This post is the second in a series discussing our adventures helping Jeff & Amanda Barger harvest and process an experimental plot of wheat into flour the traditional way—using traditional hand tools and equipment. This process requires a number of separate steps completed over a long period of time.
Previous posts in this series:
Reaping Wheat – A Shocking Experience (July 5, 2018)
Yesterday morning, July 19, 2018, Barb and I returned to Jeff and Amanda Barger’s homestead farm on North Mill Creek Road to continue helping them process their small experimental wheat crop. It was a much finer day for outdoor work than when we helped reap the wheat on July 5. The skies were clear and the air was crisp and dry, with temperatures in the mid-70’s and a gentle, refreshing breeze. The next step in the harvesting process was to dismantle the wheat shocks we had built in the field and flail the wheat seeds and husks off the stems. We took each sheaf that was used to build the shocks and broke it apart on large tarps staged in the shade of some yard trees. We then used some antique flails and hay rakes to beat the piles of wheat, which dislodged the wheat seeds and the husks (chaff) that enshrouded them. A flail is a device consisting of two staffs of wood connected by a rope or cord. They resemble nunchucks. Grabbing the narrower handle, you swing the flail onto the pile of wheat, making sure that the beating staff is level to the ground when it strikes the wheat. As we beat repeatedly on the piles of loose wheat stems, the seeds and husks collected on the tarp. We only had two flails to use, so we also used some antique wooden rakes as flails. In the distant past, some farmers would stomp on the wheat to dislodge the seeds, in the same way that winemakers would stomp on grapes in a large vat to crush them.
With each flailing stroke, we could hear the seed husks falling onto the tarp. We continued flailing the wheat until the sounds of the wheat husks hitting the tarp diminished, like heating popcorn until it’s finished popping. We then removed as much of the overlying stems as was possible by hand, then sifted the seeds and husks through a square of chicken wire mesh to remove more of the remaining stem fragments. Once we were satisfied that we had removed as much of the stems as possible, we lifted the tarp and dumped the wheat seeds and husks into a cloth sack. The sacks were then hung in a barn for further drying, which would allow the husks encasing the seeds to open so that the seeds will drop out freely. It is the seeds that we will eventually grind into flour, after we remove the chaff using a winnowing device—which is the next step in the process.
Flailing wheat the traditional way requires a lot of time and energy. To speed up the process a little, because the volunteer help had other time commitments, Amanda decided to demonstrate how her 21st century wheat flailing machine (an ATV) could speed up the process. She and a friend drove their ATVs repeatedly over the tarps, while the rest of us raked the stems back onto the tarp after each pass to make sure we weren’t losing too much of the valuable wheat seeds. Admittedly, the sight was somewhat amusing to behold. After careful consideration and debate, we concluded that the ATVs were effectively producing what would eventually amount to about one quarter pound of flour per gallon of unleaded fuel. Ah, the labor-saving convenience of our consumptive modern technology. Just think of all the valuable time it frees for you to watch television or pay for a gym membership to reclaim all the free exercise you avoided.
We will leave the bags of wheat to air dry for an extended period of time. Some of the wheat was still damp from the morning dew when we flailed it, but the shocks had dried very effectively. The next stage of the process will be to run the bags of wheat seeds through an antique hand-cranked winnowing device to ‘separate the wheat [seeds] from the chaff’ or husks, which is the root of that old saying. The winnow uses a series of wooden blades, operated by a hand crank, to fan the husks from the wheat seeds as they pass through the device. I will explain its operation in greater detail in the next post of this series. The final step will be to grind the wheat seeds (grain) onto flour, which can be used for baking. That’s the actual process by which all flour is made.
Although the traditional ways take time and energy, they make it easier for people to understand where our food comes from and to appreciate the amount of work it takes to make it. Nevertheless, we find it far less stressful than the work required today to earn the money necessary to buy the food we eat from the store. It also is an inherently healthier way to obtain food than driving to the store and buying it. When we consider how lazy and unhealthy our modern technological conveniences have made us, and the enormous health costs and reduced active and useful lifespans that imposes on our society, it makes it somewhat easier to appreciate the intrinsic value of our traditional, self-reliant lifestyles. Perhaps someday, if another global economic depression occurs, you will understand the true value of this knowledge and skill. That’s why we at Peeper Pond Farm work hard to practice and preserve those skills for future generations.