By one person, enough to feed many people? I believe I have, at least for wheat and hulless oats/barley.
I thought of this from thinking about clay balls, and also from looking at the way wild rice grows in nature.
I think the trick is to get the plants to grow in clusters, sort of like the rows and columns you see in machine-planted industrial agriculture fields, but with several plants per spot, and more space in-between.
To achieve this I propose using seed balls, not in the normal way seed balls have previously been used for grain, with one seed per small ball, but more like seed "bombs" with several seeds per large ball. Dropping them in place would most likely be preferable to throwing them for this purpose.
Experimentation will be needed to determine the optimal number of seeds per ball and distance between clusters. Also whether a living mulch like clover would need to be used or if the spreading roots would do a good enough job of suppressing weeds on their own.
Most of the pain and effort I see when I watch people harvest grain by hand is in the cutting the stalks and getting the plants to lie straight on the ground, either on your hands and knees with a sickle, or with a scythe with those very cumbersome and inconvenient-looking finger attachments. And also in the tying of the plants in bundles, usually an entire second job for a second person.
Growing the plants in clusters would eliminate both of these things. All you would have to do would be to grab the cluster of plants beneath the seed heads and cut it below that. No specialized tools needed, a cheap sickle or even a machete would work. And thus it is already in a bundle in your hand, and the simple and already-popular "bang it on the side of a large metal drum" method of getting the seeds off can be used.
The only difficulties left are in getting the metal drum to follow you around the field, and in the winnowing. The first is easily solved with a small cart and a cow or a donkey. Or you could push it yourself I guess, every ten feet or so. Winnowing I think is not much of a time/energy consumer as long as you wait for a suitably dry and windy day.
I think that with this method, the growing of wheat, oats and barley is made just as practical small-scale as growing field corn (maize) is. Winnowing and shucking can be called comparably difficult, I think. Also you don't have to nixtamilize wheat/oats/barley like you do with maize. Maize will kill you slowly if you try to survive principally on it unnixtamilized, did you know. Also I think it doesn't taste nearly as nice to most people. And it doesn't like chilly places.
And If you are thinking that growing them this way will drastically reduce yields, I beg to differ. Grains are grasses and grasses love to grow in clusters. Take the wild rice I mentioned earlier for instance, or the crabgrass that probably grows in your garden. Also, plants generally do a good job of spreading their roots quickly over any available area, and in growing their leaves so as not to compete for sunlight with their own kind. I'm fairly certain that yields would be comparable to broadcasting.
I think you have come up with one alternate method that will work well for some of the grains far better than for some other grains.
Seed balling works very well and it was developed as a way to random seed spaces that already had plants growing in them.
It is a very adaptable method that responds better when the balls contain lots of seeds instead of a single seed. (personal experiences)
Wild rice (which isn't actually rice at all) is, a protected plant and in most of the states it grows the harvesting is limited to native Americans (first peoples) doing the harvesting by canoe and beating stick.
There is a pseudo wild rice that is grown similar to the true rice plants, in paddies and harvested by machine. This "wild" rice is actually a cultivar and not a true wild rice, usually you can tell because it is cheaper to purchase than real wild rice.
Wild rice requires flooded land to sprout and grow, where as true rice can be dry sprouted and the fields flooded once the plants are around 6 inches tall.
If you were to drain the water from a wild rice field to harvest it, you would disrupt the growth cycle and cause the demise of the wild rice plants since they are perennial.
I have harvested wheat by tall cutting (you slice just below the seed head) and placing the harvest in an over the shoulder bag which is emptied onto screens when the bag is full.
If you live in WI or MN anyone can harvest wild rice with a permit and in MI you don't even need a permit. Traditional methods (canoe, knocking sticks, push pole) are required along with the permit. I'm nearly certain the manoomin (wild rice) around here is an annual. I think Texas wild rice is a perennial but it's endangered.
Last year I harvested 90 lbs of rice with a buddy. Once it's dried and dehulled it might be more like 30 lbs.
As for harvesting in clumps, that might be easier but I had a perfectly adequate time hand sickling my hulless oats that were in a row. I could just grab as many as I wanted and cut them off. If they were in clumps it might be perfect for a clump per threshing but if half the clumps are wimpy you'd probably be grabbing several clumps before knocking them in the drum. So then it wouldn't be much different from a row.
If the seed balls work it would eliminate preparing a row which would be awesome.
