Micro Farming: Growing Wheat in Your Backyard

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Introduction: Micro Farming: Growing Wheat in Your Backyard

About: I work at Middle Tennessee State University as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and direct the Computational and Data Science Ph.D. Program. I've been a programming nerd, a woodworking geek, an astronomy…

One fall day in 2018, my wife and I were sitting in a park enjoying a beautiful summer day. Our conversation began to focus on food production. We started wondering how much land would be necessary to plant enough food to be self-sufficient and what kind of crops you could grow to survive. After a bit of googling, we found out that one acre of wheat in the US produces an average of about 50 bushels of grain. After a few calculations, we found that we could grow a small patch of wheat in our backyard that would produce enough grain to make a few loaves of bread.

Since my wife Katharine is a master gardener, she first researched wheat types, preparing the site, and diseases and problems of wheat. We knew nothing about the growth stages of cereals, about tillering, stem extension, heading, and ripening. My role in this project was mostly in doing numerical modeling, theoretical physics, and unskilled labor. (In short, I was pretty useless.)

After our initial research, we decided to grow a patch of hard winter wheat. There are three basic types of wheat: hard wheat, durum wheat, and soft wheat — we chose hard wheat. Hard wheat is any of several varieties of wheat with hard grains with high protein and gluten content that yield flours especially suited to making bread. We wanted to grow wheat for baking bread. The other factor in picking a variety of seasonal temperatures at your latitude, i.e., winter wheat is wheat varieties that are planted in the fall and harvested the next spring or summer. It would not grow and ripen through the long hot Tennessee summer if you tried to plant it in spring here. Spring wheat is suited to regions with cooler and drier summers. It is planted in the spring giving its main growth season in that mild summer it prefers.

We live in Tennessee, where winter hardy wheat is common. In the fall of 2018, we went to the local farm coop store to buy a bag of a modern hybrid winter wheat seed for our garden plot. We were surprised to find out that the labeling on the seed bags did not identify any specific wheat variety. However, we were even more surprised to find out the minimum purchase of wheat seeds at the coop was 50 pounds even though the cost was only $11. Since we were well into the mid frost dates period and needed to plant the wheat ASAP, we bought the 50-pound bag.

Step 1: Planting and Growing Your Crop

For our 2019 crop, we allocated a garden bed that was 18 ft by 7ft in size. Since there are 43,560 square feet in an acre, our plot was approximately 0.003 acres. The recommendation from "A comprehensive guide to growing wheat in Kentucky" is to put about 35 seeds per square foot to grow wheat. Based on the typical seed weights, the recommended amount of seeds for our plot was 0.45 pounds. Using my skills in numerical modeling and theoretical physics, I quickly determined we may have purchased a bit too much seed for the amount of land we had.

We used the 49.55 pounds of seed we did not plant by grinding it for flour. Before doing this, we consulted with a local wheat farmer and our local Extension Office to ensure the seed we had bought was not chemically treated. Some wheat seed is chemically coated and only suitable for planting and thus not suited for direct human consumption. Luckily, the seed we bought was fine.

Before planting, I calculated how much wheat we might expect from our garden. I found that the expected yield per acre of wheat is about 50 bushels. Since each the bushel-weight equivalent for wheat is about 60 pounds, this translates into about 3000 pounds of grain. A bushel of wheat turns into about 60 pounds of whole wheat flour after it is milled. Thus, one acre would be about 3000 pounds of flour. We expected to harvest about nine pounds of flour for our tiny field, depending on soil, disease, weather, etc.

My wife determined the planting date based on our local climate. She checked when the midline 50% likely first frost date was for our Tennessee city and chose that date - October 22 - as our planting date. This is a calculation you need to make to make on your local weather conditions as you need to give your wheat about a month to germinate and develop a strong root system and two or more tillers (stalks) before the ground freezes. Winter wheat does fine with rainy and snowy weather. Snow will be fine if it piles up in winter around the plants. It will help insulate them. If you do not get a lot of winter snow - and we do not here - we added a heavy layer of pine straw mulch to the field to help insulate the wheat from the winter winds.

At the end of August - two months before our planting date - we prepared the garden bed. We tilled the soil to a depth of six inches using our small rototiller. We checked that the soil pH was between 5 - 7, the preferred pH range for wheat. To our basic garden solid, we added composted leaves for carbon enrichment and blood meal for nitrogen. Wheat uses a lot of nitrogen, especially in the early months. For our size plot, we added 6 cups of organic blood meal to tilling the soil. Wheat plants need loose soil. We avoided walking on the soil after it was tilled. The year before we planted wheat, we let the crop space lie fallow in the previous year for richer soil. This may not have been necessary given the fertilizer we used.

