Handout for Small Grains and the Small Farm

This is the handout for a session I presented at the 1999 Northeast Organic Farming Assocation Summer Conference at Hampshire College on August 15. Note that I don't claim to know a great deal about small grains - to someone who grew up farming grain in the Midwest, this page is going to be a daring foray into the depths of the obvious. However, in coastal New England hardly anyone knows anything about grain farming and equipment any more, so the following wasn't achieved without a good bit of effort on my part.


Small Grains

Grasses whose seeds we harvest. The straw (stalks and seed heads after seeds are extracted) can also be useful: straw bale houses, mulch, animal bedding. The first signs of cultivation of wheat date to around 3000 BC in Abyssinia, however shortly thereafter it is found in Egypt, the birthplace of leavened bread, and by 2700 BC it was being cultivated in China.

Spring grains are planted early, before last frost - many grains will germinate and grow when soil temperatures are below 40F. Depending on the variety and the climate, they can go to seed and dry enough to harvest by mid-summer, but I don't believe that you can do two crops of even Buckwheat in New England.

Winter grains are planted in late summer or early fall, and establish themselves before going dormant when the ground freezes. If the plants aren't killed by freeze/thaw drying or frost heaving over the winter, they take off in early Spring and set seed with other grasses; however, they aren't harvested until the plants are completely dead and the seed heads dried out.

Basic grain culture as first developed in the dawn of agriculture

  1. Planting: Grain is broadcast seeded by hand into tilled ground, then raked or dragged to cover the seed.
  2. Cultivation: Tilling is used to make a seedbed and kill weeds before planting. Rogueing weeds by hand can help in the middle stages of growth.
  3. Cutting: When the whole plant is dry, the base is cut with a sickle (later scythe or cradle) and manually bundled into shocks. If the grain still has too much moisture to thresh (the seed heads won't keep) or store (vulnerable to fungus attack, for example ergot), the shocks can be left in the field to dry. Once the grain has a low enough moisture content, the shocks are hauled to threshing floor.
  4. Shelling: The seeds are removed from the seed heads by beating the grain on a hard surface, pounding it with a flail, or having an animal walk on it. (Best done on a smooth floor ie. wood, stone or pounded earth.)
  5. Cleaning: Rake the straw out, and toss the mixture of chaff and grain on a breezy day; the grain will fall fastest, and the chaff will blow away.
  6. Storage: Grain must be kept in a dry, rodent- and insect-proof container until ready to grind into flour or prepare otherwise. Community granaries were common in ancient times, but sometimes served as a focal point of power for tyrannical governments.

Major technological advances in grain culture

Small Grains in New England

Before cheap transportation arrived in the form of railroads and canals, grain was grown everywhere in New England. However, we had hills, rocks and a variety of industrial jobs to draw off surplus labor. Meanwhile in the early days of the westward expansion grain was the only possible cash crop - little else could travel well enough to be gotten to market. New England grain growers were so regularly undercut that by W.W.II the few remaining were mostly producing animal feed and cover crop seed. Grain milling capability vanished in parallel.

The New England climate doesn't favor winter wheat - freeze/thaw cycles often kill the overwintering plants if there isn't reliable snow cover. Oats and other summer grains do OK, but my crops are often just maturing as July and August rains spur weed growth. Maybe I should plant earlier. Winter rye seems to be easy to be successful with, but most people who plant it do so only to plow it down as a cover crop. Some rye is grown to be harvested for seed purposes, but most seed comes from elsewhere.

To date, I haven't found a lot of places in New England to sell grain other than for seed purposes. Businesses that use grain, organic or not, usually purchase it already cleaned and milled, malted or otherwise processed. Facilities equipped to do this pre-processing are rare outside the grain-growing areas. Right now, I'm using a small farm sized grain cleaner purchased new by a farmer a couple of towns away - it's a Hance Vac-Away . Another manufacturer, which I found on the web but have no personal experience with, is Farmstead Products of Hinckley, MN. I have heard of places that can mill wheat or other grains into flour, but I haven't encountered anyone with a small-commercial capability to hull or roll oats, or malt barley.

Instead, my primary long-term purpose in experimenting with grain is feeding my family and our animals with grain we grow. The whole thing started after we settled into a routine of baking our own bread about 7 years ago. From there, we experimented with buying our own grain and milling it using home-scale tools. This worked well once we found the right equipment. Meanwhile I had found and brought home a serviceable grain drill. I put it to work sowing cover crops and continued doing research on grain harvesting equipment.

In 1995, I came upon what looked like the right combine: an Allis-Chalmers Model 66 "All Crop Harvester" a friend had bought as a parts source. I didn't get to fixing it up until 1997, but since then we've harvested more grain every year. We've experimented with spring and winter wheat for people, oats for animals, and winter rye for seed, animal feed and rye flour. We've also done some custom combining for a vegetable farmer who uses a lot of rye for cover cropping.

What Do You Need to Start Experimenting?

  1. 1/4 acre or more of suitable land to till. Grains are not tremendously sensitive to soil type, but they don't like ground that is saturated for part of their growing season, and you need to be able to get equipment on it at the right time: early spring for planting spring grains, mid- to late- summer for harvesting either winter or spring grains. I have some areas of well-drained sandy loam that dry out early, on which I have grown quite respectable crops.
  2. Tillage equipment adequate to prepare a 1/4 acre or larger seedbed. Normally this would be a moldboard plow and some sort of harrow, but a rotary tiller would also do the job.
  3. Either a grain drill or a hand seeder and some sort of drag to cover the seed.
  4. A serviceable small combine - I've had good luck with Allis-Chalmers, but I know others using similar models by International Harvester or John Deere. Not many were made by any manufacturer after 1960, and many parts are discontinued, but the combines themselves are easy to find at low prices in grain growing areas - I've heard reports of prices under $100 for serviceable, shedded units, and obsolete self-propelled combines can also be had for scrap prices. The difficulty, of course, is getting something as big as a combine home from Pennsylvania or upstate New York. Some ramp-truck owners will haul items this large over the road, others may require that you dismantle the tongue or remove the header (cutterbar and apron). If you're planning on heavy use, you may want to get a parts combine as well.
  5. A small tractor with 540 RPM PTO and ASAE standard drawbar. I've heard from people running AC 66s with 25 HP, but that was using a modern diesel tractor with 8 forward speeds. Older gas tractors with similar horsepower often had only 4 forward speeds, and could easily bog down in heavy crops.
  6. A shed to store the combine in. They will rust out in critical places if they are stored with wet grain in their innards. My AC 66 needs a space 20 feet long, 14 feet wide and 12 feet high. Other brands of tractor-pulled combines are likely to be in the same size range, but most self-propelled combines are larger.
James Van Bokkelen