In October of last year, I planted an heirloom wheat variety called Frassinetto. In this posting, I'll let you know the results of this experiment as well as explain how to thresh, winnow and store the grain.
Frassinetto is a variety of wheat from Italy that is reported to produce excellent flour for pasta. It is rarely grown today because modern varieties of wheat are so much more productive. For example, a trial done by the University of California in 2009, measured the yield of various wheat varieties and Frassinetto proved to be one of the least productive -- about 1500 pounds of dry grain per acre versus modern wheats that produce from 5,000 to 7,600 pounds per acre. ( Click on the below table to see the data on various wheat varieties.)
To put this in perspective, the 100 square foot plot that I set aside for my wheat would produce only 3.5 pounds of dry grain if I got the same results as those in the University of California's trial. As noted in the table, Frassinetto grows to 55 inches, much taller than modern varieties that reach only 30-40 inches in height. Frassinetto's height is not an advantage, it is easily blown down by the wind and this seems to explain in part why this variety is lower yielding. In the trial, about 40% of the Frassinetto plants tipped over, a condition called "lodging."
An Attempt To Improve Frassinetto's Yield
To try to maximize my yield, I provided support for the wheat plants. I placed stakes in the field every few feet and then ran twine between the stakes at about 18 and 36 inches above the ground. The wheat seeds would grow through this lattice work and it was my hope that they would provide enough support to prevent the wheat from tipping over in the wind. As it turned out, this system did help a good amount of wheat still lodged; I didn't measure this in a rigorous way, but I would guess about 15% lodging versus 40% in the University of California's trial.
As mentioned above, if I got the same yield as that achieved in the University of California trial I could expect to harvest about 3.5 pounds of Frassinetto. As it turned out, I harvested 5.2 pounds, 49% better than the trial. But my experience also shows that while adding support improves Frassinetto's yield, the varieity still yields far less grain than modern wheat varieties. In theory, I might have harvested 14-17 pounds of dry grain from the same plot if I had chosen a modern wheat.
How to Shock, Thresh and Winnow Grain
Wheat should be harvested when the head of the wheat has turned yellow or tan/brown. If you remove some of the seeds and rub them in your hands, the grain will feel hard. The shape of the grain head is also a good indication since it will begins to bend towards the ground as the plant prepares to release the grain seeds.
If you want to harvest a bit early or if some of the grain is not quite ready, you can "shock" the grain and allow it to dry for a few weeks in the sun.
Shocking is the process of tying the grain into small bundles and stacking them up in the field. This is the way grain was harvested for thousands of years before modern machinery came into existence. (see below painting by Vincent Van Gogh and my versions of the same)
Once the wheat is dry you need to remove the grain from the grain heads, a process called threshing. Traditionally this was done with a flail. The grain is laid down on a sheet and beaten with this simple wooden implement.
There are many variations on how to thresh. I've seen people step on the grain with their shoes, place the grain in a pillow case and thresh by hitting the outside of the pillow case with a rolling pin, and even one gent who created a threshing device from a bucket and a chain. The chain was attached to an electric drill then this was inserted into a bucket that was filled with wheat heads. The spinning chain struck the grain and dislodged the grain from the chaff.
I tried the pillow case method and found it very inefficient. So I tried stepping on the grain with a pair of sneakers. The treads in the sneakers did a remarkably good job or stripping away the chaff and was a fine method for small harvests like mine.
After threshing, your left with a large pile of wheat seeds mixed with chaff. The chaff is the dry seed casings. To seperate the wheat from the chaff, lay a sheet or tarp on the ground. Set up an electric fan at one end of the tarp and turn it on. Then drop the grain and chaff mixture in front of the fan. The wind created by the fan will carry off the lighter chaff, while the heavier grain will drop right in front of the fan where it will collect on the sheet. You can then scoop up the grain. In practice, I found that running the grain/chaff through this fanning process twice did the trick.
To store the grain, place it in a plastic bag or vacuum seal bag and drop it in the freezer. In my next posting, I'll explain how to grind the grain and provide a recipe for whole wheat pasta.