We began grinding our own flour by chance, not design. We didn’t start small either; we started with 10,000 pounds of hard red winter wheat.
Our small family farm lay nestled in the rolling hills of western Wisconsin. When the late summer sun rose over the field to the east of our weathered farmhouse, the morning rays seemed to dance between the ripened heads of wheat. It was such a spectacular sight we had a name for it, the golden dawn.
It wasn’t a large harvest by most standards, a few thousand pounds. Each year we grew a few acres of wheat to sell at the local mill. The money went into our winter fun account (a coffee can in the cupboard). We had done this for years.
This year was different.
When harvest time rolled around the gravity boxes and combine were full with hard red winter wheat. It was time to bring the crop to the mill. Wayne went off to town on the tractor, towing a full gravity box behind him. That’s how he returned too, with a full gravity box.
The mill wasn’t buying our wheat this year.
Wayne didn’t know. They just weren’t buying it.
Well, there had to be somebody else. Wayne got on the horn and began calling mills, first in Wisconsin, then in Minnesota, then in Iowa. No one was buying our wheat and no one was telling us why.
Finally, a young man in a feed mill somewhere in South Dakota explained the situation to Wayne. The Atkins diet was the national rage at the time; the mills were only buying wheat low in nutritional value because it was also low in carbohydrates. People could eat products made from it while on the diet. Crimson wheat, the variety we had grown for years, was nutritionally complete, they couldn’t use it.
We should have known something was up the previous fall when we had difficulty finding Crimson wheat seed. They weren’t carrying it at our local mill but promised to look for some. When they came up empty handed we were left to search for it on our own. Wayne finally stumbled across enough to do the job in South Dakota, where the variety originated.
Now we understood why we couldn’t find it. The manufacturers and processors were demanding a nutritionally inferior product, so farmers had to grow sub-standard wheat to meet the demand. The only seed commercially available was the kind that produced a less nutritious grain.
We were stuck with five tons of high quality wheat and no where to sell or store it.
Faced with this colossal dilemma, we came to the only conclusion reasonable people could. We were going to have to use it.
Various ideas were tossed around. Neighbors, who by now were well aware of our quandary, came by to offer up solutions. We could use it as feed for our hogs, steers, and chickens. Good idea.
We could plant it and use it as green manure in the fields. Good idea.
We could grind it into flour and put some in with our CSA shares or sell it at the farmer’s market. Great idea.
At the time we operated the area’s largest CSA/market garden. We could certainly get rid of hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds of flour through our members alone. Things were looking up, for the moment.
We had toyed with the idea of grinding our own flour once before. We even spent $70 on a small flour mill that attached to the table top. The idea was abandoned when it took 10 minutes of serious hand cranking to produce one cup of coarse flour. We decided to buy bulk whole wheat flour from our local co-op instead.
Now, as we looked our crisis straight in the face, it became apparent we were not going to grind any real quantity of flour with a tiny table top grinder.
An extensive search for a quality, affordable flour mill landed us at the virtual doorstep of the Wild West Machine Company (www.wildwestmachine.com). Here we found just the grinder we were looking for at a fair price.
When our Grainmaker arrived Wayne removed the large handle and attached an electric motor. We were in business, almost.
There was still the problem of how to clean such an enormous amount of wheat. Sure it had been run through the combine, but it needed to be cleaned at least once more before we could grind it.
Blowing in the wind
Quick thinking and inventive neighbors yielded a method of cleaning wheat that worked well.
Using two sterilized five gallon plastic buckets, a simple box fan, and a kitchen chair, we were able to clean a fair amount of grain. One bucket was filled with wheat. The other bucket was placed on the ground beneath the box fan that was positioned on a kitchen chair in the front yard. We turned the fan on medium and poured the wheat in front of it. The chaff blew off and the wheat landed in the bucket. We did this a couple of times and voilà–clean wheat ready for grinding.
A five-gallon bucket holds about forty pounds of wheat. Each pail of wheat had to be poured in front of the fan at least two times to get it completely clean. While this bare bones method was effective, it was also time consuming, taking up to 20 minutes to completely clean a full bucket.
Word spread about our fresh ground whole wheat flour. Orders started pouring in for five, 10, even 50 pounds. Each day we cleaned wheat for hours. We were grateful and awed at our Forest Gump moment but we were having trouble keeping up with demand.
A little help from our friends
One afternoon I was furiously cleaning wheat in the front yard when Dave, our neighbor and auction hound, lumbered up our gravel driveway in his pick-up. He had something big, wooden, and red in the back.
“Hey, look what I got for you guys,” he hollered as he sprang from the cab.
It was for us? I wasn’t sure what it was or why he was so certain we needed it but he sure was tickled pink about the whole thing.
Dave was trying to explain to me what the 1940′s era antique Clipper fanning mill did when Wayne came to see what was going on. When he saw it in the back of Dave’s truck his face lit up.
“Where’d you find it?” he asked.
“An auction,” Dave grinned. He launched into a full featured account of his auction victory. We hovered around the truck as Dave explained how he deftly outbid an antique dealer because he knew we needed it.
