Bean There: Graining the Fields

King Corn, like most monarchs, is demanding of land and resources, requiring high inputs like fertilizer, water and pest control. True, it rewards the effort with impressive yields; so much so that in an age when we thought oil was forever, with the agrichemicals it provided, corn became the dominant driver of the agricultural sector in North America. A staple of the high-grain diets fed to livestock, spin-off industries like ethanol-based fuels as well as a large part of the food processing industry are predicated on the continuing presence of that big, golden mountain of excess corn production.

By Angela Marie from NRW/Germany (Cornfield) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cornfield, Germany. (Photo by Angela Marie, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

But in marginal climates and fringe areas like mine in Cape Breton, we often do not get enough warm summer days for corn to ripen. The technical term for the right amount of warmth is – wait for it – “corn heat units.” To grow corn here, I would have to get on my field early and take the crop off late, in the wet weather of both shoulder seasons, causing soil compaction and big muddy ruts in the field. In a good year.

One year a neighbor tried planting corn in a bottomland field. As we all watched him repeatedly getting his big New Holland stuck trying to get the crop off, we took bets on the date he’d finish. I won – I said he would never get it off. Sure enough, he had to wait until the ground froze hard, and by then, the crows had eaten it.


Maize cousins

The cost of the fertilizer alone is a serious expense – even with easy payment plans offered by the seed companies. And good luck trying to find a non-GMO corn, with the attendant licensing and use agreements, quite apart from the potential environmental impact. The big money in corn means that seed companies exploit every profitable edge in the market, and that means tech.

But this is not about GM, pros and cons. I can write that article, but not today. I have been musing instead about maize cousins, the small grains. Wheat, oats, barley and the like. These conjure images of  vast expanses of prairie and steppe. Those areas certainly serve as the bread basket of the world today, but their modest nature, more forgiving than corn of less-than-ideal conditions, and a willingness to adapt to a wide range of environments make small grains ideal for small-to-medium-sized farms around the globe. My own experiments with growing them on my farm parallel the challenges faced by farmers in other parts of the world.

Bernard Theriault and the author.



Take barley, for example. Famous for its contribution to beer making, it is one of the oldest cultivated crops and has not significantly changed its genetics in 10,000 years, since it appeared in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tibet and China.

It has a shorter season than wheat, and can tolerate cooler temperatures and is more nutritious than oats with a wider protein profile. In fact, it can even replace corn pound for pound in a feed ration for dairy animals since it has nearly the same set and amount of complementary proteins, according to research done in the 1980s by Resource Efficient Agriculture Production (REAP) Canada.

It doesn’t produce as heavily per acre, but the inputs required are minimal. Most varieties of barley grown in North America have a tight, barbed husk that make it unpalatable to animals. But small farms in the Global South grow hulless barleys, easily threshed by hand or with simple equipment. With our addiction to Big Ag and big machines, it’s no wonder these cultivars are unknown here. I grow Sangatsuga, Tibetan Blue and Excelsior hulless barley and thresh them with the chicken plucker and blow off the chaff with the Shop-Vac.

Barley By Eugenereed1984 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Barley (Photo by Eugenereed1984, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hull & Oats

Similarly, we grow regular, hulled oats almost exclusively in North America. It is a huge industry – remember the miracle of oat bran that was going to cure us all of cancer?

Enormous plants are dedicated to the task of removing the tight hull from the most famous breakfast cereal grain. Of those people actually diagnosed with celiac disease, about 75% find they can tolerate oats, if they have been carefully processed separately from other gluten-containing grains. There are varieties of hulless oats, one or two commercially available, but there is significant resistance to further research and development of new and improved varieties. Those large processing plants wouldn’t last long if the world went hulless. Unsurprisingly, most of the research is being done in the Global South, where small farms and small processing needs are more the norm. I grow Yung oats developed in China, which seems to have improved the problem of uneven ripening and interior hairs on the kernel common to other hulless oats.


Winter wheat

Some experiments have been less fruitful. My attempts to grow spring wheat have failed miserably. One summer in five seems to provide the necessary dry heat for ripening in Cape Breton – PEI and New Brunswick can manage it, but not me. So far (I’ll let you know) I have some success with winter wheat. We have the snow cover needed without the bitter cold that makes its January survival problematic on the Prairies.

The trouble is, the Russian variety I obtained at a high cost – $20 for 20g – is not available in serious commercial quantities. I planted a 50-foot row with two thirds of the packet (since a good seed-saver never risks all), but that won’t do more than provide seed for a larger plot next year and it certainly isn’t a viable business strategy at that price, it’s strictly R&D.

The magic of multiplication is slow in the field. Some years ago, a starry-eyed food activist was enthusing about re-introducing ancient grains and heritage varieties in a commercial bakery. Since the packets we could obtain from Plant Gene Resources Canada were about 40g, he was downcast when I pointed out that it would take four to five years before we had enough seed stock to plant a whole acre. Another reason seed banks are not going to save us from the Apocalypse. It will take us a while to rebuild with only a handful of seeds to start. In situ conservation – farmers growing it, conservation through use – is the only way to go.

The author.

