This post is the third 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)
Bringing in the Sheaves (July 20, 2018)
It was a sunny, warm, and humid morning on Tuesday, August 7, when we found ourselves again at Jeff and Amanda’s North Mill Creek Road farm to help winnow the wheat we had helped them harvest. Once again, their friends and family had assembled to participate in the effort. During our first visit, we had reaped (harvested) the wheat crop and stacked it into shocks to finish drying in the field. On our last visit, we removed the shocks and flailed (beat) the wheat sheaves to remove the husks containing the tiny wheat seeds from the stems and stored the seeds in cloth sacks to dry further. This drying period allowed the husks to open so that the seeds could fall out. The next stage in the harvesting process was to separate (winnow) the dried husks (chaff) from the seeds.
Our work for this step in the process would be accomplished using an antique winnowing machine called a “fanning mill” that was first acquired and used by Amanda’s great grandfather. Jeff had been restoring it to operating condition while the wheat was drying. The wooden mill stands nearly four feet tall and has a square hopper at the top into which the wheat is loaded. The operator turns a crank on one side which spins a number of wooden blades inside the machine to generate a breeze that blows the chaff away from the seeds as they fall into the device. The fan blows the seeds and chaff onto a series of mesh screens with openings small enough to allow the seeds to fall through, but not the chaff. These screens sway from side to side as the crank is turned to help shake loose the chaff, which is light enough to be fanned away from the mill. Once the bare seeds drop through the screens, they slide into a removable wooden bin at the base of the machine.
The fanning mill is just one design of many different winnowing machines that were built during the early years of advanced farming mechanization in the nineteenth century. Prior to the invention of these winnowing devices, the wheat hulls would be hand-tossed into the air from a pan on a windy day so that the prevailing breeze would blow away the chaff and the seeds would fall back into the pan. The fanning mill was a speedier and more efficient way to winnow large volumes of wheat.
The fanning mill worked quite well for its advanced age. It squeaked and groaned as we cranked it and blew a blizzard of chaff into the air from the back of the machine. A close examination of the seeds in the collection bin indicated that it effectively removed between 40 and 60 percent of the chaff. We decided that our extended bout of humid weather prevented the husks from drying completely, which is why the mill was unable to blow more of the chaff away. As a result, we poured the winnowed seeds back into the cloth sacks so they could be hung to dry further, then winnowed again before we begin the next stage in the process.
The next step in the harvesting process will be to grind the winnowed wheat seeds into flour that can be used to bake a loaf of bread. During the early stages of the project, we found it difficult to judge how much flour the wheat would produce. It now appears that we will be able to make somewhere between ten and fifteen pounds of flour when all the work is done. That’s enough flour to make many loaves of bread, as well as some cookies, cakes, and pies—ample delectable rewards for our efforts. We hope you’ll continue following our exploits as we finish processing Jeff and Amanda’s wheat crop the old-fashioned way.