Wheat Talk on January 24, 2016

This text is based on a talk presented by Abbie White to a friendly and engaging audience at the First Congregational Parish, Unitarian in Petersham on January 24, 2016.

Growing wheat in Hardwick in recent years has been both a fulfilling family and community activity that works well with our farmland. We continue to expand and grow our efforts with growing, milling, and marketing organic grain.

My background begins with growing up with parents who were raised as Congregationalists. My parents met during college through an outdoor recreation group. As a couple they believed strongly that God’s World was honored and celebrated outside. Every weekend my parents went canoeing and hiking. Cold and harsh weather did not deter outdoor adventures. Even before ice sheets had left the sides of rivers, my parents would go boating. When I was an infant, my bassinet was placed in the middle of their canoe for white water paddling trips. I was born under the sign of Aquarius and have an innate love of rivers.

I am the oldest and have two sisters. In 1964 my family left the city of Arlington and moved to nine acres of land near the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Lincoln, Massachusetts. My parents embraced homesteading and organic farming. My family’s shabby house was in the middle of a botanical paradise containing two ponds and many exotic shrubs and trees. We grew vegetables and poultry. My sisters and I went on life paths reflective of our childhood stewardship with the earth. My sister Margie is a Landscape Architect with the National Park Service. Tammis is a Nature Educator who has worked many places including Friends of Acadia, Penobscot Nation, the Norman Bird Sanctuary, and The Trustees of Reservations. 

Today I am living happily on a farm and employed as a Biologist. In 1989 Stan and I moved to Hardwick with a baby son, a cow, sheep flock, a border collie, and my large plant collection. I have always had a passion for growing all kinds of plants. I am proud of my edible landscape that includes crops of pawpaws, persimmons, shiro plums, quinces, and medlars.

For much of our farm acreage, the focus for many years was on rotational grazing for our livestock. The Border Collies play an important role with moving animals between the fields. In 2010, Stan came up with the hobby idea of “The 1000 yard beer project” where all the ingredients would be sourced near our house. I already had thriving hop vines and he decided to grow a field of barley. He planted a small field with seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

The barley plants ended up looking awful at harvest time and so the crop was abandoned for the wild turkeys to eat. However, our interest in grain growing was firmly planted. From many conversations we understood that if we could produce grain, then our local community would support us with markets.

Next year’s effort led to growing barley as well as the ancient grains, Emmer and Red Fife. We look forwarded to having tasty grain to bake our own bread. Stan purchased a small homemade steel mill on e-Bay from a Mormon in Utah.

Stan and I felt we were on a quest to redo what worked well on our farm a long time ago. Historically, grains were widely grown in New England. As perspective, the 1840 census mentions that Massachusetts produced almost 5000 tons of wheat. Today this would be one thousand farms growing wheat like us. In 1850, the yield was less than 1000 tons. After 1850 almost all grain production left New England and went to the Midwest. Dan Barber in his popular book, The Third Plate, mentions that in 1840, there was one gristmill for every 700 people. The gristmill represented a community center where people visited weekly to pick up flour. We believe that our new mill is recreating an agrarian community.

We bought an ergonomic scythe from Austria for harvest. I felt like we were indeed part of a biblical tradition. The scythe cuts the stalks of wheat like the ones I have passed out to all of you as came in the building. 

At this point, I would ask you to examine your stalk, which contains one ear of wheat. Each ear has about 40 spikelets that contain the seed. To thresh grain, you remove the seed from the spikelet. You can do this with your fingers. Winnowing the wheat involves separating the heavy seed from the lighter weight chaff. You can eat your wheat berry. Dan Barber mentions in his book that farmers used to assess wheat quality by tasting in the field. Now we rely on machines in a laboratory run by trained technicians.

For our first harvest we dried a wagonload of scythed wheat and then stuffed this in large burlap bags. With friends, we beat the bags hard with nunchucks and then poured out the contents in front of a powerful fan to blow away the chaff from the heavier seed. We ended up with a yield of 50 pounds of wheat from having planted 50 pounds amount of seed. This was an entertaining learning experience with lots of beer drinking.

