Students at The Putney School separate the wheat from the chaff
Written onApril 03 , 2013
Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued. I had no experience growing wheat, but had heard of others who had grown it in Vermont, and as an avid baker I liked the idea of growing my own grains.
Depending on your pedagogical approach, you could either say that Elm Lea Farm is a farm embedded in a boarding school or that The Putney School is a boarding school embedded in a farm. I would say both are true. Elm Lea, owned by the school and on the edge of campus, includes approximately 35 milking cows, a 2-acre garden, and, during the summer and fall, turkeys and pigs. The farm relies on student labor to operate, and the school’s head chef estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the food consumed in the dining hall comes directly from the farm.
That initial plot of wheat planted by the farm manager did not thrive, largely due to benign neglect. We were all busy, and since the wheat had been planted in what had recently been a grassy plot, the grass simply took over again. But the experiment was enough to hook me, and I decided to try growing wheat with students in the gardens the following year. I knew that harvesting and processing wheat without large-scale machinery was labor intensive, but I thought that doing these tasks with students would provide the school with local flour while connecting students to the source of their bread and introducing them to an ancient but largely forgotten agricultural art.
Planting: Spring vs. Winter, Red vs. White
There are two main growing seasons for bread wheat, winter and spring. Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Winter wheat, on the other hand, is planted in the fall and harvested the following summer, so it’s not easily grown in harsher climates. But one of the positives of winter wheat is that it has less competition from weeds while it’s getting established, which means it requires less weeding come spring.
To be honest, when I chose the variety of wheat to grow, my decision was based solely on the fact that it was October. Two other classes of bread wheat are red and white wheat, and hard and soft wheat. Red wheat tends to be more bitter than white wheat, and hard wheat contains more protein than soft wheat. At the time I did not pay attention to the variety I had planted, only that it was winter wheat. (Next year I will do more research!)
Ben Gleason of Gleason Grains recommends planting winter wheat between September 10 and September 25 for best results. I seeded my wheat later, choosing the already-tilled gardens rather than the hayfields where the previous year’s wheat had been. Although planted late, my wheat germinated just fine and didn’t have to compete with established grasses.
Harvesting: Amber Waves of Grain
Somehow the weather gods always seem to smile on me. A mild winter and spring meant my winter wheat was sufficiently established in the fall and started growing well when spring arrived. While a dry summer meant a somewhat challenging vegetable growing season at The Putney School, it was perfect for wheat. By July, the wheat field was that “amber waves of grain” color that inspires painters and poets.
At one point I popped a wheat berry from one of the drooping plants into my mouth to see if it was ready. The grain was chewy and surprisingly sweet. Wheat is ready to harvest when the plants are a golden color and the heads are drooping. The grains should be firm and crunchy; if they’re soft the wheat isn’t ready yet.
But then I faced the question of who would harvest with me, and which tool would work best for harvesting. The Putney School has a summer program that includes the option to learn about and experience farming. I realized that summer-program students could provide the numbers needed for harvesting and in return get an experience that would likely be a first for them.
We happened to have a bunch of sickles hanging around. A sickle is the crescent-shaped tool that played a starring role on the old Soviet Union flag. It’s nice because the wheat is bunched as it’s harvested. Students held the sickle in their right hand, grabbing bunches of wheat in their left hand and cutting with the tool as close to the ground as possible.
We also had a couple of old scythes—the tool you usually see the grim reaper holding—and tried those as well. The scythe is swung so the blade is parallel to the ground, cutting the wheat as low as possible. We found that it was much quicker to cut the wheat with the scythe, but the time saved cutting was spent gathering the wheat into piles, as the scythe sends the wheat in every direction. This can be solved by using a cradle, a contraption attached to the end of the scythe that catches the wheat so it can be easily bunched. We didn’t have a cradle, but next year the time required to make a cradle will be well worth it.
