Browsed by
Month: May 2016

A list of reasons to grow your own wheat: kind of a manifesto

A list of reasons to grow your own wheat: kind of a manifesto

Food is not a commodity, and it never has been. It is treated as one by industrial culture, but it really isn’t.

The classic comparison of industrial and garden food is tomatoes. Compare a regular grocery store tomato to any well-tended heirloom tomato and the gulf between them is obvious. However, the same gulf exists with all the food we eat, it just isn’t as obvious sometimes. And where the discrepancy is greatest is in the foods that we rely on for the bulk of our sustenance — grains and legumes.

Wheat is as close to a commodity as it is possible for food to get, and wheat flour even more so. Yet it can be moldy and stale, deficient in vitamins and minerals, and harvested well past ripeness, and contaminated with industrial chemicals. Or it can be fresh and clean, untainted, high in vitamins and minerals, and harvested and cured at its peak.

Might as well start with the fun stuff. Here’s a picture of some wheat berries I sorted out of a cup that I was grinding for flour. You can see what some different kinds of moldy and bad wheat looks like, compared to some that is okay:


Mold toxins in grains and legumes can cause health problems (shocking!). The biggest problem is the Aspergillus family of molds, and the toxin they produce called aflatoxin. There are a number of factors that contribute to contamination. The more damaged grains, the more mold. The more insect pests, the more damaged grains and thus mold. Storage in cool conditions reduces mold.

It turns out that excess irrigation, while nice for plumping up crops, can cause excess plant susceptibility to pests, and increase the humidity levels, both of which increase mold contamination. This study has an interesting analysis of cotton, much of which is likely true of other crops. Also, it turns that harvesting late season, bug ridden dregs of a crop doesn’t help yield much, but does significantly increase contamination.

One solution: pre-contaminate the crops with an Aspergillus that doesn’t produce the government-regulated aflatoxin. Seriously, this is being developed. It is wonderful to reduce Aflatoxin, but I’d much rather have my grain not moldy in the first place. I’ll write more about this in next week’s post…

Solution: grow and store the crops with skill and care, in family-scale quantities. Before consuming food, have somebody take care to sort through and discard anything obviously moldy.

Traditionally, wheat was harvested at peak ripeness, and allowed to cure and harden before threshing. This optimized flavor, and probably nutrition. In modern wheat harvesting, it is allowed to fully harden to flint stage before harvest so that the mechanical combines do not crush it. Some is still damaged, of course.

Solution: Grow wheat on a human-scale, not a machine scale, and harvest at optimal ripeness.

The nutrient profile of wheat can also vary greatly depending on the variety grown, the fertility of the soil it is grown in, and how it is watered, and if it is annual or perennial (some perennial wheat strains do exist, and are nutritionally attractive). Annual that are grown in soil that has been tilled to death and has lost all its microbes due to harsh fertilizers and pesticides? Not going to be as nutritious.

Solution: Grow wheat in rich, fertile soil that is tended properly.

Industrial chemicals
Pesticides are a whole topic unto themselves. I want to mention, though, that industrial flour was found by the FDA in 2004 to have:

3 known or probable carcinogens
9 suspected hormone disruptors
5 neurotoxins
4 developmental or reproductive toxins
7 honeybee toxins

I know that the dose makes the poison, and that these were found in low levels. However, I also know that “low levels” is defined by bodies that are rife with industrial ties. I also know that if make the dose of a poison zero by not consuming it, then it cannot cause you any harm whatsoever. Also, I don’t care to support the poisoning of agricultural workers, or the poisoning of honeybees, or the poisoning of the groundwater and air in rural communities.

Solution: buy expensive organic flour (which doesn’t address the other points), or grow it at home and don’t spray poisons on it.

Too many shortcuts
The points above all connect at a central idea. When somebody else is growing the wheat that I eat, and that I feed to my family, they are almost certainly taking shortcuts that I am not okay with. And sometimes they do things that I find downright astounding, like applying poisons, or pre-innoculating crops with mold. I know that the supply chain from seed company to farm to supermarket is long, and I can’t imagine all of the shortcuts and shenanigans that are taking place.

Solution: grow your own wheat with the same skill and pride that you would have when growing an heirloom tomato. Grow food as though you and your own loved ones are going to eat it. And then eat that food.

The real thing
I don’t want plastic wrapped, industrially optimized, moldy, nutrient thin bread that comes from a fluorescent lighted warehouse. I want the real thing. I want my family to live on bread that we saw with our own eyes come from God’s provision of rain, sun, soil and seed. Grown and prepared with tender loving care. Fresh from the garden and warm out of the oven.

This is not sentimentalism, and achieving it is not a pipe dream. It takes work, and patience, for years, but building a life where this happens is perfectly achievable. Arguably more achievable than climbing a corporate ladder, because there is enough space for everyone on this planet, but there are only so many corner offices.

