Grow Your Own Wheat
December 23, 2016
It’s a little early for seed catalogs, but the first to arrive has me pondering grow your own wheat possibilities. Not just any wheat, but landrace wheat. Red Fife is a heritage grain with a reputation for growing in many climates. It exhibits great disease resistance, and can be grown as a spring wheat or a winter wheat crop. On top of all those attributes, it has wonderful flavor, and an excellent choice for those with gluten intolerance problems.
Food intolerances like lactose and gluten are genetic issues, just not due to human genetics in most instances. They are the result of industry pushing plant and animal food source production levels through the roof, and increasing shelf life. I’ll leave the milk problem for someone else to cover, but today, gluten is going with the flow.
While not gluten-free, Red Fife Wheat has a lower gluten content than other varieties. But it’s lacking the protein in modern wheats that is causing gluten intolerance. A second protein known as gliadin is the culprit. Gliadin levels have increased significantly through hybridizing over the past 50 years. Red Fife is among the few wheat varieties with the lowest amount of the 2 gliadin proteins that are making people sick.
“Reports have continued to come in now from dozens of individuals who have tried eating Red Fife who can’t eat other wheat. Rarely does anyone experience any negative reaction to consuming this old wheat variety. We believe that with the help of wheat researchers investigating what is in modern wheats, we have discovered at least part of the explanation for why gluten intolerant people can consume this wheat.” — Heritage Grains, Indiana
The story goes that Red Fife came into North America through Canada via a Scottish immigrant farmer. It’s high-yielding, resilient nature brought it to be grown far and wide. Through the 1800s and into the early 1900s, it was one of the two most popular bread wheats in the United States. According to New York Times Magazine, only Turkey Red gave it any competition for baking into the best tasting loaves.
If you’re going to grow your own wheat, it’s best to know which kind(s) will suit your preferred purpose. You might decide you need more than one variety. Traditionally, hard wheat gives you bread flour, and soft wheat gives you all purpose flour. You can make bread with standard baking flour, but for artisan quality bread, you what hard red wheat. Many hard red wheats have a somewhat bitter taste, but Red Fife stands apart with a sweeter, robust nutty flavor.
Red Fife is both a spring wheat and a winter wheat. If your climate allows bringing both types to harvest, you can grow both kinds every year. Red Fife, depending on the growing climate, can produce both hard wheat and soft wheat, as well as red wheat or white wheat. It has the uncanny ability to adapt your harvest for the environmental conditions it’s growing in.
How do you grow your own wheat?
This is definitely not an indoor garden crop, but you don’t need tons of outdoor space either. They grew wheat on a rooftop in Chicago this past season, and harvested good baking flour. That surprise farming project yielded 42 pounds of flour from seed sown in a mixed cover crop on 1000 square feet. They were only trying to stop the growth media installed late in the season from blowing away over the winter several stories above street level. If it was planted with just wheat, they would have harvested more like a full bushel – 60 pounds. Enough to make 90 loaves of bread.
You need full sun, so choose the location wisely. Unlike many backyard crops, you’ll want to sow a spring crop early – as soon as soil temperatures reach 40 degrees. However, before sowing the seed, it’s best to prepare 6″ of loose soil. The faster your young seedlings can spread their roots deeply, the easier they will deal with dry spells and heat. For winter wheat, plant in early fall.
It’s best to sow wheat seed with a seed spreader. This isn’t a row crop, so a seed drill won’t work. Hand scattering doesn’t provide uniform coverage, which important to efficient space use in grains. Just set the spreader according to the manufacturer’s directions. These are normally given in pounds per 1,000 square feet. One that works reasonably well isn’t that costly. There’s a battery-operated model called Wizz that retails for about $20, and gets decent reviews.
Next, you need to rake the seed in. Do it lightly, and use a hard rake. It only needs mixing into the surface soil. Follow that with a light layer of straw, just as you would for grass seed. If you don’t, your wheat won’t germinate quickly and evenly. Not to mention the birds will rob you of all those lovely wheat seeds!
Once you’ve got your mulch cover down, soak the area down well. And, just like grass seed, you want to make sure it stays moist through germination and to support the young sprouts. Don’t get crazy with the water. Too much can rot the seed or cause disease in the seedlings.
Some backyard wheat growers prefer to plant strip beds 3 feet wide. It makes for easier hand-weeding and harvesting too. Of course, adding a row of wheat in your garden makes it easy to test the crop out.