Three weeks before planting the seed, we went back to the selected garden patch and laid down a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide to kill off any grassy weeds. Grassy weeds are great places for the microscopic wheat curl mites, which carry the wheat streak mosaic virus that is awful for wheat. It would be best if you did this at least two weeks before planting your seed. Different wheat varieties may have different problems with pests or diseases. We recommend you read up on the variety you choose to grow to know what diseases you are watching out for. We walked out to the wheat patch and often looked at the wheat to check for changes in vigor or pests, both from a distance and kneeling for a very close-up look at the plants. We looked for signs of most common fungal foliar disease like wheat leaf rust, which forms orange-brown streaks or pustules raised above the leaves' upper side surfaces. We had good luck both years and have had no diseases or pest problems thus far. Part of that may be due to location. We put our wheat in a sunny bed between the fish pond and a shady Cleveland Pear tree. Unlike on a large farm or with farm neighbors, there were no other cereal crops anywhere nearby to communicate pests or disease that like cereals. Also, any vegetables we grew were on the other side of the house, nowhere near the wheat.

For the 2021 harvest, we chose to plant Turkey Red wheat. Turkey Red is an heirloom variety of winter wheat with a fascinating history as a staple wheat variety of the baking and milling industry in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Think of waving seas of grain stretching in song and national memory from Texas to the Dakotas, and the wheat at the turn of the century was probably Turkey Red. Fortunately, the Turkey Red wheat was available online in a two-pound package since it is no longer widely used.

We did not apply any fertilizers once our Turkey Red was planted because it is not modern hybrid wheat. The older heirloom varieties of wheat were much taller plants - expected mature height for Turkey Red is 42 “ - that would shade out more weeds because they were taller. They also had wider root systems and could tolerate poorer soil. If you apply fertilizers to Turkey Red, it grows overly tall and flops. Although there are some advantages of the older Turkey Red wheat, the modern hybrids have much higher yields. Norman Borlaug, the inventor of the modern semi-dwarf wheat, is likely responsible for saving a billion lives from starvation with his inventions.

We planted both our crops the same way - using a hand spreader and lightly raking them into the soil. This puts the seeds to a depth between 1.0" to 1.5” with about 35 seeds per square foot. Keep the ground moist until seeds germinate. You can cover the ground with straw and to help moderate evaporation.

Watching the growth of our wheat was fascinating. My wife was a city kid. Although she could recognize fields of various ripe grains from seeing them growing in the fields by the roadside, she knew nothing about them really. Although I grew up in rural Northern Minnesota, the place I lived had almost no farming. We did not know about what winter wheat dormancy would look like, what the greening up phase would look like in the spring; we had never watched a wheat seed head swelling in its leaf sheath below its flag leaf. We had not watched wheat flowering or known that the final ripening stages in wheat‘s growth cycle - in which the seeds turn from a watery consistency to their final hardness ready for harvest - can take several weeks.

Every state’s Extension Office has the mission to help be a resource for the farmer and the home gardener in that state here in the US, so if you have questions about getting a soil test done, best wheat varieties for your climate, pest identification, etc., or what gardening classes are offered, contact your county or state Extension Office. State Extension Offices are sources for well-researched scientific agriculture management advice, and many have produced great online materials about how to grow wheat. I particularly advise checking the online Extension Office resources from big wheat producing Midwestern states where wheat is such a staple crop.

Step 2: Harvesting - Bringing in the Sheves

Wheat is ready to harvest when stalks have turned from green to brown and have full hard grain kernels. Pick a kernel and bite it. If it is chewy, the grain is not ripe yet. My wife had fun testing the kernels.

If you have a large farm, you can use a Combine Harvester for your crops. For something that is 0.003 acres, a pair of scissors is more appropriate. Cut the stalks 12 to 18 inches in length, and then tie them into small bundles (sheaves) facing the same direction. With our 0.003 acre lot, it took about an hour to harvest the stalks and bring in the sheaves. We sang appropriately during this procedure.

Let your sheaves dry for 3 weeks or longer, depending on your humidity. Lay the sheaves all spread out a floor or hanging the tied sheaves up on a rack. Wherever you put them, make sure it is a dry place free from critters, insects, and rain. We spread our wheat on a plastic tarp in our pool house. Although this wasn't ideal or appropriate for any larger field, it did prevent bugs and birds from eating our precious crop. If you do lay the sheaves out to dry, use a tarp to help clean up the wheat chaff.

