December 17, 2018

Heritage Wheat Fail

Something I've been wanting to grow is heritage wheat. We've been growing our own wheat for several years now, but it's commercial seed purchased in a 50-pound bag from the feed store. By growing our own we avoid herbicide and pesticide contamination. Also, the glyphosate (round-up) that is used by commercial farmers to kill and dry the crop evenly for processing. Plus we can improve the nutrient content. But it's still modern wheat, which has been so "improved" over the past couple of decades that it's causing a lot of health problems for people. As with all things industrialized, these "improvements" designed to make the crop more profit-friendly not human-friendly. All excellent reasons to switch to a heritage type of wheat.

Several years ago I bought a packet of Egyptian wheat seed.

Egyptian wheat that I grew the summer of 2015. 

It grew well but I didn't realize it is actually a large-seeded sudan grass rather than a true cereal wheat. There's certainly a place for that as critter feed, but I was disappointed because I wanted a true wheat for making bread.

This year I decided to try again. The problem was that I was unable to find bulk seed. I could find small quantities of an ounce or 500 seeds or so, but not enough to plant a quarter-acre like we usually do. Even those small amounts are pricy. The Heritage Grain Conservancy website offers an excellent variety of heritage wheats, but they want $25 for an ounce of seed! That is counter-logical to me. If one wants to conserve something, doesn't it make sense to get it growing by as many people as possible?

Fortunately, Baker Creek Heritage Seeds had several old wheat varieties on offer, so I decided to try Red Fife, a landrace wheat.

Landrace types are old heritage types with a diverse genetic base. That means that they are adaptable to a number of conditions. I figured I'd have the best chance with that.

Red Fife can be planted in spring for a spring wheat crop, or in autumn for winter wheat. Winter wheat has always worked well for us because of our mild winters. It was only sold in ounce packets, so I figured I'd grow one bed as a seed crop. No special soil preparation is necessary, but I added a little compost to the soil because I chose to plant it where I had grown our summer's corn.

I mixed it with ladino clover seed for added nitrogen and planted in mid-September. Three months later the bed looks like this -

Bed in which I planted wheat and clover.

Doesn't exactly look like wheat is growing there, does it? That's because it isn't!


If you look closely you can see some of my clover growing. But except for a blade or two of grass which may or may not be wheat, I'm chalking this experiment up as a fail. I'm going to give the bed a deep blanket of mulch and try heritage wheat in another spot next year.

Thankfully our commercial wheat patches are growing well.

Winter wheat mixed with clover. It looks like lawn at the moment.

We plant about a quarter acre, from which we harvest enough wheat berries to last until the next year's harvest. Hopefully, as we improve our soil we'll improve our yield. My goal is to harvest enough for our year's supply plus enough to save seed for the next crop.

 Heritage Wheat Fail © December 2018 


  1. Well that is a new one to me. We've had wheat on the farm my whole life but never sprayed roundup on it to kill it evenly. I had to google that and it seems like that is mostly something they do way up north where they get more moisture and shorter seasons.

    It seems to me, the best solution is to get some local seeds that you trust and then like you said, grow your own. I have a softness in my heart for fresh baked bread and that softness is only softer if it was made from fresh ground wheat we grew ourselves.

  2. They spray it on oats as well, prior to harvest, to get ahead of the drying process. Quaker Oats got into trouble with this, as they were selling "organic" oats that had been hit with Roundup before harvest...

  3. Ed, yes, to get it to dry evenly. Even here in the south it ripens and dries unevenly, so I get why they do it. So even though wheat is (supposedly) not yet GMO'd, it still gets hit with RoundUp and of course, as consumers we never know what we're getting. I found an extremely interesting article at the Healthy Home Economist which explains how glyphosophate sensitivity mimics celiac disease and gluten intolerance. I don't have this problem, but I don't want to develop it either.

    Pete, that's troubling. Unfortunately, we seem to live in an age where saying one thing and doing another is considered socially acceptable.

  4. My Father grew this Southern Alberta on a dryland farm (this was in the 30's) He seeded it as a spring wheat. It thrived in the normal years of about 12 inchs of rain. It did not do as well in years when it rained more than that. He always talked about what a tough wheat it was. Could it have suffered from wet?

  5. That's too bad about the fail Leigh. But I'm glad you're going to keep trying. Scary to think about the Roundup contamination...