You can also grow your own wheat in raised beds, and even those cheap hard-shell kiddie pools. Some say the best wheat harvest comes from a growing medium mix of equal parts vermiculite, soil, and compost. This gives you excellent drainage, fertility, and moisture holding capabilities, but that much rich compost might not work so well with Red Fife.
While wheat is a drought tolerant crop that does well on the prairies, the yield is higher with regular moisture replenishment. Not too much though. Overly wet conditions allow the onset of a fusarium disease that causes wheat head scab. This fungal disease is the cause of vomitoxin presence in wheat harvests. The good news is that Red Fife has great resistance to fusarium and wheat scab, but leave the calamity to things beyond your control… like the weather.
Water only when it’s really dry once you’ve got germination. But the amount of moisture assistance has a lot to do with the time of year the crop was sown.
For spring wheat, you want to give the new crop about an inch of water a week – including rainfall. How much is that? Use your finger gage. Water again when the soil moisture drops down to an inch below the surface. Winter wheat, sown in the fall, requires less irrigation assistance thanks to cooler weather. Still, keeping the wheat patch moist until you’ve got overall germination going on is needed.
How much seed do you need?
Rule of thumb to grow your own wheat, you need about 200 seeds per square yard (9 sq. ft.). That translates to about a tablespoon. According to Fedco Seeds, planting rates are 120 pounds per acre (2 bushel) and 2-3 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Seed sources are found beneath my source links.
How much space you need is directly related to how much wheat you want to harvest. A bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds. That gives you about 42 pounds of white flour, but more if the bran isn’t removed. Anticipated yield for Red Fife? I came up with nothing but a reference to an old Canadian farm publication. One J.W. Clarke in Wisconsin raved about getting 36 bushels per acre in 1860. (See the Red Fife History link below.)
Crop nutrition is somewhat surprising.
As far as plant nutrients go, landrace wheats do better with lower nitrogen. It’s a crop that you can get good results even in poor soil. It’s perfect for average garden soil and organic growing. But if your soil is super poor, amend it before planting. Apply 1-2 inches of compost, blending it in well.
If the soil is too nitrogen-rich, heritage wheats have a tendency to fall over. They are high producers without a lot of crop inputs. So, unlike modern hybrid wheats where legume cover crops give you a higher yield by replenishing the soil while the crop is growing, it’s not the best approach with Red Fife. You want the heads to be in the air, not laying on the soil.
And if you are growing wheat in a wading pool – you need to drill sufficient holes in the bottom for good drainage. If you don’t, a rainy spell will ruin your crop. Those fabric planter beds like the Bag Bed by Smart Pot makes even better sense. You can use real soil and enjoy excellent drainage and air flow to roots with awesome moisture retention.
When is it ready for harvest?
Red Fife will be ripe in 110-125 days after planting. It grows 3-5 feet tall. Once 85% of the heads are golden, stop watering. You’ll want to harvest when almost all seed heads are dry. They’re not ready for storing yet. You’ll need to air dry them until all moisture is gone before packing your wheat away, or doing any threshing and winnowing.
One excellent harvest idea is tying the still standing stems into bundles before harvesting. Then shear them off between your tie and the ground with a hedger. A far better process than using scissors or pruning shears! Of course, if you want to swing a sickle, that’s fine too. However, pre-bundling makes for faster harvest pick up.
Naturally, you don’t want your wheat getting rained on between harvest and threshing. Some people loosely stack their sheaves under bird netting. But if you live where rainfall is plentiful, an airy place under a roof is better.
One more thing…
Your yield will increase by setting aside a portion of the harvest for growing next year’s crop. A landrace grain becomes perfectly adapted to your soil and climatic conditions over a period of time. Unless you procure seed from a grower in a similar climate on similar soil, it can take several years for Nature to work its magic to the fullest potential. So, with a heritage variety, your highest yields will be 2 or more years after you start to grow your own wheat seed. But then, it will surprise you with truly exciting performance even in the worst seasons.
It might be a blessing to start with a small initial crop, just like they did back in the early 1800s. Even if it is only 3-4 tablespoons. It’s certainly far more affordable! Sources for buying Red Fife seed are limited, and packet prices aren’t cheap. Only Fedco and Sustainable Seeds sells it in poundage.
Organic Seed Sources:
Top image courtesy of Full Circle Seeds
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