Grain growing is our primary farming activity. We strive to grow as many types of grain as possible. We have successfully sourced seed, planted, cultivated, harvested and cleaned: oats, barley, hard red spring wheat, hard winter wheat, soft spring wheat, winter wheat, corn for grits, durum wheat, Red Fife wheat, buckwheat, silver hull buckwheat, Polish wheat, fall and spring rye, triticale, yellow and brown mustard, and flax. We are attempting to grow sorghum, pearl millet, amaranth, and quinoa. There are so many errors that can be made in the whole process that our failure rate is much higher than it should be. At the moment we have run out of mustard, flax and polish wheat.
Without chemical fertilizer and sprays, our yields are generally 40% of conventional. This seems low but is generally the norm compared to actual yields. I always read of organic yields of close to conventional but when you look at the actual data, they are inline with ours. We do lose more yield after cleaning and dehulling, luckily we are able to feed this loss to our pigs and chickens. We try to follow the biodynamic calendar in our planting, cultivating, and harvesting. What is amazing (some chalk it up to farmer IQ) is that the days that are best in terms of conditions, and my general feeling/desire to get out there, corresponds favourably with the calendar. Sometimes I even test myself by looking at the calendar after I decide to “get out there” and it normally is correct. For the moment I’m chalking it up to luck.
To beat the weeds, we clean our own seed or use certified organic seed. If neither is available, we have to use untreated conventional seed. We cultivate twice, one week apart immediately before planting. Then we drill the seed in both directions at 75% the recommended seed rate (resulting in a 50% seeding rate above the recommended rate). After planting I place an old storm window on the ground. This speeds the germination and emergence of the seed. The day I see sprouts emerge, is the day I pony harrow the fields. Generally the seeds are two days ahead under the glass. This has occurred in as few as 4 days (late in the season when the ground is warm) to as many as 16 days, early in the year. We plant oats first after cleaning the drill very well. We follow with all the others, simply vacuuming the drill between seeds. Sorghum, Pearl Millet, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth are planted after June 1st. At the three-leaf stage we pony harrow again. At the four-leaf stage we pony harrow again at right angles to the second. These two final cultivations almost leave the field destroyed. In actual fact, most of the plants are merely slightly buried. Two weeks later, all is well again and there is almost no impact on the plants, perhaps only two days behind test areas where no cultivation was done. The real impact comes when the uncultivated test areas are eventually taken over by weeds, while the cultivated areas normally have the weeds beat. I use a pony harrow because I cannot afford a Lely or Einbock tine weeder. A proper tine weeder would do a better job and perhaps only two passes would be necessary. During the third cultivation, I drag three lawn seeders attached to the pony harrow to broadcast inoculated double cut red clover. We do this to fix nitrogen in the soil. We normally cut it for hay the next year once, then cut to mulch two more times.
Despite all this extra work and expense (seed, fuel, depreciation, wear, labour, plant injury, etc) we still have to swath our grain. Years ago, everything was swathed, but since sprays eradicated weeds, combining can now be done with a direct cut head. This year I direct cut some Red Fife wheat, but the grain was too wet and got musty. We’ll be swathing everything from now on! We swath about a week before our neighbours combine (direct cut), which is on the second day of a dry spell. We try to combine several days later, but generally it rains and we have to combine two days into the next dry spell. This allows any weeds to dry down. This makes for easier combining (cleaner sample due to better sieving, scalping, and scour cleaning) and less staining of the grain by green weed seeds. At all cost we try not to have to rake the swath, but occasionally we have to. This year, I raked a durum wheat field five times and still had an OK yield. Unfortunately it was too high in fusarium – a waste of time indeed. I have always borrowed a gyro type rake, for the least amount of damage, but have found that it does not allow a soaking wet sheath of grain to fluff up and this year we purchased a swath turner which should help in merely rolling the swath over.
We try to keep the combine pickup slightly off the ground to prevent the picking up of dirt and stones. We do lose some yield here but unfortunately do not have a destoner to clean out small stones. We are now commissioning a new gravity table (new to us, but actually 65 year old wooden table) purchased at an auction in Nebraska. Hopefully it will remove the last remaining stones, which our cleaner cannot remove.
