The Game of Wheat

Because the world is vast and I am sometimes weary, the grain part of the “eat local” equation has not occupied my attention as it should. This, in spite of the fact that I eat more toast, sandwiches, pie crust, muffins, and scones than perhaps anything else. I am arguably a walking gluten time-bomb.

So you see—a little research into wheat was long overdue.

You know how it is when you examine something familiar. Its beauty just belts you in the mouth for a second. As I held a wheat stalk in my hand I noticed that the slim pipe gradually gives way to clusters of seed heads and whiskers, all of which turn from bright green to gold as the stalk dries.

Traditional northern European décor imitates this elemental form to gorgeous effect. The visual persistence of wheat makes sense, for globally it is one of the most planted and consumed foodstuffs, taking up the greatest amount of land area and third only to corn and rice in overall production (more wheat facts and history).

Bake house in Ft. Wilkins State Park

I electronically stroll the British Museum where a loaf of 3600 year old bread is on display or, a little closer to my home, I like to take in the Ft. Wilkins State Park museum and see the bake house to get a sense of how central wheat has been to human cultures.

Despite this venerable history, it is rare to hear of home gardeners raising wheat in the backyard. This is probably because wheat requires a fair amount of space, feeds heavily on the soil, and also because time and patience are needed to turn it into flour. Why, I think as I write this, has humanity put so much energy into foods whose forms are not immediately digestible?

The answer here seems two-fold. The work we put into grain-based foods makes them among the most shelf-stable and once allowed us to vary our diets in those long, non-gardening months. Plus, as industrial agriculture and food processing became normal, machines could harvest, dry, separate, and pulverize anything we wanted for fractions of pennies per gram, never mind the cost of fuel. Wheat processing is deliriously fast with an army of machines at your disposal. In the backyard, though, it takes problem-solving skill, general pluckiness, and above all time.

Wheat planted in April; harvested in July (top). Non-electric separating (2nd down). Jan and Jim at the separator (3rd down). "Such fun to run your hands through the grains," says Jan (bottom).

Enter my friends Jim and Jan, for whom superlatives concerning self-sufficiency and energy-conscious living always seem to come up short. But I will try anyway. These two people are the most matter-of-factly supportive, knowledgeable, and lovely DIY food and renewable energy re-localizers I know. They have ground their own wheat for many years, but as hard red grains came to dominate even the natural foods market, edging out the golden wheat they prefer (Jan feels the golden’s soft grain contributes to a scrumptious crumb and crust.), they planned a 16’ by 45’ wheat patch in their vegetable garden. As with many of their projects and contraptions, the wheat patch began with some pertinent questions: how will wheat grow in our garden, what do we already have that will help us make that grain into flour, and who do we know who has already done this or something like it? For Jim and Jan, one of those people was Larisa Walk (who with her partner Bob Dahse steers the Geopathfinder ship).

My husband and I recently watched Jim and Jan taking their dried wheat to the edge of flour (that is, to the chaff-less grain stage) and though I was daunted by the work it takes to divest a grain of wheat of its many protective layers, I was tickled by its transformation. Once the grain was grown and dried (relatively easy parts of the process according to Jan), the threshing phase of what she called “The Experiment” found her pressing the wheat heads against a home-made mesh frame fitted on a rectangular plastic tray, and—using a brush fitted with a rubber mat—abrading the wheat head so the naked grains dropped through the mesh, leaving the chaff and broken stalks on top. This method worked. However, it was somewhat slow.

To speed this phase of processing about thirty pounds of wheat, Jim constructed a mechanized thresher (looking for all the world like a steampunk clothes wringer) that forces the hardiest portion of the chaff and stalk from the grain and then a small fanning mill, which allows a few artfully placed PVC pipes, gravity, and forced air to sunder the wheat grains from the remaining lighter chaff. When the machines are on, the chaff dances on the mechanical breeze. Sticking my nose in the bucket of grain, I detected notes of sweetness and nuttiness in the freshly husked seeds. The grain was easy to grind with my teeth. And it tasted very good.

In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold recounts the agricultural history of Wisconsin, pausing briefly over the state’s “carousal in wheat.” He writes, “Monday morning came in 1879, when chinch bugs, grubs, rust, and soil exhaustion finally convinced Wisconsin farmers that they could not compete with the virgin prairies further west in the game of wheating the land to death.” The fall of wheat paved the way for the rise of dairy in Wisconsin, winners and losers locked in a game of scramble and salvage, everyone trying to figure out what the land had left to give.

My visit to Jim and Jan’s home reminded me that it wasn’t wheat that pummeled west-central Wisconsin so much as our desire to game the system in a way that left individual phases of wheat production degraded and ultimately mysterious to consumers. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold had in mind a con, an unwinnable game that leaves the poor, ignorant, and weak in the ditch. By contrast, Jim and Jan’s game of wheat is one in which learning the limitations and possibilities of the physical world is hands-on and inquisitive. When I consider how long this grain has formed part of human life and how much space, psychic and otherwise, it takes up, I am convinced that Jim and Jan are playing the right way.