Last fall I had a crazy idea. Let’s plant rye and grow our own grain.
Why? I haven’t the faintest idea…
Perhaps it began with the idea that I wanted to learn how to make Finnish himmelis (Christmas ornament made from rye straw), and I didn’t know where I would be able to find any straw here in Canada. I then happened upon some whole, locally grown rye grain at a local charity fundraiser sale, and I bought some on a whim after asking if it could be planted. The lady in the booth said yes, which is more or less how I ended up with this:
It was an eye-opening experience, and I may or may not have felt like a pioneer woman more than once. Since we were growing the rye for the straw, it seemed logical to also harvest the grain for flour. It gave me a new appreciation for the fact that bread does not simply appear on grocery shelves magically; and while I know that modern grain is grown and harvested with the use of machinery and big combines, a sudden sense of the millennia of labour that mankind has put into the growth and cultivation of crops was inspiring.
After some time with google researching small scale farming methods for grain, I got to work. My father-in-law gave me a hand with the roto-tiller one lovely September afternoon and we cleared and tilled a 10×20′ patch in the back lawn. After sowing the grain, we mulched grass clippings on top. I read that this helped keep the temperature a little more stable for germination as the cooler fall nights approached and it prevented the grain from washing away or pooling together during any potential heavy rain.
By mid to late November, the rye grass was about six inches tall and it remained at that height through its dormant winter months. The onset of warmer spring months saw a new flush of growth occur. I’m not really sure when it happened, but one day I walked to the back, as I often did, and came to the realization that it was as tall, if not taller, than I was. Full and weighty grain heads had emerged and started to droop over under their own weight, and the bottoms of the straw had started to develop a distinct, wheaty-golden color. It was definitely summer!
Over the next many weeks, we checked on the ripeness of the grain by testing it’s hardness between our teeth. It is hardly scientific, but we had read that it should be difficult to crack between your teeth. There is of course an ideal moisture level for a prime harvest, but we didn’t have the equipment for that. We decided to try two different harvests, one while the straw was still slightly green, letting it dry in stacks; and another once it had dried in the ground. There seemed to be no difference in the grain so I can’t say one way was better than the other.
The process of cutting down and bundling/stacking was the most tedious part. Without a scythe or grain cradle (seen here), which neatly cuts the grain into tidy rows, it was a little more time consuming to organize the grain into bundles. We simply used large shears to cut the straw at the bottom, and carried the resulting messy bundles to the side to be tidied up and tied properly into sheaves.
So how on earth do you thresh this stuff? After more time on google (what would we do without it?), I discovered that an easy way is to stuff hand-fulls of the grain heads into pillowcases and beat it. The original tutorial suggested hitting the pillowcases with a shoe, but I very quickly discovered it was a lot more efficient to simply swing the pillowcase around onto a hard concrete surface (a grainy and short video of Justin’s whole family trying out the method has been posted for your viewing pleasure here). As the saying goes, many hands makes for light work, and it was never truer. We had help from family both close and far, with Justin’s cousin coming over with her kids to experience an old-fashioned threshing floor.
This process removed the grain from the heads, and the large, and now light, chaff was easily separated by hand from the more weighty grains at the bottom of the pillowcase. The rest was dumped into bins and winnowed in front of a fan (more video here for your viewing interests). That video shows the third pass on separating, so you can see a little bit of the chaff blowing away still, but the majority was already done. It took about five passes to get the grain clean.
The end result was about twenty-three pounds of rye grain, approximately a fifteen-fold increase from what I had sown!
This is being stored in a large bin as whole grain, and I am milling it in small batches as I need it. The flour does not hold nearly as well as the whole grain, so for storage purposes this made the most sense. For milling, I used the dry blender attachment for a Vitamix. Maybe one day I will invest in a stone grinder, but for now this does the job.
So I know you are now wondering, have I made bread? I just pulled a fresh loaf from the oven, and I have to say it is quite good. I haven’t fully settled on the best recipe, but it is satisfying knowing that I have made this bread from literally start to finish. Many people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell people we have done this. I don’t blame them. It’s not your average backyard garden staple like tomatoes or peas, and is somewhat ambitious and time-consuming. Yet, it is a straightforward process and highly educational, so I don’t regret the time spent. In fact, I might be hooked… summer wheat anyone?