Looking back - a wheat cultivation cycle at Sterling College (Wendell Berry Farming Program, USA)

Updated: Nov 15

As our wheat crop ripens through to the flint stage, it is time to sharpen our sickles and prepare for the harvest.


Turkey red wheat in the flint stage and ready for threshing. Most of this crop will be used for next year's seed; the straw will be used to mulch garden beds, livestock bedding, and aggregate for several cob buildings to be built this fall.

Most (nearly all) of the wheat grown in Kentucky (U.S.A.) is a soft red winter wheat; for this project, we chose to trial Turkey Red Wheat (Triticum aestivum) which is a member of the Crimean group of hard red wheats arriving in the United States with Mennonite settlers sometime around the late 1870’s. Our goals for the plot’s first year involved saving seed, contributing to increasing the seed stock of this nearly extinct wheat variety and to use the straw for livestock bedding, garden mulch, and aggregate for several cob structures due to be constructed this fall. If successful, and with the lessons learned from this year on the field, we intend to add small grains to our farming practice.


A Year on the Field plot at Hope Hill Farmstead; roughly 0.3 acres, westerly aspect, about a 2% gradient on Shelby silt loam soil type. Lion, one of our Durham oxen stands in the foreground.

Our field plot lies with a sloping westerly aspect. The soil is classified as Shelby silt-loam and is considered very good for agricultural production; one important aspect of this soil type is a clay content of between 30-35%. Due to the clay content of the soil, this ground must be mindfully managed with regards to tillage; timing is everything. Bare ground faced with the high kinetic energy of this region's thunderstorms can and does dramatically erode. I’ve been surprised to see erosion gullies forming on even the slightest slopes after a hard rain.


Our farm has been in some type of agricultural use since the early 1800’s, given the close proximity of our field plot to the current farm house as well as the historic locations (cellar holes and foundation remnants) of the previous farm dwellings coupled with the long history of tobacco production in this region, it is reasonable to think that this ground has seen heavy tillage over the years. Most recently (until 2019), this plot was in clean tilled row crops by an Amish farmer producing sweet corn and squash. Since 2019, we have kept the ground covered in mostly cool season grasses and legumes.


With a long history of tillage and the realities of farming in clay based soils, we feel this farm could greatly benefit from soil building practices which gave us pause as we considered plowing ground to grow wheat. While we would have good growth on the wheat plants to cover the ground and sustain the impact through the winter storms, we were concerned our seeding method (hand broadcasting) would result in spotty plant density with areas of bare ground prone to erosion especially when faced with the high energy of the spring rain. Further, wheat is ready for harvest mid to late June here, what would be the next logical rotation for this plot? One strategy we have successfully used growing small grains in other locations is to undersow the wheat crop with a legume. Here in Kentucky, red clover (Trifolium pratense) can be successfully frost seeded in late January which, if it took, would fill in some of the gaps created by our seeding method and also provide a biological defense against erosion in this tilled plot. By late June, the clover would be robust enough to handle foot traffic while harvesting, keep the land covered after the wheat is removed, and most importantly, be a strong contributor to the regeneration of the soil following a heavy tillage cycle. Certainly, legumes are known for their nitrogen fixation system–we have not studied this important detail nor have we compared plots with and without undersowing clover to see if yield is affected. Our choice for this approach was simply in alignment with our overall personal farming practices where we try to minimize tillage, keep the ground covered with living systems, and enhance the biodiversity of plants growing on our land.


Turkey red wheat undersown with frost seeded red clover. A 3 mm Japanese Kama sickle (available through onescytherevolution.com) was used to harvest stalks, our wheat had become severely lodged due to recent storms.

As the harvest is now complete, I am happy to see red clover in abundance throughout the plot. With an eye to the next rain, we will lightly disc the ground with our oxen-drawn 10 disc harrow and sow buckwheat which is the only mid summer cover crop with which we’ve had consistent success to withstand the heat of a Kentucky summer. Most likely, we will go through two cycles of buckwheat mowing the crop at the flowering stage using our mules and a McCormick Deering No. 7 sickle bar mowing machine and leave the residue to decompose. This will keep the ground with a living cover for the remainder of the summer. So what becomes of the red clover? Since it is a fairly young plant at that point, we’ve found that most of it is easily incorporated into the soil as a green manure after a light discing. We feel that the expense of seed is justified when we walk through the plot and see no signs of erosion. Further, the farming practices that have shaped this land have robbed it of its organic matter; we feel that incorporating any plant residue or farming strategy that addresses that deficit is a net gain.


Cut stalks ready to be bundled into sheaves and stacked into stooks.

Stooks under construction, once complete this stook will have at least 20 sheaves

End of harvest day. For this plot, two harvesting methods were used, half the field was standing up so it was cut and collected only the heads of the plant; then, a scythe was used to mow the straw left in the field which was raked into windrows and will be collected via ox team.

Several lessons were learned during this year on the field. Tillage in this clay soil has been a steep learning curve for me–we moved here in 2019 after 21 years of farming in Vermont’s (U.S.A.) glacial till loamy soils–especially using draft animal powered machinery. If the ground is too wet, the draft is immense on the animals and the resulting ground is filled with clods and difficult to fit back together. If it is too dry, the plow cannot find any suction and just skims across the surface. It seems late fall is the best time to plow this ground which fits well for growing a winter wheat crop. Our crop lodged badly as we experienced severe thunderstorms with intense straight line winds, harvesting with a scythe and grain cradle was challenging so I relied on a hand sickle. Hand broadcasting seed resulted in an uneven planting density. For the next crop, we will prepare the ground a bit better and use a seed drill–either a simple single row seeder like an Earthway or we will try and locate a seed drill which can be fitted for oxen or mules. Clearly, harvesting a crop planted in rows is significantly more efficient. Lastly, we will commit much of our composted barn manure to the plot in the fall following the cutting of the second crop of buckwheat.


Our hope for the next crop is to save half the seed and process the remainder for cooking purposes. We would like to experience the culinary accolades bakers rave about regarding hard red wheat flour. As Will Bonsall writes: “ It’s impossible even to contemplate a self-sustaining garden that does not include grains”. As we develop our farmstead to sustain our family and further use this process as a teaching platform for the Wendell Berry Farming Program, we look forward to the next crop with both our hearts and our stomachs.


Literature:

Bonsall, Will. Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-reliant Gardening. 2015. Chelsea

Green Publishing. White River Junction, VT.


Author: Rick Thomas

Faculty in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems at Sterling College Teaching Teamster, Farrier, and Woodlander

Wendell Berry Farming Program



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