July 1, 2017

Wheat Processing

Continued from "Wheat Harvest."

You'd think that after doing something for a number of years we'd have it all figured out. Not so and processing wheat is one of those things. It's a traditional skill for which many of us have some knowledge, but for which finding the equipment and developing the skills are a challenge.

Wheat processing is a two-part job. The first part is threshing, i.e. removing the wheat grains (berries) from the wheat heads. The second part is winnowing, which is separating the chaff (plant waste) from the grains.

The modern industrial-scale way to harvest and process wheat is with a combine harvester. It does it all-in-one (video of one in action here.) That's obviously beyond our scope, so we've looked at the more traditional methods, such as threshing wheat with a flail. The photo below shows two men with flails.

Photo by DEXTRA  [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a good video of flailing in action.

George Washington designed a 16-sided threshing barn. We had the opportunity to see this on a field trip to Mount Vernon a number of years ago. Here's the threshing floor.

By Galen Parks Smith (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL
(http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The freshly cut wheat was placed on the floor to be treaded by a team of horses. The grains and chaff fell through to be collected below for winnowing.

Flailing was one of the first methods we tried, with a flail Dan made. The major plus with this method is that the heads don't have to be separated from the stalks (straw). The major negative is that it is very laborious and time consuming. Working with a team (as seen here) would definitely be faster and more fun, but it would require four very coordinated people.

Besides flailing, we've tried a number of other methods over the years as well. The links will all take you to videos to see these in action.

Some methods we haven't tried:

There are a ton more ideas, just check out YouTube!

What we decided to try this year, was to use the chipper that Dan turned into a feed processor for me. Click here for photos about how he did that.

Whole heads are tossed into the top...

Best results were obtained by throwing in a handful at a time.

and end up in the barrel...

This works very well, and you can probably see the advantage of not including too much of the stalk. That would mean more debris and chaff to clean out.

The seed heads are now flat and empty, so the next step is to separate them (and any straw) from the small berries and chaff. I did this with my compost sifter / sunflower seed separator...

This is with 1/2" hardware cloth, but 1/4" would be better.

That left wheat and lightweight chaff...

The next step is winnowing. In lieu of a brisk breeze, I used an electric box fan.

Berries and chaff are poured from one container
to another in front of the fan on high speed. 

This is repeated until all the chaff is blown away,

and only the wheat berries remain.

Then it can be ground into flour

Did this the quick way with my WonderMill rather than my hand mill.

and baked into bread!

Bread from our own homegrown wheat: sliced,
toasted, & topped with homestead raspberry jelly.

Besides making a sifter with a finer hardware cloth, there is one more improvement we'll make next year - to add a cradle to Dan's scythe. The advantage of the cradle is that it causes the cut wheat to fall neatly head to head, making it easier to cut the heads from the straw. There is an excellent video here, which shows how to make a grain cradle, adjust it, and use it.

The only other thing to add is that the bread has the most delicious flavor! The wheat seed wasn't anything special, just seed wheat from the feed store. Maybe it's the freshness, or maybe just the fact that we grew it ourselves, but it's the best bread I think I've ever made.

Wheat Processing © July 2017 by Leigh


Living Alone in Your 60's said...

That's wonderful and I'm in awe the you have gone to such lengths to get your own flour. I bet it tastes heavenly.

Leigh said...

Tania, it started with our goal of self-sufficiency. I made a list of the different food groups and explored how to grow as many things from each category as possible. Starches can include potatoes or grain, and since we like bread, wheat was one of the first grains I tried. The growing has been easy, but processing has taken some experimentation! Now that we seem to have that figured out, it will be easier in the future. :)

Rain said...

Wow!!! You guys are so awesome! Just looking at the photos...ingenious!!! :) I'm so inspired by your self-sufficiency. The bread looks fantastic! Thanks for the lesson. ;)

Mike Yukon said...

Excellent article, answered many of my questions about wheat grain growing and harvesting. Flour for bread and other baked goodies is necessary for self-reliance. If for some reason you can’t buy flour then you have to grow it. I always wondered how it would be practical to go about growing personal quantities of grain for flour without spending a fortune on specialized equipment.

Leigh said...

Thanks Rain!

Mike, I'm glad this was helpful. Wheat is an ancient grain, easy to grow, time consuming to process, but very rewarding. I figure if the sugar hits the fan I'll have plenty of time for stuff like this anyway. :)

kymber said...

i bet it was the best bread you've ever made! thanks for these tutorials Leigh - they are very helpful! - we are practicing growing quinoa and amaranth this year - we hope to be successful!

sending much love! your friend,

WordsPoeticallyWorth said...

Good luck.

Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

Leigh said...

Hey Andrew

Meredith said...

I've been wanting to try growing some of my own grain, so this is really great to read about!

Ed said...

I've done the box fan winnowing before but the wood chipper separation is a new on to me. I really like that idea!

Leigh said...

Meredith, definitely give it a try. It's pretty easy and a small amount can be threshed and winnowed fairly easily too. A very fun thing to DIY.

Ed, the chipper just seemed like a logical solution! I looked around the internet to see if others had done something similar, but no one used a chipper like ours. So we just decided to experiment. The hardest part was keeping the grain and chaff from blowing out around the pipe to the drum. Dan tried several ideas and the one in the photos is the one that worked the best.

Michelle said...

Fresh wheat DEFINITELY makes a difference, but the labor of love from start to finish must top it with extra flavor. ;-)

Leigh said...

Michelle, you know what else seems to be different? The texture of the bread. I can't believe how beautifully it rises!

chassafrass said...

Did you find that this got all the berries from the heads? Would you do this with other grains too?

Leigh said...

Chassafrass, hello and welcome! The problem with the chipper as a thresher is that it beat up the grain too much. Yes, we got fairly good separation of grain and chaff, but a lot of the grain was broken in the process.

We've continued to experiment and I just tried something new the other day. I'm working on a blog post about it now! It will probably publish on Sunday, April 9th. (Spoiler: it's the best method we've tried so far!)