For most grains, you can do it with scissors or pruning shears and a bucket: simply cut the seed head off the plant and put it in the bucket. Scythes and sickles work well too.
To thresh, the seed kernels should be hard enough that you can't make an indent with your fingernail: if the grain is too soft, let it dry out in a greenhouse or a dry, hot place until it's ready.
Amaranth: shake or rub the seed heads to loosen the seed into a bucket, then dry the seeds indoor on trays for at least one week. When the seeds are rock hard, they are ready to thresh.
Quinoa: cut the seed heads off and put them in a bucket or lie them on a tarp somewhere warm and dry until you get around to threshing them.
1,100 sq.ft. (about 1/40 of an acre) of land should yield 60lbs of organically grown wheat.
1,100 sq.ft. (or 1/40 of an acre) of land has yielded 50-150lbs of organically grown quinoa in the Cowichan Valley.
Quinoa seeds are naturally coated with saponin, which one grainy has said tastes like dandelion milk (ew). There are machines out there to get the coating off, but here in Canada quinoa growers usually use the washing machine method:
- run your washing machine through a cycle with vinegar instead of laundry detergent, to clean out any soap residue.
- place the quinoa seed in a pillow case and tie it shut.
- using just the water, run your washing machine through 2-3 cycles with the pillowcase of quinoa inside.
- taste the quinoa seed to check that it's saponin-free.
- when the saponin's been washed off, empty the seed onto trays and dry before storing.
If you plant in the fall, the grain will get a head-start before the chilly winter hits. This may result in a stronger plant and therefore a better yield at harvest time (approx. 20%). You also might be able to harvest a few weeks earlier (e.g. July/August instead of August/September).
IMPORTANT: Note that some cereal grains simply won't survive cold winter temperatures (e.g. oats, quinoa, amaranth), so must be planted in the spring.
Note: due to the various micro-climates on our West Coast, these are approximate times to plant. Experiment to find what works for you.
Oats: as early as you can get onto the soil in the New Year, or "whenever the mud dries enough in the spring to be workable," as Gene Logsdon says. Possibly late February, depending on your micro-climate and soil.
Spring-planted rye: early March.
Quinoa: April. Don't try to overwinter quinoa, since it doesn't like being wet.
Spring Wheats: April.
Kamut (Polish wheat): April.
Winter Wheats: September/October.
Fall-planted Rye: October.
Aside from some moisture to help the seed germinate (which won't take long), grains don't need to be watered. If there's an especially hot, dry day then feel free to provide some water: trickle tape or a drip irrigation system is ideal. Too much water will cause grains to grow too tall, at which point they may fall over (called "lodging").
Quinoa is traditionally grown in regions with less than 3.5 inches of rain/year; drought actually produces larger seed heads.
It's common to make juice from wheat grass (ideally around 14 days after germination), and the young leaves of amaranth and quinoa are both delicious and nutritious (calcium and iron). When the leaves get older, steam them to make them more palatable.
Barley: late June, early July.
Wheat: August (fall-sown wheat and Kamut can usually be harvested in early August). To thresh, the seed kernels should be hard enough that you can't make an indent with your fingernail: if the grain is too soft, let it dry out in a greenhouse or a dry, hot place until it's ready.
Rye: July for fall-sown rye. We haven't tried planting rye in the spring for harvest so don't know how long it would take to mature.
Flax: early August. Shake the stalks and you'll hear the seeds "jingle" in their spherical seedpods.
Buckwheat: late September.
Amaranth: "when the birds start pecking at your amaranth plants, it's time to harvest," says Dan Jason (i.e. late September). If you leave the seed on the plant too long, they will harden and it will be extremely difficult to thresh. Shake or rub the seed heads to loosen the seed into a bucket, then dry the seeds indoor on trays for at least one week. When they are rock hard, they are ready to thresh.
Quinoa: September/October. Feel the seed heads: if the seeds feel like hard balls, they're ready to harvest.
Easy-to-Thresh Grains vs. Not So Easy
An important first step for the small-scale grower is choosing grain varieties that can be threshed without modern machinery, since some grains grow surrounded by a tough, hard-to-remove outer "husk" or "hull." Some recommendations for easily-threshed grains are:
- hull-less oats (these oats do have a "hull" or "husk," but it's easier to remove than that of the usual oat varieties)
- hull-less or "faust" barley
- Marquis wheat
- Red Fife wheat
- triticale (cross between rye and wheat)
Some varieties that are notoriously difficult to thresh are:
How to Thresh Grains
Small-scale threshing can be done by hand as needed (e.g. if you want a few cups of grain to make a loaf of bread or meal).
Low-tech options include:
- placing the seed heads in a pillowcase and beating them with a shoe (see the video below), or
- placing the seed heads on a tarp and beating them with a rubber hose, plastic bat, or other "flail."
Dan Jason's Threshing Box
You can also use a threshing box based on Dan Jason's model, shown in the video below:
Lawrence's Threshing Machine
Many thanks to Lawrence for sending us information on his invention, and the photos! To see all of the photos Lawrence sent us, please click here.
I built a round drum like a pac man. This was built with scrap pieces of 1" plywood for the sides. Scrap pieces of 1/4" plywood for the outer curve. Two light hinges I had in a jar from something or other. The inside is lined with diamond pattern round baler belting.
I then made an axel and attached two pieces of the same baler belt with lots of length to rub on the inside. The axel is scrap closet rod.
Like any homemade project I was so anxious to finish just to see if it would work that some of the fine work was sacrificed. Next time I would soak the 1/4" outer plywood for longer than three minutes. May crack less when attaching to the round sides.
Pre-drill everything before screwing so the plywood doesn't split.
I would hope that nobody ever follows this example exactly. There should be at least half a million people who would add bearings on the axel. Another half million would put a pulley and add a motor. Some might figure a way to automatically screen the grain from it and on and on.
The heavy duty chest closers cost $14 and the baler belt was $50 for about 8'.
I used this to thresh Ethiopian Blue Tinge. Using garden shears I cut only heads into the drum, so no straw.
I'm still looking for a fanning mill, but in the meantime southern Alberta wind is performing some of this task.
Here's another great idea for a homemade thresher/winnower:
How to Thresh Quinoa
Put on a glove to protect your hand (a rubber kitchen glove will do) and run the seed head through your fingers, scraping off the seeds into a bucket.
How to Winnow Grains
The next step is to separate the grain seeds from the rest of the plant matter (the "chaff"). Traditionally this is done by placing the mix in a bowl and tossing it into the air, where a breeze can blow away the lighter chaff.
Helen Reid uses a blow drier (be sure to wear eye protection and use the "cool" setting so you don't heat the seed too much). Dan Jason uses an air compressor.