Seems like the OP is suggesting dry land grains (wheat,/hulless oats). A test plot could be made: 2 or three rows the conventiona way for each grain. Then a suitable gap and 2 or three "rows" of, say maybe 5 seeds with clusters spaced with maybe 24" then 2 or,3 rows of 10 seeds with clusters spaced maybe 48" or something like that. It might take a few rounds to get the seeds per cluster and cluster distances fine-tuned and compare it to the conventional yield.
Also, so what if,the conventional yield is higher: if the cluster method,reduces labor,or avoids heavy machinery etc. it might still,be worth it. Conventional Ag is unsustainable. Maybe this lets us have grain at twice the price instead of 4 times the price.
I would use any of the larger kernel grains, wheat, rye, barley, einkorn is the one I have planted with good success so far, but I'm planning to have around 4 different wheat species in a few years.
Where I am, if you want barley, you have to grow it yourself.
I have one "wild animal feed plot" that has all of those growing together along with sorghum, millet and corn planted around the outside edge of the plot.
This year we might plant some millet and sorghum to harvest for our chickens, the choice is up to Wolf.
Small, head type seeds (millet, sorghum, amaranth, etc.) seem to like to fall off the heads when I try to cut them in groups, so I do those one stalk at a time when I grow them for harvesting.
I grow small grains: Rye, wheat, barley, oats, millet. I grow corn.
With small grains, I can harvest, thresh, and winnow enough grain in an hour to feed myself for a week. A similar amount of time harvesting and processing corn would feed me for more than a month. Processing corn is less intensive work. There is a good reason why I think of sacred maize as "mother of life".
My small grain harvesting strategy is to sweep my hand through the patch, gather a handful of seed heads, and cut them off with secateurs. I toss the seed heads into a container for threshing elsewhere, which is typically done by stomping and/or beating with a stick. It doesn't take any more time to sweep my hand through a clump than it does through a patch. I look forward to testing the suggestion of "hitting against the inside of a garbage can." The grains I grow have been selected to be "non-shattering", so it seems like a different harvesting strategy might be useful compared to harvesting wild rice.
If given plenty of space, the small grains that I grow tiller prolifically, forming a clump. Whether a clump originated as one seed, or a dozen, each clump provides about the same amount of grain per clump. Fall planting seems to provide optimum resistance to weeds.
My climate dries grains wonderfully in the field, therefore, there is no need to perform an unnecessary step such as shocking.
When I harvest beans, the container that I thresh directly into is a 5 gallon bucket, easily carried through the field.
Threshing small grains requires a lot of hard physical exertion for me. It is an activity for young vigorous people. Shucking and shelling corn is gentle work which I expect to be able to do well into my elderhood.
My general sense of where we are as a society, is that wheat poisoning is a much greater risk to our health than the risk of pellagra from eating primarily non-nixtamalized corn as part of a mostly vegan diet.
I love growing small grains in rows, with a seed or clump of seeds spaced at one foot intervals within the row. That allows easy weeding, and the plants tiller to fill in the available space. I also love growing small grains by broadcasting seeds. They manage to coexist with the weeds, and still produce a harvest.
A single fall planted rye seed produced this clump during the winter.
Clumps of rye, grown in a row. One clump = one seed.
Rye (left) and wheat (right) grown in rows. Producing about 20 to 50 seed heads per seed planted (when widely spaced within the row).
That's awesome Joseph and I'm all for using the least amount of seed possible, but your varieties seem pretty wild (I seem to remember you saying at some point that you grow actually wild rye) and I suspect the common ones would be less inclined to tiller so heavily so I still think planting multiple per spot is worth it. Also there is the issue of time, it takes time for any plant to decide it's got enough room to spread out and then do it, and more seeds = more starting energy and so probably quicker establishment of a cluster, better competition with weeds (since I would be mulching them with just the straw from the previous crop) and sooner harvest. 6-8 seeds per 4 square feet (that's about what I'm thinking) is still way less than broadcasting uses.
I'd like to be able to grow and harvest enough grain for more than myself, at least enough for a family, preferably some to share with others. For me the exciting part of permaculture is being able to feed a lot of people on a small patch of land without machinery or chemicals. And grain/starch growing is the hard part of that. Growing maize is one way but it has it's limitations and I think this could be another. I've read that wild rice can grow half a pound of seed per plant cluster, if I could emulate that and go around knocking half a pound of wheat or barley into a barrel and thus providing someone's daily bread with each few thwacks I'd be very pleased with myself. And I know the thwacking technique works with common varieties harvested at the right stage.