As we cut the wheat, students used twine to bind it in bundles up to a foot in diameter. The students seemed to enjoy the harvesting, chatting as they steadily worked, and the event almost felt like a celebration, as several school community members came to watch the wheat being cut.
Next we transported the wheat to an empty room on the second floor of the barn, where it could dry. Harvested wheat should be handled as gingerly as possible, for at this stage the wheat berries are poised to jump off the stalk. We laid out the wheat on a tarp above the barn and left it there for a month or so, with a fan pointed on it to encourage drying. The wheat can be processed as soon as it’s dry and crunchy but will hold up as long as it’s kept in a dry and rodent-free location.
Processing: The Wheat from the Chaff
Once the gardens started slowing down we were able to start processing the wheat. Wheat grain is processed into flour through three main steps: threshing, winnowing, and grinding. Threshing involves separating the wheat kernel from the rest of the plant, and winnowing involves removing the husk from the kernel. Once the husk is removed it’s called the chaff.
I tried a few different threshing techniques with a group of students who were turning our wheat into bread as part of the school’s Project Week, which happens twice a year in lieu of finals. First we tried banging the wheat against the inside of a trash can, which seemed not quite big enough to be effective. Next we hit the wheat against a sawhorse. That seemed to work pretty well, but with only one sawhorse and five or six people processing wheat, there wasn’t enough room for everyone to use the sawhorse, so some just used a “whack-it-on-the-tarp” method, which worked fairly well but resulted in a bit more straw and chaff being mixed in with the grain.
Another option, especially if there’s a lot of wheat to process, is to use a small threshing machine. We had one tucked away in a tractor shed somewhere and processed a decent portion of the wheat with it. While it was faster and more thorough, it was also a good bit noisier than the other methods. The wheat heads are fed into the top of the machine; there are various screens that vibrate and the kernels move through the screens, leaving behind the straw and some of the chaff. The kernels are then diverted into different chutes, depending on how clean they are.
Once the wheat kernels have been separated, the next step is winnowing, removing the chaff from the kernel. For this task I gathered a few baskets, plus a metal trash can lid; the shallower the container, the better. Wind is nature’s winnower, but on a wind-free day a box fan works just as well. The basic technique involves putting some wheat in a basket and tossing it up and down in front of the fan. There are plenty of videos on YouTube of people who have this technique down. If you have two people, another technique is to pour the grain from one basket into another basket while standing in front of a fan.
Winnowing is time consuming and repetitive, but somewhat meditative in the same way that shelling beans, weeding, or hoeing can be. Some of the students were into winnowing, while others were quickly bored; in general they did not seem to enjoy this part as much as the harvesting. The main skill in this endeavor is patience.
Once the kernels don’t seem to be losing any additional chaff, it’s time to mill the wheat, which involves grinding it into flour. We happened to be delivering our wheat to the school kitchen, which has its very own grinder. If you aren’t so fortunate there are a number of hand mills or small electric mills that can be used at home.
The end result was homegrown, as-local-as-it-gets, whole wheat flour. All of the wheat that we grew went to the school kitchen, where I was able to use it with students during our “wheat-to-bread” Project Week project. To make our wheat easier to work with, the school’s head chef mixed a small amount of our homegrown wheat with some unbleached bread flour to make his signature whole wheat sourdough bread.
Even now, as I write this in early January, a remaining pile of wheat is waiting in the barn to be processed. Slowly but surely we’ll get there. All in all, growing and processing wheat is both time consuming and magical; standing out in a sea of gold, harvesting heavy heads of wheat, I felt a tangible connection to the past. There is a part of me, the same part that wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was younger, that would enjoy living in a world of subsistence farming.
On the other hand, given the time that goes into growing and processing wheat, I’m pretty happy that I don’t have to grow all the wheat I consume. I prefer to mix the old and the new. So I will continue to grow wheat and mix it with store-bought flour; and next year I plan on trying out some spring wheat.