Our combine is in very good condition and we clean it out end to end (about 2 days’ work) before the harvest. Oats are always harvested first, allowing us to keep our oats free from contamination from other grains left over in the combine. Since doing this our oats have consistently tested less than 10 ppm of gluten. We use the EZ Gluten test on the first bucket of oats, testing at the market opening, you are welcome to witness the test, just call or email me, so I can tell you the rough time that we will be setting up at that particular market.
We try to winnow out some of the chaff using the wind when unloading by placing the spout near the edge of a wooden box (about a 7 foot fall). We only use a gravity box for our oats, spelt and wheat. Our harvest requirements of all the other grains are less than one tonne per year. If the grain is slightly wet, we screw our aeration fan to a port on the bottom edge of a box and run it for several dry days. If the moisture level is above the safe level for aerating alone, we are in a real jamb. In an emergency we have to spread the crop out on a very large black tarp in the sun for two days, covering it at night or for rain and dew. Anyone out there know of a one tonne grain dryer? Everything is run quickly through the cleaner before storage in their wooden boxes. Each week we clean only enough for the market until early winter, when we have enough time to clean the rest of the grain. Depending upon the grain we try to grow enough for minimum two years’ market supply. This is not necessary in normal grain farming, but for us if we have a crop failure in oats or wheat, we are out of business. Producer based farmers’ markets demand that all products for sale are our own and thus I cannot purchase grain from somewhere else if I have a failure. This necessitates that we take huge (not normally economical) steps to ensure we do not have a crop failure. This year I planted seven varieties of hard red spring wheat at two different planting dates (two weeks apart). Normal flour mills simply import from somewhere else if there is a crop failure in their local area. Because we store in aerated wooden bins, our crop can last for many years.
We clean our grain by passing the grain once through a fanning mill (circa 1900), then through a Hance Vac-a-way grain cleaner. Two passes are generally required, but can be up to 5. We are currently building a larger mobile cleaner that will incorporate our new Plessisville 150 screen cleaner, our original hance, a carter disc, and the gravity table. It has taken 5 years to assemble these three machines. That patience has kept the cost down. Sad part is, I have spent 50 days cleaning grain each year, this year we should be done in 5. Depending on that year’s weed problem, certain weeds are difficult to separate. Separating two grains from each other is very difficult and we avoid it at all cost. To ensure clean plots, we vacuum out the seed drill between grain changes, clean the combine out between different grains and discard (to the pigs) the initial pass after changing grains. This is all especially important when combining very small plots such as our flax, mustard, quinoa, and amaranth.
Augers and elevators are difficult to clean out. Luckily, at our size, we do it all by bucket, this allows us to keep everything clean. We have a separate small cleaner, dehuller and roller for the oats. This allows us to test gluten free so far.
To be frank, we do waste a lot of effort and yield to produce a premium product using the basic equipment we have. We do our best with the equipment we can afford. It can be discouraging but to sell a person flour they cannot purchase anywhere else locally is quite rewarding.
Remember Pepsi owns Quaker Oats, a few years ago they received one million dollars to buy new equipment from the provincial government. Another competing flour mill got 300 000 dollars to mill gluten free flour. To make matters worse, they are milling rice and tapioca. Two grains that can’t be grown here! I thought the least they could do would be to mill local gluten free buckwheat and oats to justify all the free money. We do not accept government money, but believe us its not easy. My strength is fixing old equipment, thus
I comb the net every morning from 4:30 to 5:30 looking for certain pieces of equipment at auctions and in various classifieds. In the past year. We sell most of our grain for $1 per cup. Our wheat sells for 75 cents per cup. Bulk costs are less than half of small serving sizes. We sell 5 gallon buckets or by the tote (totes must be ordered before the season).
If there is ever a type of grain that you feel we should grow please make us aware of it. If anyone knows of a source of seed as well, that would be appreciated. We limit wholesale sales to guarantee we maintain enough supply for the retail market. Generally, cups are $1, buckets are $45 retail, and bulk is half again. We are currently supplying our existing wholesale customers, and are accepting new wholesale orders for the fall of 2013. If you are interested, wholesale orders are due by March 2013 for fall delivery.