Step 3: Threshing the Wheat and Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

The most challenging stage in harvesting wheat is getting the wheat berries (aka seeds) separated from the wheat stalks. This process is called threshing. You have to break the wheat berries free kinetically - but beating them with a stick. Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures turning this part of the harvest. However, the basic idea is pretty simple, and there are several approaches to do this:

1) Place the sheaves on a board - hit them with another board.

2) Hit the stalks with a stick, a rock, or a rubber mallet.

3) Put the wheat in a pillowcase, and beat it against a wall. The pillowcase will catch the berries. (This was recommended on the excellent website "The Art of Doing Stuff."

This violent and labor-intensive process breaks the wheat casing causing the wheat berries to fall into a bucket. Threshing was a long process, taking about two hours of hard work for our tiny crop. However, this process is where my unskilled labor came in handy. We tried to get every single wheat berry separate from the stalks because of the small crop size. If you were doing this on a larger scale, you might be happy with being less thorough. However, our harvesting process was experimental and very inefficient.

When you are finished threshing, you will have a small bucket containing wheat and a LOT of chaff - unusable bits of plant material. To separate the wheat from the chaff (winnowing), you need to use two buckets and the wind. You slowly pour the grain back and forth between the two buckets outside when there is a light breeze. The wind will blow the lighter chaff, and the heavier wheat berries will fall directly into the other bucket. You have to do this process repeatedly and experiment with the pour rate and separation distance between the buckets depending on the wind. After 15 to 30 minutes, the wind will remove the chaff and leave you with precious and wonderful wheat berries.

Our total harvest is pictured above. We got about 3 pounds of wheat berries from our 0.003-acre garden bed.

Step 4: Using Your Wheat Berries

Store grain sealed in bins or jars in a cool, dry place. Storing your grain for up to six months should be no problem. Check and stir your grain once in a while - you want to catch any sign of dampness or mold and change your humidity conditions.

Once you have finished harvesting your wheat berries, you can eat them! There are at least two basic things you can do with them:

1) Sprout the wheat berries. There are several Instructables about how to sprout wheat berries. You can put the sprouts in a salad directly or dry them and use them for flour.

2) Grind the wheat berries directly into whole wheat flour.

For our harvest, we decided to make flour.

We needed to buy a small home grain grinding mill to grind our wheat seed into flour. We bought a Wondermill Whispermill model WM2000 for $140 on eBay. It has three different flour texture grinds - pastry, bread, and coarse. This can also grind other grains and proved very reliable and a very satisfactory size for the small grain amounts we were grinding. You will find that the flour you grind yourself is much lighter, fluffier, and smells different than commercial flour. The flavor is strongest if you use it soon after you grind it. It slowly loses its fluff and scent.

The yield of our 0.003 acres was about 3 pounds of wheat coming from about 0.5 pounds of seeds. This was below our expected harvest of 9 pounds because of the hand harvesting and because we didn't do the same level of fertilization used on modern farms. Since you can get a 50-pound bag of wheat berries for about $11, growing wheat in your backyard is not cost-effective. Given the supplies, time, and equipment (including the grinder), we estimate that each of our three loaves of bread probably cost about $60. However, growing wheat was fun! We had the satisfaction of making our bread COMPLETELY from scratch.

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32 Comments

0
joymcjoy
joymcjoy

1 year ago

Hi, why are you supporting Bayer and Monsanto? Try to get non hybrid wheat especially for small scale farming the yield does not really matter so much. What matters much more is that you can reseed your plant over and over again from the harvest. And isn't that the real satisfaction in this, the real from the beginning till the end that never ends because it begins a new cycle.

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Khovet1
Khovet1

Reply 1 year ago

Actually Bayer and Monsanto have nothing to do with wheat. There are no GMO wheats. They used hybrids which for the most part are produced by natural breeding programs.

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beerwiser143
beerwiser143

Reply 1 year ago

Actually there is a glyphosate tolerant wheat. It has since been shelved a few years ago as it is not really necessary and Monsanto never bothered to proceed with registration.

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beerwiser143
beerwiser143

Reply 1 year ago

You need to learn a bit more about agriculture before posting misinformation. Fwiw, any harvested seed can be replanted and grow, even the "big bad evil" ones. There is a reason I buy certified seed for my farm. A little hint, it has nothing to do with money.

