Thursday, June 16, 2011

Winnow? Thresh?

What do these words really mean?

Eager to get a better understanding of early agricultural societies, two years ago I decided to grow my own wheat.  By hand, I planted winter wheat and rye in the fall of 2009.  This was just an experiment, I wasn't trying to live off of it, so I planted only a total of ~40 to 50 square feet of each.

By late June 2010, the wheat and rye were ready to harvest.  We grabbed big handfuls of the stalks and cut them off.  Then, we lay all the wheat out on a tarp, and I beat it with a stick.  This gave me a physical understanding of what it means to thresh wheat.  You've got to beat it pretty hard to get all the wheat kernels to fall off the stalk.  (This would not be a very adaptive trait for wild wheat, since the kernels wouldn't get dispersed easily.  In fact, the kernels of wild wheat would fall out easily, on their own.  But when humans began to gather the wheat, they inadvertently started a breeding program, since there were more likely to collect kernels of those genetic strains that happened to hold on to the kernels more tightly.)

I used a broomstick, and it took about 20 minutes of whacking the wheat to finish my threshing job.  On close inspection, I still found a few kernels attached to the stalks, but enough had fallen off to satisfy me.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Now I had a pile of wheat stalks on top of the kernels of grain, and I needed to separate out the grain.

The first step was easy - I just lifted all the stalks of grain.  But the grain that was left was mixed in with tiny, hard, nonedible pieces.  These inedible pieces are much lighter than the kernels, so the idea is you can slowly pour the whole mixture from one pot to another and the wind will blow the light "chaff" away.  This is called winnowing.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a very windy day.  So we improvised, using a tool early farmers didn't have access to.  The fan did a fantastic job, and with just a few pours, all the chaff was removed.

From Innovation Bootcamp

I was left with about three quarts total of grain for all the work.  Since I don't yet have a grain grinder, I cooked it as simple wheat berries, which make a great addition to salads.

From Innovation Bootcamp

This year, some volunteer wheat and rye has grown up where we threw the stalks.  I'm wondering if I dedicated some permanent space to growing grain, if I could get a harvest each year without any planting, just by allowing some of the grain to reseed itself.  I have a better understanding now of how early hunter/gatherers got the same idea.

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