There is a hilarious twitter account I saw recently: @handsinwheat. The schtick is making fun of stock photos of people running their hands through a field of wheat. Here’s an example:

Screenshot from
Screenshot from

@handsinwheat does a great good job of satirizing the overuse of this imagery by anyone and everyone who is trying to pitch something. It is among the cheapest, most hackneyed tricks in the book. But you know what? It works, and it works for a reason. I dare you to look at the silly pictures on @handsinwheat and not feel something real. Something that comes from thousands and thousands of years of your ancestors — your own family — walking through land abundant with food, and feeling contentment, connection to God, and connection to their ancestors and a legacy for their heirs.

That is the way it is supposed to be. We are built for this, in so many ways. That twitter account is funny, but it is tragic that the imagery of so much of what should be fundamental to our lives has become an icon of cynical manipulation.


Well, that’s all for this post. I’ve got work to do.

Three weeks in a field of rye

Three weeks in a field of rye

This post is about what happens when an ill-timed cover crop goes crazy for three weeks, what we learned, and why we are glad to have had it despite the laborious work of reigning it in. First, though, an explanation for the recent lack of weekly-ness…

We were on a trip to do volunteer dental work south of Ensenada. The first week in Mexico we had very little access to internet, so I didn’t post. The second week we got internet, and also the flu, so when we weren’t seeing people I was laying in bed. The third week we were on the road home, and I still had the flu.

And that concludes the excuses. Back to the regularly scheduled programming. : )

Cover crop takeover

The day before we left on our trip, we cut the cover crop back to the ground and transplanted all our little seedlings. Tomatoes, okra, potatos, herbs, sunchokes, peppers, and more. We also randomly scattered seeds for about 30-40 different vegetables and herbs. We crossed our fingers, and left for just over three weeks. When we got back, it looked like this (it has been partially cleared in the picture):


The cover crop of rye (with a little clover) grew two feet while we were gone. The bad news: it completely overgrew everything else that was planted. Oops. The good news is that apparently everything we planted is doing fine, if a bit hungry for light. I’m guessing that it took a week for the rye to overtop the transplants, and another week after that to completely shade them, so averaging it out they only missed maybe a week and a half worth of sun. Not too bad. We’re in the process of painstakingly cutting away the straw by hand from around the seedlings. It’s kind of fun, like an easter egg hunt.

What didn’t fare as well as the transplants were the potatoes and the garlic. Those plants were much more mature, and seem to have felt the lack of light much more intensely. The garlic was mostly pressed over by dense growth of rye, and a lot of the potatoes are yellowish and sad looking. It is still early in the growing season, so they may recover, but I expect this to cause significantly reduced yields.

Grumpy potatoes.
Grumpy potatoes.
Sad garlic on rye.
Sad garlic on rye.

Now the good news. The tall stalks helped protect the transplants from the sun, helped collect dew at night and through transpiration raised the surface humidity during the day. I have little doubt that this helped them survive three weeks of no watering after transplanting (we didn’t even water the day we put them in). Part of the goal of all this is to be able to garden with little or no irrigation, so happy transplants with three weeks of total water neglect is pretty sweet.

And more good news – with chopping and dropping this new growth, we’ve significantly increased the depth of mulch on the garden. Heading towards dry summer, this is very important. While it’s been quite a bit of work to clear it out, I’m really glad to have all that extra organic matter on the surface.

Last bit of good news: there was a lot of buttercup growth in the paths, but the cover crop almost entirely prevented intrusion into the beds. There were just a few easily chopped runners deal with. They aren’t going to send a lot of growth into such a shady area. And guess what got chopped and dropped? All that buttercup foliage in the paths. With a dose of rye straw over the stumps for good measure. That’ll keep them down nicely while our crops keep getting taller.

Lessons learned
If you chop and drop a grass cover crop, expect it to shoot back really strongly. In retrospect, duh. What we’ll try next time is simply bending and bruising over, so hopefully we don’t trigger a burst of vertical growth, while keeping it out of the way. Crop circle style! Hopefully that we we can have a living mulch, and give the transplants or seeds time to get their own height before the cover crop bulks up again.

Also, we’ll shoot for better timing. We put the beds in in February, and planted the cover crop then. I knew it was not the best time for a cover crop, but the beds didn’t exist before then, so we couldn’t have planted it earlier. And despite the extra work of taming am ill-timed rye field, I’m very glad we put it in.

True fertility comes from plants moving solar energy into sugar and pumping it underground to feed the microbes that in turn feed everything else that grows. Real soil is alive – literally, the most important parts of it are tied up in living organisms. They lock up the carbon that stores water, they bring water and nutrients to plant roots, and even sometimes from one plant or tree to another. All of this life is fed underground by plant roots, and on the surface by dead plant material. Because of the rye, our transplants went into soil that is blossoming into life instead of soil that was in the process of starving.

Next year, we’ll plant cover crops in the fall. And as our perennials mature, and less area is spent on annuals, we won’t need as much temporary cover cropping, which will save even more time and effort.

Bonus: flowers
Some of our flowers are starting to bloom!

Thinking of you, Mom!
Thinking of you, Mom!
Thinking of you, Jamie!
Thinking of you, Jamie!