Many people who want to grow their own food start with herbs, and then vegetables and fruit. Some are ambitious and keep animals for meat and milk. But an enormous part of our diet is made up of cereals – grains such as wheat and oats – virtually all of which are produced by industrial scale monocrop agriculture, with huge fields and huge machines. I became curious – what would it take to grow just enough for a household’s
In the UK, we each eat an average of nearly 50kg wheat in a year. Say you want to produce enough for a household of four: that would require maybe a tenth of an acre – a plot 50 yards by 10 yards in size. Way bigger than your usual garden, but miniscule compared to modern arable fields. I live in a community by the River Stour where we collectively farm 70 acres, within which I found a strip of land about half that size to experiment with.
Modern industrial agriculture is amazing; its constant leaps in productivity rely on new and better machines, new techniques and continual improvement of varieties. These are bred repeatedly to provide a crop that the machines can handle well. But unless you have half a million pounds worth of combine harvester, new varieties may not suit you. They tend to be fussier than old varieties, needing the right nutrients and weed control regime to produce optimum results. Partly fuelled by artisan bakers, and many people discovering intolerances to contemporary wheat, there has been a resurgence in interest in recent years in old varieties of wheat, and in landraces – a mix of different varieties grown together, rather than a field full of plants each with an identical genetic makeup.
You might be familiar with pearl barley – this is a barley grown for human consumption (most barley grown in this country is for feeding animals and for brewing beer) that has been through a machine to remove the hulls – a hard outer casing on each and every grain. Pioneers in this country have started in the last three years to grow ‘naked barley’ again. The yield is thought to be lower than modern barley varieties, but it does not require that stage of processing to make it good for human consumption. This is what I decided to experiment with.
I waited until the winter rains had finished, and the ground had dried out enough to work and then cultivated my plot (with a tractor and power harrow, because we have that equipment and it would be purist and perverse not to take advantage of it. That said, I spent as much time attaching the harrow to the tractor, and turning at the end of each row, as I did actually cultivating the plot.) I marked out some lines with sticks and string, and used a manual push- along seed dispenser to sow each row of barley seed. I did this during that magical week in late March when it seemed summer had arrived. It has been cold ever since and no rain has fallen. I look each day to see if the seed has germinated. If I were a subsistence farmer I might be praying by now, or sacrificing to the gods.
My hope is that the soil will warm up and that April showers will cause tiny roots and shoots to burst out of the buried grains, and I will have rows of barley popping up. I imagine having to hoe between the rows once or twice, to hold back the weeds that I know are lurking, but I hope that, once established, the barley will out-compete them. I can already picture a golden summer’s day with scythes, harvesting the barley and gathering it into stooks to dry out, and then bringing it into a barn to thresh and winnow. All being well, we will harvest a hundredweight or two of grain to last us the year. Even if reaping, threshing and winnowing with hand tools prove too difficult for us, we have chickens that will gladly glean the plot for us, so the efforts will not all be wasted.
Cliff Jordan. April 2021