Staying nimble 

Not that there isn’t a place for seed banks. Governments are very quick to discount the utility of these institutions when budgets are tight. Do we really need to preserve the genetics of 2,000 varieties of oats, they wonder aloud? Oats is oats! Which is, of course, why bureaucrats and lawyers shouldn’t be making decisions about agriculture. In the 1980’s there were only six, closely-related varieties of barley grown across North America. Six — when there were hundreds grown world-wide. Along came a disease. The Spanish Flu of barley, although it was called a new strain of Yellow Dwarf virus. All six barleys were susceptible, since they were closely related and all.

If you’re remembering the history of the Potato Famine, as well as the failure of the Gros Michel banana, both due to lack of diversity, and thinking this sounds familiar, good work! You’ve been paying attention! The resistant barley was found in the small field of an Ethiopian farmer, who commonly grew up to 40 barley varieties each year as a matter of course. Hooray! The day was saved, and we brought its genetics into our lovely, modern breeding programs until the next time we get forgetful and stupid.

So while governments of all stripes may prefer not to examine the basis of their breakfast bagels and croissants too closely, farmers and researchers alike understand we need access to germplasm to stay nimble and adaptable to pests, diseases and climate change. Farmers in the Global South have a clear and urgent need to maintain crop and variety diversity to ensure their survival, but we are not immune to that necessity and we shouldn’t leave the heavy lifting up to them.

Oats By M wassim salah (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Oats (Photo by M wassim salah, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Small farms here can and should play a role and not just because they may be crazy obsessives like me. Grains can contribute significantly to a crop rotation, establishing populations of vascular mycorrhizae in the soil, which assist in making nutrients — particularly phosphorous, which is often in short supply — more readily available to plant roots. They are a useful tool to break nematode and other pest cycles. Plus, you can eat them, even after they’ve done their good, weed-suppressing work.

I presently buy the grain ration for my animals. Not going to change that completely any time soon. But now I am able to supplement that significantly by growing a variety of small grains – heavy on the oats and barley. I used to broadcast the seed into their plots, until weed pressure from couch grass convinced me I should plant it into clearly defined rows and ruthlessly scour in between them. A small increase in time and handwork invested in the spring resulted in higher yields and a cleaner seed bed for the next crop in the rotation. So, apart from the green manures used for weed control and fed to chickens, they march in rows now.



Availability of scale-appropriate equipment remains a barrier here. Although there are excellent machines sold in China and India, shipping, importing and getting spare parts doesn’t make them a sensible option. So we have to be very creative.

Harvesting on my scale is presently accomplished with a brushcutter, starting at the milk stage, for feeding in the sheaf to chickens – dinner and bedding in one pass. I cut 1/8 acre every couple of days that way. I could use a scythe but I am getting closer to 60 than 50 and that boat cast off a while ago. Other farmers, like Bernard Theriault in New Brunswick, have rebuilt and adapted antique equipment more suited to small acreage productions than modern combines. It is truly a beautiful sight to see the sails of his brightly painted reaper-binder move gracefully over the field.

Bernard Theriault and his reaper-binder. (Photo by the author)

Another trick I learned from Bernard was how to rebuild an old threshing machine. It turns out this idea of one factory making a set of parts used by other factories in their assembly process was not invented by today’s auto industry. In the early 1900s, the cast-iron parts, flywheels and beaters, were made by a single foundry in Pittsburgh and shipped to companies all over North America, where the frame and housing were built locally and the finished thresher sold to farmers.

Once I saw how Bernard had put his together, it was no stretch to refurbish the slats on the belt of my own machine salvaged from an old barn. A friend welded on a flywheel so I could use the PTO [power take-off] on my tractor to power it, and as soon as I manage to grow an acre of that Russian wheat in another four years, I’ll take it for more than a test drive.

Other solutions I have seen range from adapting wood-chippers to snagging old university research equipment. No farmer would willingly pay the $35,000 new required for research plot threshers but $7,000 used, shared in an equipment pool, starts to sound reasonable. The old Allis-Chalmers universal combines can still be found on occasion for a thousand bucks or so but unless you really enjoy (and are good at) tinkering, it will take a lot to get and keep it going.


Seed nerd

By böhringer friedrich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wheat (Photo by böhringer friedrich, own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

I presently store the clean, dry grain in scrounged, 5-gallon buckets with super-duper Lee Valley lids, impervious to changes in moisture and easy to unscrew when opening.

I have a handheld moisture meter because I am a seed nerd and the buckets will sit in my basement. Bernard’s harvest is much larger than mine. His grain is poured into recycled feed bags, tied, and placed in large homemade bins made of 2×6 lumber. Mice get discouraged by the thick lumber, where plywood would just whet their appetite, and the small spaces between the wood mean the grain does not sweat and spoil.

If you want to eat the grain yourself, there are many grinders for homesteaders on the market, electric and manual. Bernard even invented and built a bolter to remove some of the coarse bran from his wheat flour.

Even if you aren’t as knacky as the truly talented Bernard or as crazy and experimental as me, a small patch of grain growing in a corner of your garden is a beautiful and noble thing. Blue Macha with green heads and black awns, at the very least can be ornamental, if you have snooty neighbors. Grow a grain! Help humanity through the Apocalypse, or at least make a good batch of pancakes.


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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



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