  6. That's tough about the wheat. We ordered quinoa seeds from a heritage seed company, and planted a small patch in the garden, and it grew fantastic for two years. We saved seed every year and consumed half the harvest. Then the third and fourth season it was nothing. This was in Florida, and the only thing I could come up with was the moisture was greater in year 3&4 than it was the first two years. I am planning on a patch up on the ridge and will hope for a good yield. I'll keep watching for updates on your harvest. Do you think there could have been some type of nematode or insect damaging the growth? Thanks Leigh!

  7. Leigh, have ever tried Kemmer wheat? It is considered an ancient variety but is pretty resilent. It is one I have had better luck with in years past.

  8. Fiona, you grew up in wheat country! I've never had trouble growing wheat so I have no idea why this patch didn't germinate. It may have been too much rain (we definitely have had a lot) but I had hoped a landrace variety would be more adaptable. I will try a different variety next time.

    Rain, with homesteading I've learned not to give up after only one try! There are so many variables to success. At least we have our regular crop.

    Wyomingheart, I had the same problem with amaranth. Grew well for a couple of years, but the seed heads kept getting smaller and the germination worse. In our case that may have been from crossing with wild amaranth which grows here as well. Insect damage is possible, but since it never sprouted, it's hard to know.

    TB, no, I haven't tried that one. If I can track some seed down I will. There just don't seem to be many sources for heritage wheat seed.

  9. I have bought numerous seeds from Baker Creek, and honestly, the germination and productivity has been worse than any other company I ever bought from. No idea why. Maybe I am trying more unusual things. But I have given up buying from them.

  10. Lynda, it's interesting to me that you should mention that. I've been having germination troubles for the past several years, but not just from Baker Creek. It seems most of the open-pollinated seeds I've ordered from all sources have underperformed. Some of it I assume is our soil, also our hot, dry summers. Even so, I stopped ordering from Pinetree Garden Seeds for that reason, though I used to be a regular customer. I'd be very curious from where you are having success with seeds! My other favorite source is Sow True Seeds.

  11. I'm glad to notice that I am not the only one that has had trouble with germination of some seeds. I too limit my purchases from some well known seed companies (Pinetree being one of them). I am in Virginia and the rain we had last summer almost made me quit gardening, but like others have said, another year will get new results. I didn't get one bean from my garden last year. Rains kept washing away the seeds! Anyway, good luck with your wheat crop. love reading about your trials and errors.

  12. Jean, I hate to say it's encouraging that others are having germination problems, LOL, but there's a sense of relief in knowing it isn't just me. Not sure how to improve germination. :( And the weather! I don't know which is worse, too wet or too dry. I'm glad you didn't give up on gardening altogether. Here's hoping for a better gardening year for us all.

  13. On my old homestead we practiced rotation planting from year to year it should eliminate this problem of die off by the 2nd or 3rd year. We'll grow wheat in one plot (1/4 to 1/2 acre), barley, flax,and oats. The next year we'll plant daikon and clover to refix the nitrogen in the off season. Where we planted wheat we plant rye, where we planted flax we plant barley etc. It will be 4 years before we plant wheat again in the same plot by rotation. Different plants draw different elements from the soil at different rates. We've even planted legumes like drying beans and peas with out grains. Jo

  14. Jo, I like your plan. I've been reading lately about mixed grains, such as different varieties of wheat or wheat and rye or barley. They seem to do well that way, so I'm thinking about trying it next year. Add a legume and it should make for some happy plantings.

  15. I've never grown wheat, but I did try quinoa one year up on my cliffside garden patch (before we had to remove our stairs). It was a failure for us, but the critters sure did enjoy it. Only one small plant lasted long enough to go to seed. Not enough for us to use for anything. - Margy

  16. Margy, I would have collected the seed as a seed crop! ;) I've never tried growing quinoa, though. Maybe someday. I understand it requires some processing before it's edible.

  17. Leigh- how do you harvest, thresh, and winnow your quarter acre?

  18. Hi Steve, we have two tools for cutting: a European scythe from One Scythe Revolution and a used TroyBilt push-behind sickle mower. Dan made our thresher from a small yard chipper (photo in this post. You'll also see how I winnow with a box fan at the end of the post. It's taken quite a bit of experimentation as well as trial and error, but it's extremely rewarding to eat bread from wheat you've grown yourself.


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