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joymcjoy
joymcjoy

Reply 1 year ago

As far as i know hybrids have optimal properties from two parents. The next generation is commonly loosing these optimal properties again and very often the fertility too. So no improvement in gardening possible as from generation to generation properties change too the worse So what is the sense of planting a seed when there will be no new seeds? And that is why big money is involved. Even if there is fertility the next crops will be worse so you buy the hybrids again. Optimal for the company. Nothing bad with that as this is capitalism. In the past ans still new breeds were grown by money independent institutions too like the german potato institute as the goal is not to make more money but especially in the past to prevent people from starvation and there are often "samenfeste" breeds created.
The most common example for infertile hybrids is the offspring of horse and mule.

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beerwiser143
beerwiser143

Reply 1 year ago

Sigh, you are wrong about the infertile hybrids. They are all still viable as seed. How do you think we keep getting more seed year after year if the offspring is not viable? Certified seed growers put the same seed in as anyone else, but their harvested seed has to meet minimum germination, vigor, and other requirements.

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JohnW539
JohnW539

Reply 1 year ago

We spent a lot of time in the article talking about hybrid vs heirloom wheat. This year we did use heirloom wheat this year rather than the hybrid we used in 2018-2019. The stalks this year are much longer - and much more fragile because of this length. A heavy rainstorm that passed through the area about two weeks ago flattened about half of this year's crop. I don't know what our yields will be with the new crop, but it looks like it will be quite low. The modern dwarf wheat would not have this problem.

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joymcjoy
joymcjoy

Reply 1 year ago

For me heirloom was another crop, i didn't know it is wheat. Maybe there are non-hybrid short stalked modern wheat. I would have wanted to post you some links for seedhard (the is not even a good translations from german samfest) dwarf or semi dwarf wheat. But it seems its in development now.

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lassensurf
lassensurf

1 year ago

I've thought a lot about doing this when I have a yard of my own. Very cool to hear your experience. Can't wait to try it myself!

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JohnW539
JohnW539

Reply 1 year ago

It was fun so I would encourage you to give it a try. The harvesting work was a little tricky. I am sure there are more efficient ways to do the threshing even for a small plot.

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Khovet1
Khovet1

1 year ago

I certainly congratulate you two for giving this a try. You have now made a connection the the origin of some of your food.
But, Please, Please, Please do not call them wheat berries. They are not berries in any sense of the word. They are seeds, collectively called grain. I know the boutique cooking hobiests call them berries, but having grown up farming and having been involved in production ag all my life, berries just doesn't do it.
Thanks,
Ken

0
lassensurf
lassensurf

Reply 1 year ago

When buying wheat seeds, whole, I've only seen them referred to as Wheat Berries. As opposed to "Wheat" referring to the whole plant or crop, "Cracked Wheat", "Wheat Flour", etc. When I sold them in health food stores, Wheat Berries is how they are labeled, and buying them bulk for food storage or grinding, this is also how they are labeled.

Seems appropriate that the OP used the same term.

0
JohnW539
JohnW539

Reply 1 year ago

“Wheatberry”is a commonly used term in most of the references we read, but I had never even heard the term before we started our research. It is a deeply strange way to refer to grain. I am sorry this upset you so much.

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Stevens Workshop
Stevens Workshop

1 year ago

As you said, not really cost-effective, $60 is a little steep for a loaf of bread. Please tell me that it tasted great at least.
That said, the whole project sounds incredibly satifying.

0
JohnW539
JohnW539

Reply 1 year ago

It was delicious bread - but not $60 per loaf good. The main cost was the grinder - which we will use for making our own flour in the future either from wheatberries we purchase or from the garden. The new heirloom crop seems to be doing well this year, so I think we will be getting another harvest in about a month. This project has been a lot of fun and very satisfying.

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Tennessee Smith
Tennessee Smith

Reply 1 year ago

Where did you get the heirloom seed and the hybrid? I am in the mount juliet area.

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JohnW539
JohnW539

Reply 1 year ago

We went to the local co-op in town for the hybrid seeds. My wife found the seeds online. She thinks it was from a website called "rareseeds.com".

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Tennessee Smith
Tennessee Smith

Reply 1 year ago

Ah right. That’s a good site for heirloom seeds. Thanks!

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Stevens Workshop
Stevens Workshop

Reply 1 year ago

Investment in new tools is always worth it, I'm sure you'll get loads of use out of the grinder.
Here's hoping the latest crop is good.
Learning is fun 👍

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JohnW539
JohnW539

Reply 1 year ago

I completely agree with you about new tools. I think we will use it, and learning how to make bread from scratch was completely worth the expense. :)