In the first installment of this series, I covered the differences in the various types of wheat and their uses. This time, I want to focus on the growing conditions needed for wheat and options for storing it long term.
Can I grow my own wheat?
Good question- one just about every preparedness-minded person gets around to eventually. It’s great to buy and store it, but eventually it could run out. Then what? Would I be able to produce my own where I live? If I have surplus, I could always barter with it or feed it to my livestock.
When I began to research this question, I came upon an article from Mother Earth News that sounded like it was going to be helpful. I found it short on specifics when it came to what grows where. Essentially, it said, “Ask your county ag extension agent.” Okay, so I will, but aren’t there some general guidelines?
Further research told me spring sown wheat is usually grown in the northern U.S. (Montana, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Idaho) as well as southern Canada. Fall sown wheat is usually grown in the Plains states of Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kansas, but some is also grown east into MO, IL, IN, OH, MI, PA, VA, and along the eastern seaboard as far south as GA. Even CA has started growing some. That covers a lot of ground, so I’m encouraged so far.
What conditions would I need?
Wheat germinates in cool temperatures rather than hot, especially the winter wheats. It does best with a soil pH of about 6.4 and enjoys a manure-based fertilizer applied to the ground the season before planting. It needs some rain (about 12-15 inches over the season), but it produces better in dry, temperate climates than wet, humid ones. Too much humidity may cause fungus to grow on the wheat. It performs best in the 40-75 degree range. As a grass, it does best in full sun.
Harvesting at just the right time is important. Leaving it too long means you risk losing a lot of grain. If it gets too dry or rains at harvest time, it can cause the grain to “shatter” and fall to the ground.
Wheat takes approximately 120 days to mature. It is ready a few days after it passes the “milk stage.” Like with corn, when you press the kernels early on in the ripening, a milky liquid will come out. Once it’s beginning to turn yellow and you can dent the kernels with your nail but not squeeze liquid out, it’s about ready. It would have a 12-13% moisture content at this point. It will probably need to dry some more before you use it or seal it up for storage, though.
How Do I Harvest It?
If you are harvesting by hand, a scythe or sickle would make the work easiest. A machete would probably be next best. You should do this when the stalks still have green in them, but are beginning to turn yellow. After the wheat is cut, it will need to be tied into shocks to finish drying. It would be best if you can store it in a barn or someplace where any shattered grain could be reclaimed. It is “cured” when the kernels can no longer be dented with a fingernail.
About 2 weeks later, lay it out on a big sheet on a hard surface. Beat it with a “flail,” broom handle, or something similar. Most of the grain should separate from the stalk. Alternatively, you could strike the sheaves against the side of a clean trashcan and allow the grain to fall in. The stalks can then be fed to livestock, made into straw bedding, etc.
You still need to “winnow” it because there will be “chaff” left. If you pour the grain back and forth from bucket to bucket in a good breeze or in front of a fan, the unwanted bits should blow away, leaving you with pretty clean grain.
How do I store it?
One of the things some people wonder about with regards to wheat is why they shouldn’t just save themselves the bother and buy pre-ground flour. The answer is important. Once the wheat berry (the seed) is cracked or ground, it begins to turn rancid. The most nutritious types (whole grains) will go bad the fastest. For this reason, it is best to fresh-grind grains as you need them, maybe a week’s worth at a time.
Before you store it, you need to eliminate insect larvae and eggs. One method is to freeze the grain for a couple weeks. Another is to heat it to about 140 degrees for 30 minutes. If you heat it, it will help to dry it out, but will probably render it “dead” and unusable for planting the following season. My oven does not have a setting that low, so I would probably opt to put it on trays in the sun inside my car with the windows up on a sunny day. Another possibility is to add DE to it. (One cup of DE per 25 lbs of grain is a recommendation I’ve seen).
From there, you can freeze grain almost indefinitely but that’s not practical for large amounts or in a grid-down situation. I would seal it up inside airtight buckets, in Mylar bags with the oxygen removed if possible. If you do those things, your wheat should store for years and years.