The relic still worked and it came with all the original screens.
I still didn’t understand why this old fanning mill was so important. They were more than happy to explain it to me, in unison.
A fanning mill uses vibration to clean seed. This one was in excellent condition and came with dozens of screens to clean even tiny clover seed. It would also clean wheat for seed or for grinding. We could clean more wheat faster which meant we could easily keep up with growing demand.
With the arrival of the fanning mill the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. By the time winter rolled around we had sold over a ton of ground whole wheat flour. We were able to sell a few tons as seed to other small farmers in our area, the rest we kept to use as green manure seed for next year and flour for ourselves and others.
The wheat scene
The difference between winter and spring wheat is a source of confusion for many people who are considering growing their own grains. The distinction is a genetic one.
Winter wheat requires exposure to temperatures below 32 degrees for at least six weeks after germination to produce grain. Before it reaches its reproductive stage it goes dormant for the winter, resuming rapid growth in spring. Because of this, winter wheat is planted in late summer or early fall. Winter wheat varieties are the perfect choice for northern growers.
Spring wheat will die if exposed to temperatures below 14 degrees for more than 12 hours. It is sown in spring and harvested in late fall. Spring wheat varieties do well in the south.
Then there’s the issue of hard and soft wheat. The terms “hard” and “soft” refer to the texture of the wheat kernel itself.
Hard wheat is high in gluten making it more absorbent than soft wheat. Commercially hard wheats are used for making rising breads, pasta and other products such as pie crusts which require optimum dough development.
Soft wheat contains less gluten and retains less moisture than hard varieties. Processors use soft wheat for pizza dough, cookies, biscuits, cakes and pancake mixes.
Over the years we have experimented with many varieties of wheat. Each grows, grinds, and tastes slightly different. While mindful of these distinctions, the type of wheat doesn’t dictate what it becomes in our kitchen. We have made bread from soft spring wheat and cookies from hard red winter wheat. Both turned out beautifully.
Unlike its commercially bleached and processed counter-part, whole wheat flour can sustain life–human life and insect life. We grind about 50 pounds at a time for our personal use and store it in the freezer to keep pests out and to reduce spoilage.
Untreated whole wheat flour can go bad. The whole grain contains the germ. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of opening a jar of rancid wheat germ knows what this smells like. For this reason it is important not to store untreated flour at room temperature for more than a week or so.
Groovy baby, groovy
After years of experimenting we came up with a few basic recipes that can be adapted for any type of wheat.
Groovy Roast Beef Gravy
Over medium heat, melt a half stick of butter (2 oz.) in a cast iron frying pan. Add 1/2 cup hard wheat flour or 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons soft wheat flour. The result should look like wet sand. Use a whisk to move the mixture around the pan constantly as it cooks. Cook 3-5 minutes for light gravy, 5-7 minutes for darker gravy. Add drippings from the roast beef and enough water to equal 1 to 1-1/2 cups to butter and flour mixture. Stir in 1 cup milk. Bring mixture to low boil, stirring constantly. Continue to simmer until desired consistency is reached. If using soft wheat in this recipe the gravy will have to simmer a few minutes longer to thicken properly.
2 cups hard whole wheat flour or 2-1/4 cups soft whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon lard or shortening. Add 2 tablespoons if using soft wheat.
1 teaspoon baking powder, 1-1/2 teaspoon for soft wheat.
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup warm water (110º to 115º)
Mix dry ingredients together first then cut in lard or shortening. Add half the water and begin mixing. Keep adding water until dough can be shaped into balls. Separate dough forming 10-12 small balls. Dust a clean dry surface with flour. Roll each ball into a thin tortilla using a rolling pin. Place each tortilla into a hot cast iron frying pan. Cook until tortilla begins to blister or puff up. Flip over and cook other side until it blisters. Stack tortillas on plate and cover with cloth towel.
3 cups whole wheat flour (1/4 more if using soft wheat)
1 cup lukewarm water
3 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon or 1 package dry yeast
2 teaspoons vegetable oil (1 tablespoon if using soft wheat)
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350º. In small bowl combine water, honey/syrup, yeast, and oil, stir and let stand at least 3 minutes to activate yeast. Combine flour and salt in large bowl. When yeast mixture appears to be bubbling, pour into flour and mix thoroughly. Knead dough for at least 10 minutes. Place dough in bowl and cover. Let rise in a warm place until dough has doubled in size. Punch down, remove from bowl and knead vigorously for at least 15 minutes. Place dough in a greased bread pan and let rise until doubled in size. Hard wheat will rise faster and better, producing a light fluffy loaf. Soft wheat will not rise as much and will produce a flatter, chewier bread. Bake in center of oven for 35-40 minutes.
Sock it to me
A while back I was at an upscale metropolitan grocery store trying to convince the produce manager to buy salad greens from our farm. On my way out I stopped by the bakery and purchased a loaf of very expensive “hand-crafted” bread to serve with our evening meal.
“Ick, what is this?” demanded our oldest son.
I explained it was fancy store bought bread, it was expensive. It was supposed be a treat.
“Tastes like paste,” he grumbled.