When I describe our farm to folks I meet, they often respond: “oh, so y’all are into self sufficiency.” Well, yes, but then I feel the need to qualify. Why? The stereotype that self sufficiency brings to my mind is of people trying to meet all their needs themselves and to separate themselves from the rest of the world as much as possible. We do not seek to be separate; in fact, we like to see ourselves as a progressive model of how to live a more sustainable lifestyle. For us, a major emphasis in our lifestyle is growing and consuming our own food – which is certainly part of meeting our needs and happens to fit in with the current eating local movement (popularized by Barbara Kingsolver, among others).
Okay – so that’s the context: we are way into food – but even in this context, we stand out: for most, eating local means fresh veggies & fruit and maybe eggs, dairy & meat. We go another step – we grow our own grains: wheat, oats, rye, sorghum grain, popcorn, field corn (for corn grits), buckwheat, pinto beans & black beans. The cornerstone for grains for us is wheat, which we grind into flour with a small grain mill. (I say we stand out in this context: when the concept of self-sufficiency comes up, folks often think of the Amish. I have been on quite a few Amish farms lately and none of them grind their own flour. Likewise, many who grow produce for themselves and/or to market do not grow their own grains).
Why not? The quick answer – equipment. Harvesting grains by hand is tedious – although humans did it for thousands of years. In earlier times, humans pulled the grains from plants by hand. The next step was to cut the grains with scythes and bring them to a threshing floor – the stereotype is a large animal tromping on the grain: the hooves separate the seeds from the plant and then the seeds had to be separated from the plant material (straw and chaff). The straw was gathered by hand or fork and lifted off and then the rest was “winnowed” – throwing the seeds and chaff in the air and having the wind carry away the chaff while the heavier seeds fall to the ground (or into a container). Bottom line – very labor intensive.
Harvesting grains mechanically can be quick and relatively easy – with a combine. The name says it: it combines two separate actions: cutting the grain and threshing it. As the combine moves through the field, it cuts the grain, threshes it, and winnows it all in one operation. Then the grain is unloaded into a container – eg a truck and then into grain bins for storage.
So what’s the catch? Why don’t more small farms grow grains? Harvesting is the issue – combines are complicated machines. A new large combine costs more than $200,000. yikes! However, our combine cost us $60. when I bought it a farm auction about 10 years ago – it is about 60 years old. We live in an area where old farm equipment from bygone eras are still in old fence rows or sheds and can be bought for the price of scrap steel – because they are too small for modern farmers to bother with. And you have to know or learn how to operate the combine. Fortunately for me, I grew up on a farm and am quite familiar with combines – although I had to learn the quirks of this antique – happily, I already had a manual. The upside is that in one afternoon, I can harvest enough wheat to keep us in flour for a whole year. And enough for 30 of our neighbors, our 30 chickens, and cover crop for our fields and gardens. Sweet, eh?
Further: the combine is quite versatile: we use it to harvest wheat, oats, mustard, soybeans, black beans, pinto beans, buckwheat, and clover & hairy vetch seed (for green manure crops).