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.
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.
*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.