For this final installation of The Wheat Experiment (season 1), I’m going to cover threshing – the extraction of the seed/hull from the wheat stalk – and winnowing – the separation of the chaff from the seeds. While the wheat garden itself was a complete success, the methods used to thresh and winnow were at best awkward (read: pain in the rear) and at worst time consuming and labor intensive (read: new curse words were invented and used). Nonethless, I persevered and have wheat seeds to show for my efforts!
A single fruit of labor
For threshing, I turned to real-life wheat farmers with the pseudonyms Tarzan and Jane for guidance. The method of choice: beating the crud out of the wheat stalks. The idea here is to hold the bottom of the stalks and strike the head of the wheat against a wall thus releasing the wheat berries. Sounds simple enough. In practice I took a handful of stalks and covered the heads of the stalks with a plastic garbage bag such that the seeds when released were captured. Then I struck the bag/heads of wheat against the driveway. What actually happened: many seeds released, many heads broke away from the stems, and a variety of holes formed in the trash bag. The trash bag holes were created from both the wheat beards poking through the bag and the striking of the bag against the textured surface of the driveway. The heads of wheat once broken from the stalks did not release seeds. And quite a bit of wheat grass broke away from the stalks as well. In the end, I had a mess on my hands.
The efforts of threshing
At this point in time, with broken wheat heads containing unreleased seeds, I turned to a pair of thick gardening gloves. Taking a head of wheat, I rolled the head back and forth between my hands (think “It’s cold, and I’m going to rub my hands together to stay warm”) until the seeds released. This method worked fine but was still time consuming and often the heads would break. How long did all of this take? Well, it appears it was one month before I attempted the winnowing. Yes, I’ll say it again: One month! Finding a better method will be a priority this year. I eventually ended up with a half full freeezer bag of seeds and chaff.
Bag of seeds and chaff
Winnowing was somewhat easier. One method involves tossing the seeds, chaff and all, through a flame. The chaff burns away AND any (evil) weevil eggs are destroyed. I didn’t feel like I had a good setup for using fire. So I opted for the fan method. Using a fan to create an airflow parallel with the ground, the seeds and chaff were dropped through the airstream. While the chaff blew away, the seeds fell straight to the ground. In practice I used a small bowl containing the seeds/chaff and poured them through the airstream and into a larger bowl. At first I had issues with the seeds bouncing out of the larger bowl, but I resolved this by placing a soft pad (specifically a hot pad from the kitchen) at the bottom of the bowl. In the end, mostly seeds were left. However, there were still broken stems from the heads of wheat that the airflow did not blow away along with some seeds that were still encased in the chaff.
Mostly seeds ....
At this point in time, I decided to remove non-seed material and to remove any seeds still in the chaff all by hand. As much as I disliked this approach, I really wanted to be able to weigh the seeds without any extraneous material, and the ‘by hand’ approach was straightforward.
A seed fully encased in the chaff
I’m not sure how long this final phase took – I would do a little bit at a time over the course of two weeks. Eventually I ended with seeds and only seeds! Despite my wheat ‘field’ being located in a large major city and on top of a concrete driveway, I’m officially (in my own mind) a wheat farmer.
Just the facts, ma’am:
In total the amount of seeds reaped was a bit less than 1 cup. And 1 cup of seeds will make about 1-cup of flour. Since I use 2 cups of flour for one small to medium size loaf of bread, the harvest this season is arguably a failure. The plan at this point is to use 100% of the seeds for re-planting next season (which I’ve already done!). The finally tally for this year: 112g.
The Season 1 harvest: 112 grams of wheat seeds.
All-in-all the numbers are not kind for urban dwellers. If a 1×6 (6 sq. ft.) plot yields 1 cup of flour, then a single loaf of bread requires 12 square feet. And let’s say we want a loaf of bread every week of the year, then we need 12 square feet x 50 weeks (I’m using 50 instead of 52 because the math is easier) worth of space to grow wheat. This translates to 600 square feet! Where am I going to find that kind of space? I’m pretty sure the neighbors will not appreciate my 24″ tall ‘lawn.’ As far as yield goes, I started with 41 grams and ended with 112 grams. This represents a 273% increase. If I got that kind of return on my investments over 6 months (December 5, 2011 to May 6, 2012.), I likely would quit my day job and open Doughvine – The Bakery.