Harvesting Cereals

Cutting rye with sickles
Threshing Wheat with Flails
Winnowing using an old fashioned winnowing machine.

Growing Cereals by Hand

When people think about cereal production, the image that tends to come to mind is of a team of combine harvesters making their way through a field of corn that stretches to the horizon. It is an image that probably comes from the American mid-west, or Canada, but there are now similar fields in all the major cereal-producing areas of the world –  China, India, Ukraine, Russia, France, etc.

It is a very damaging image, because it subliminally discourages people from even thinking about growing cereals for themselves. When people think about self-sufficiency, they may plan a vegetable garden, a potato patch, an orchard, and perhaps a forest garden; they may also plan to have some chickens, some ducks, some sheep, and maybe a pig. Far fewer people imagine that they could grow a field of cereals for themselves: they assume that it would require too much machinery, and too much investment. This, in spite of the fact that most people on the planet, throughout the whole period of recorded history have used one cereal or another as their staple food, and have grown it for themselves using only the most basic forms of technology.

Before deciding not to grow cereals for oneself, it is worth considering whether or not one believes in the sustainability of modern cereal production methods. On the one hand, their impact upon the soil and the environment means that cereal farmers are in a state of almost constant crisis management, with their crops being threatened by climatic conditions and various pests and diseases that constantly require new technological solutions; while on the other hand, cereal production is now so well integrated into global supply chains that it cannot function without fertilisers, tractors, combine harvesters, agricultural chemicals, spare parts, fuel, etc., which may come from the four corners of the world – and its produce cannot be sold and distributed without the smooth working of the global transport system. Modern farms are only profitable insofar as the combined cost of all these supplies, together with the infrastructure needed to deliver them, is less than the price that can be gained from selling the crop; meaning that cereal supplies are so intricately bound up with all the complexities of the global economy – financial, industrial, political, environmental, etc. – that it is beyond anyone’s capability to determine whether or not the system is truly viable.

It does not really seem necessary for anyone to have to choose to be dependent for their staple food on a system over which they have so little control, especially when there is such a long history of people growing grain for themselves, using well-proven, sustainable techniques.

A hoe, a sickle, and a flail are all that is needed in terms of equipment: you hoe the ground, sow the seeds, weed between the plants (by hand or with the hoe), harvest the crop with a sickle, and thresh out the grain with a flail. The grain can then be winnowed with the help of the wind.

Having made the attempt to grow cereals for ourselves over the course of the past fifteen or so years, we have discovered the main difficulty is not the lack of machinery, it is more likely to be the lack of a local, small-scale, cereal-growing community. Different cereals are better suited to different areas, and it is also possible to have varieties of a particular cereal that have been selected to grow well in specific local conditions. If you have neighbours growing cereals, they can help you to get started by giving you suitable seed, and can give you advice about planting times, crop care, and harvesting techniques. Ideally, local people would even be able to give you specific information about each of your fields, and which crops have done well in each of them in the past. When things go wrong, neighbours can help you pick up the pieces by replenishing your seed stocks, and every year you help each other by comparing notes and sharing information.

When you are the only small-scale cereal grower in an area, you have to work everything out for yourself, and progress will inevitably take time – it took us several years, for example, to realise that wheat was not a crop that did well in our area, but that rye would consistently yield a good crop from year to year. One thing of great value that one gains from the outset, however, is a clearer understanding that the knowledge of how to grow cereals has been lost across much of the western world. The fields of cereals that one sees are the product of tractors, ploughs, specially-bred seeds, chemical fertilisers, and agricultural chemicals: take any one of these ingredients away, and no one would know how to produce a crop.

Over the first few years of cereal growing, progress may appear to be slow, but if the foundations are being laid for a new cereal-growing community in which neighbours can share their experience and expertise, then a significant step will have been taken. Also, an important aim is to dislodge that picture of prairies and combine harvesters from people’s heads, and to replace it with an image of small fields, surrounded by trees, rich in wildlife, and complete with people happily tending their crops of cereals by hand, and any progress made in this endeavour is of benefit to everyone.

Gareth Lewis 20th September 2022

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