(Having looked it up and done some math, that is actually about what it would come out to if the yield was similar with clusters spaced at 4 square feet each. Exciting! 150 bushels barley at 48 lbs per bushel = 7200 lbs. 1 acre is 43,560 square feet. 43,560 ÷ 4 sq ft per plant cluster = 10,890 clusters. 7200 ÷ 10,890 = 0.661 lbs per plant cluster. 150 bushels per acre is optimistic though. Also, if I can harvest 3 clusters per minute and 180 per hour, 10,890 ÷ 180 = 60.5 hours to harvest an acre, so actually doable in a hard week's work.)
I think this is a great opportunity for a trial. Do part of a field in planted clumps, part in seed ball clumps and part in rows and see which does best.
The wild rice I harvest produces about 30 grains per head and probably 2 heads per plant. And it ripens over the course of 2 weeks so you have to keep canoeing through to harvest a few every few days. If you wait till the end most will have dropped into the water. I'm pretty sure it's a far cry from half a pound per plant. Maybe if 100 plants were in a cluster...
I grow feral rye, which is domesticated rye that has escaped into the wildlands. I view that as something different than "wild rye".
My best guess on appropriate planting densities for clumps would be one square foot per clump. I expect that a clump would produce not more than 50 seed heads. 20 would be more typical. The best weed-competition strategy that I have found is planting in the fall. By spring, the small grains are well established and easily out-compete annual weeds.
I took this head of wheat, and bashed it repeatedly against the inside of a bucket. A few grains fell out, but it remained essentially non-threshed. Domesticated grains have been selected to be non-shattering. Therefore, I threshed it by crushing between my fingers. The yield of seeds was 1.6 grams (283 plants per pound).
My rule of thumb, is that with secateurs, a tarp, a stick, and a couple of buckets, that I can harvest, thresh, winnow, and clean 5 pounds of small grains per hour. (1400 plants per hour, 23 plants per minute) And I work fast. No lolly-gagging for me.
Mike- wild rice was just an example. Having done a bit more research, yields per acre for wild rice, even when commercially grown, seem quite low compared to wheat and such. Not sure where I heard 1/2 lb per plant, maybe that wasn't a great example. In my defense, the plants can get really big and that's just looking at the above water part. So it was easy to believe, wherever I heard it.
I forgot to mention, another thing that makes me think this will work and gives me confidence in a plant's ability to concentrate a large area of roots into a small area of aboveground growth, is amaranth. If you search "giant amaranth" on youtube there are a few videos of guys growing a single amaranth plant without much else around and them getting comically big. One guy uses plastic sheet under it and has nothing else growing for a few feet around it and he says he got almost a pound of seed off of it. Not that I'd use plastic sheet but it's proof of concept. I know amaranth is a pseudocereal, but still.
Joseph- wait, so the 1.6 grams was from just the one head? So if you're right and a plant will grow 50 heads, with 283 heads to a pound that is still almost 1/5 of a lb per cluster, yeah? Which isn't half a pound but it isn't terrible. Actually, if they did that at 1 plant cluster per square foot then that's a higher total yield than half a pound at 1 per four square feet.
Also I think the bashing against the side of a bucket method should be more effective the more heads you are doing, because more weight means more inertia. The way I've seen it done was with a tied bundle of plants, never one head at a time.
I've been playing around with small grains the last several years too, mostly wheat and barley, since they grow through the moist winter in my Mediterranean climate, while something like corn would require profligate summer irrigation long after the others are harvested. For me there are two weak points in the growth cycle...the field being overrrun with weeeds at an early stage....and threshing the grains out of the heads after harvest. I've had some progress with weed control by following the protocol of "system of wheat intensification", based on a similar system for rice which involves pregermination and precision spacing; and by favoring barley over wheat since it seems to come up more vigorously and matures a few weeks earlier. I harvest by sickling handfuls of heads into a bucket. For the threshing I first simply trampled/danced on the heads on a concrete floor. Last season I made progress by "hacking" my small electric rototiller into a threshing machine by building a wooden box that the tiller sits on top of, with an angled open side such that handfuls of heads could be shoved down into the revolving tines! Two or three passes through this and it's pretty much ready to winnnow!
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