• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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Classy Wheat

Students at The Putney School separate the wheat from the chaff

Putney school students winnowing wheat

Written By

Katie Ross

Written on

April 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.

About the Author

Katie Ross

Katie Ross

Katie Ross is the gardener and farm assistant at The Putney School in Putney. She feels lucky that, in addition to getting paid to grow vegetables and teach, her job often requires her to do things like make ice cream, play “Capture the Flag,” visit local farms, and sing.

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