Have you ever wondered about growing grain but were discouraged by visions of combines and gravity wagons? Don’t be. Though typically produced by large-scale field production, grain crops can be grown successfully on a much smaller scale.
The key is identifying the right crop(s) for your homestead.
A Grain, By Any Other Name
Cereal grain crops are members of the grass (Poaceae) family that are cultivated for their seed in large quantities as dietary staples. These dry grains include corn, wheat, rice, sorghum and more. However, other seed crops of similar importance aren’t members of the grass family.
Pulses (also dry beans or dry grain legumes) are bean (Fabaceae) family members and include cowpeas, favas, garbanzos, soybeans and numerous others.
You’ll also find grain crops termed pseudocereals or broadleafs. The three principle ones are buckwheat (family Polygonaceae), quinoa and amaranth (the latter two both of the Amaranthaceae family).
Though not strict cereal grains, the value of these two groups as foodstuffs and as plants that fill agricultural niches different from those of the true grains are why they’re certainly deserving of attention on the homestead and are included here.
Grains produce some of the greatest quantities of calories and protein possible in the garden. Grains (except corn) will withstand low soil fertility levels better than vegetables. This is valuable if it allows you to successfully produce foodstuffs while working to improve the quality of your soil.
At the same time, they’ll improve your quality of eating. Freshly ground grain is a truly superior product.
Different grains have various agricultural benefits to their characters. Pulses will add nitrogen to the soil. True cereals return much of what they took from the soil to it as soil-building biomass.
Another important aspect of grains is they can feed your livestock as well as your family, and not just with their seed. Corn and sorghum leaves are frequently used as cattle fodder.
Additionally, grain storability matters. While other harvests from the homestead need suitably preservation (via canning, dehydrating, etc.), you can store properly harvested grain simply for a comparatively long time.
Finally, there are many situations when grain crops need not replace produce production on your homestead. Rather, you can use them to complement and enhance it.
Utilizing intercropping—corn, beans and squash, for example—and double cropping (following an early vegetable crop with pulses or buckwheat; planting a late summer vegetable after you have harvested overwintered barley, rye or wheat; etc.) are excellent ways to add yield to each square foot and variety to your overall harvest.
The Whole (Grain) Picture
Let’s start at the beginning. You will hear that grain crops can be broadcast planted. But for the homestead, you’ll want neat rows.
Weed control, intercropping, harvesting—many aspects of grain production are made easier when you drill seed into a block of closely spaced rows. A hand seeder used for vegetable seeds will work very well. You must, however, select—and make note of!—the plates you use.
Beet/chard/spinach plate(s) are the right place to begin, using seed size as your guide.
When growing grains in a small space, controlling the weeds that can affect your final yield becomes all-important. In addition to row cultivation, you can use management practices to reduce weed pressure. For example, grow grain crops that germinate and grow quickly (such as buckwheat and corn) where weed issues may occur. They will better outcompete them.
Slow-growing crops, such as wheat, are less able to compete. So only plant these into areas with in-hand weed population. This is where alternating vegetable and grain crops (such as a winter crop planted to follow a well-managed vegetable plot) is particularly effective.
Rye offers a special use in weed control, too. The grain has an allelopathic ability to mitigate weed germination and growth, and you can use it as a green manure to clear the way for other crops.
Additionally, self-sufficiency pioneer Will Bonsall mulches his grain crops with chopped leaves, radical though it may sound!
You need to examine grain varieties closely before choosing so you select ones suitable for your climate and needs. Plus, you need to get your timing correct.
Early planting is good for cereal grains—often the earlier, the better. (They’re hardy seeds, much more so than most vegetables.) They are very day-length sensitive, meaning that once the days begin to shorten they’ll want to produce seed, and the larger they have grown by this point the better positioned they’ll be.
Some quinoas and other amaranths are affected by day length as well. Both are very hardy and should also be planted as soon as possible.
Additionally, as with vegetables, you need to consider the days-to-maturity factor. This will often impact any pulse planting you may do, as DTMs will vary greatly with variety. Pulses also need warmed soil when planted, making early planting challenging.
As you sift through the world of grain growing, you’ll encounter words you may not know but will need to understand. For example, open-pollinated refers to seeds that will produce plants that produce seed roughly identical to the originals. Therefore, you can save seed from such plants to grow another crop.
This is not the case with hybrid seed.
Tillers are lateral shoots at the base of a stem which can root and send up stems of their own, each with grain. Grasses will tiller, which influences the spacing of your plants as you balance the yield tradeoff of closer spacing/more individual plants/few tillers and wider spacing/fewer individual plants/more tillers.
Lodging is when the stalks of a standing crop fall over. It’s very important as it can make the job of harvesting difficult to impossible. However, it’s more easily dealt with when harvesting by hand as long as the quality of the seed has not been compromised by its proximity to the ground (i.e., made damp or overly dirty).
The hull is the outer covering of a seed, while threshing is the separation of seed from plant. Tenacious hulls can add to the challenge of getting grains ready to eat. Those of barley and oats are notably stubborn—which is why there are hull-less varieties—and buckwheat hulls are challenging also.
Conversely, sorghum and quinoa hulls are easily removed, while amaranths have none. Nor are all grains threshed with the same ease, with wheat—though not all of its ancient brethren—and rye being the easiest.
Watch for all of these words as you further examine grains and varieties.
A Sundry of Seeds
How much grain do you have to grow? Well, to give you an idea, you can reasonably expect to harvest one bushel of wheat from a 10-by-109-foot plot. And a bushel of wheat will make about 50 single-pound loaves of bread.
