here is a general idea

*Examined Einkorn wheat and took notes with lots of questions
*Made two kinds of sourdough, one with white flour, the other with Einkorn flour
*Learned about sourdough starter
*Weeded in the wheat beds with CR (Eli’s husband, the veggie man)
*Planted 6 Emmer wheat seeds to watch and cultivate
*Learned how to thresh, winnow and bag wheat. Did this for 3 hours with at least 6 different varieties.
*Picked wild edibles for dinner salad
*Helped make pizza with the wheat flour sourdough I made
*Wrote the first draft of a paragraph advertising aforementioned workshop

The next day I baked and threshed bags and bags of wheat.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.