We realized that growing wheat is as easy as growing grass. After harvesting wheat, we return the field to pasture for our grazing animals for at least three years to build up fertility and reduce weed pressures. With our wheat field rotation, there is little worry about tares, being the weeds, which could bring us sorrow, as we sung in the hymn at the start of the service. 

As my family became more ambitious with growing grains, we understood that we needed more practical methods for threshing and winnowing. Our next step in 2012 was to attend University of Vermont sponsored grain-growing events. We toured Ben Gleason’s wheat fields and milling operation and decided to follow the model of his small-scale one-man operation. His hard red winter wheat variety bred in Canada, Redeemer, ranks high in taste tests.

For harvesting and threshing we bought a small-scale combine for rice and wheat from China. We were the first American owners of this type of machine. Stan’s mechanical ability was very useful for assembly. The machine arrived as a large box of parts with a Chinese instruction manual.

For winnowing, Stan bought a 100-year-old clipper mill from Kansas. My college son, Evan, majoring in engineering took ownership of making the equipment completely functional. Evan worked with a fabrication company in Worcester to custom manufacture a leather belt to turn the wooden mechanisms. The ergonomic scythe became a basement wall decoration.

We were thrilled when our Redeemer wheat tested at the UVM Grain Laboratory as a high quality crop in September 2012. The protein content and falling count numbers were optimal. The DON level was less than 1 PPM. The DON test measures the amount of vomitoxin present in the wheat berries from fungal disease. With some trepidation, we offered a sample to Glenn Mitchell at Rose32 Bakery in Gilbertville. We were ecstatic with his positive feedback and strong encouragement. We have a great relationship with bakers; those connections continue to expand.

For 2015, we produced about 5 tons of Redeemer wheat. We used a renovated 1955 Allis Chambers combine to bring the entire crop in on one day before a thunderstorm. Ben Lester sold us this valuable machine for $1200. Stan and Evan ordered some new parts from the internet and worked for several hours to make the machine functional.

I bring a grain mill to farmers markets in Hardwick and Hubbardston and grind fresh flour in front of customers. Engaging with the public is enjoyable for me. I have many happy repeat customers. I am interested in conversing with people that tell me the merits of a wheat free diet. I totally understand why people with Celiac Disease avoid wheat. I had a childhood friend who was sick frequently. She was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in the early 70s. Her health improved dramatically with her wheat elimination diet. She grew quickly into a tall strong woman.

Packages of our flour, wheat berries, and cracked wheat are sold at the Boston Public Market by the Stillman’s Farm. I have been working on making the packaging more functional and attractive. This includes photo stickers with our website URL. I have added many tried and true recipes to the whitesfieldsfarm.com website. I like displaying my photos to add color and beauty to the online text.

For the start of the New Year, we are thrilled to finally have a new dedicated space for milling. My oldest son, Simon, has completed building a timber frame structure with the use of his sawmill and trees selectively thinned from our land. Simon’s inspiration and training in timber frame construction began at a young age. With his parents he watched with awe while Ridge Shinn, with his crew from Hardwick Post and Beam, build our residence using timbers of Douglas fir. The beams constructing the dormer in Simon’s bedroom are a geometric marvel.

The new building has a high capacity Austrian manufactured mill. The Osttiroler Getreidemühlen stone mill makes it possible for us to supply larger volumes of high quality flour to bakeries like Rose32. A giant sifter from North Carolina is used to remove bran to make whole wheat pastry flour. Our mill will offer the farming community, a means to offer more products from crops grown by others, such as corn and bean flour. Ben Lester, the Founder of the Pioneer Valley Grain CSA, has already ground several hundred pounds of grain with great success.

In summary, growing wheat has been a truly meaningful family farming activity that has helped to strengthen our ties to our community and to the local food movement. This venture represents a retirement plan for Stan and myself. We will always be able to eat our investment!


Chinese combine harvesting wheat 8/6/13

  Here is Stan combining wheat with a Chinese combine on August 6, 2013. As I upload this on 3/24/20, Stan is groaning at how much work and time this process involved. Every project and dream has a beginning. Usually it is best to start small and scale up gradually.