But that is just wheat. What other grains should you raise?
Corn or Maize (Zea mays)
If you want to ease your way into the world of grains, corn production is the way to go. The culturing of dent corn is (not surprisingly) like that of sweet corn. You are simply harvesting at a different stage of growth.
It offers generous yields when compared to other grains, and harvesting and processing ears of corn is also quite easy by comparison. Corn requires more fertile soil than the crops that follow, so bear that in mind.
Wheat (Triticum aestivum)
The first grain most Westerners think of, wheat is a crop that grows (and threshes!) without much fuss. And it offers choices.
Wheat can be hard (high gluten) or soft (high starch), red or white, winter or spring, bearded or not, allowing you to select what you need. Other species of wheat that have their own characters (and often perform more reliably in low-input systems) include spelt (T. spelta), einkorn (T. monococcum), emmer (T. dicoccum) and Khorasan (T. turanicum).
Pulses (Fabaceae family, from a number of different genera)
Pulses are richer in protein than true grains and also contain substantial amounts of carbohydrates and calories. They grow best when given ample moisture. Though they don’t yield as heavily, pulse pods offer easier harvesting than grains.
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) all offer easy threshing, and more. Amaranth plants possess edible leaves. Quinoa is high in protein, while buckwheat is noted as an exceptionally nutritious grain and is especially high in lysine, an essential amino acid.
But they have their drawbacks, too. Buckwheat stems are quite brittle by harvest time and can perform their own version of lodging. Quinoa seeds are coated in saponin, making them unpalatable until washed. And collectively the seeds of pseudocereals don’t ripen on the plant all at once but in a staggered fashion, making your harvest time more subjective.
Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor)
Though somewhat lesser known, grain sorghum (often called milo) is especially worthwhile for the homesteader. Almost equal to corn in nutrient value (and with a similar plant appearance, though lacking ears), it will out produce it in dry climates. However, sorghum will struggle in humid conditions.
Yellow endosperm varieties are best for human, chicken and cattle consumption. Chickens also appreciate the grain harvested from sweet sorghum, the varieties from which sorghum syrup is squeezed from the canes.
Oats (Avena sativa)
Oats have the highest protein content of the true grains and are fairly equivalent with wheat in all-around nutrition. Liked by a multitude of animals (cattle, horses, sheep, rabbits and chickens), oats—as noted by Gene Logsdon, author of Small-Scale Grain Raising—offer a great way to prevent yourself from planting an unsuccessfully early vegetable garden!
Rye (Secale cereale)
While not high-yielding or particularly nutritious, rye germinates and grows well in very cool weather and is less demanding of soil nutrients than other grains.
Barley (Hordeum vulgare)
Highly adaptable, you can find a barley to grow almost anywhere. Available in many varieties of six-row and two-row (seed rows in the grain head) types, the intended use for your barley will influence the variety you grow. It can be grown for excellent animal feed as well as for human consumption for which it can be eaten whole, ground into flour or malted.
True cereals, pulses and pseudocereals dovetail together in crop rotations as well as the human diet, promoting soil and human health. Extremely versatile, they offer a harvested food for this year and seed for the next, all in one motion.
Whether ground for flour, soaked as porridge or used whole in soup, you should give homegrown grains a seat at the table and a plot in the garden.
Germ of an Idea
Grain crops are for more than flour. Many have a variety of uses.
Sorghum can be divided into a third category commonly known as broomcorn (and is either S. bicolor or S. vulgare). The seeds are edible, but more commonly, stalk and seeds are a popular autumn decoration. And stripping the plant of seeds leaves you with the beginnings of a broom!
Though grain varieties grown for food can be fairly attractive in their own right, you can try varieties that provide even greater eye candy and are still edible. Days to maturity permitting, try Utrecht Blue wheat, Glass Gem corn and Cherry Vanilla quinoa, just to name a few.
Get Hopping … with Popping!
Yes, growing grains can mean growing popcorn. And note that for something different (and tasty), many people will also pop barley, sorghum, buckwheat and quinoa.
You need not consume your grains as flour alone. Several seeds, including wheat, its related species and a variety of beans, are used to produce sprouts, most popularly for salads.
But don’t keep them to yourself. Sprouted barley, oats and wheat are often fed to animals, providing them more nutrition than the grain alone (as is the case for humans).
Flowering buckwheat and quinoa are very appealing to honeybees and native pollinators (including butterflies), another incentive to grow them.
Back to Earth-ers
Grains as cover crops and green manures for protecting soil that would otherwise be exposed to weathering and being returned to the soil (with an accumulation of nutrients and biomass) are roles buckwheat, oats and rye often step into. For these plantings, your harvest isn’t grain but health for the soil.
You will respond positively! Grain is only a portion of the harvest from the true cereals. There is also straw, but beware. Some varieties are intended to not produce a significant straw harvest. Straw can be used as garden mulch, livestock fodder and bedding, even for …
Many nations have traditional crafts that utilize straw. Whether it’s the British wheat braid, the German oat straw stars and snowflakes for Christmas, or the Swedish Yule goat, straw crafting is worth a look.
For more extensive, in-depth reading about grain growing,
check out the following books:
Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon, especially if you’re interested in slightly larger small-scale and/or have animals as part of your homestead equation
Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening by Will Bonsall, if you’re interested in grains but also (more importantly) minimal fossil fuel and animal inputs gardening in general
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.