Rice, Corn, & Barley Harvest

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It’s been awhile since the grains have been harvested so it’s time to prepare them for consumption. Longest in preparation will be barley.

The barley is from last year’s harvest, and the grain-laden stalks have been bundled together and hanging from a kitchen rafter since then. I’ve procrastinated processing because of last year’s frustrations in trying to thresh wheat, also grown last year; the grains clung tenaciously to their stalks and no amount of battering would thoroughly separate them. I’ve also procrastinated because the bundle of barley’s tawny brown stems, with long, delicate, spiky awns emerging from the heads, look so decorative dangling upside down near the kitchen ceiling.

A bare spot now remains where the barley once hung. Earlier today, after being stuffed into a pillowcase and batted against a brick wall, the stalks easily released their plump grains. I separated the grain rom the chaff by pouring the grains back and forth between two buckets in a slight breeze, and soon had the whole crop cleaned.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, my barley crop wasn’t measured in tons or even bushels. I had planted a 3 foot by 3 foot area and reaped a quarter of a pound. Consulting my 1914 “Farmer’s Cyclopedia of Agriculture,” an acre of barley (back then and in Iowa) averaged 45 bushels of barley, or 1,800 pounds, which would translate to a bit over one-third of a pound for my 9 square foot plot. Respectable for my first try.
The end-product for my crop will be beer. More specifically, the goal was to find out how much barley to grow to make a 6-pack. My next step, then, is to malt the barley. More on that at a later date . . .
I “hauled in” the rice harvest back in early October, all 40 grams of it. That 40 grams was not a bad yield considering that I got the seedlings started late; that I only planted a 2 foot by 3 foot bed of it; that it was growing under dryland conditions, which yields less than wetland rice; and the variety I planted, Hayayuki, is a wetland variety. Still, it was fun.
The aforementioned limitations are nothing compared to the limitation in preparing the rice for consumption. Like most other grains, rice has a hull that needs to be removed before the grain can be eaten. (The hull is no impediment with barley for malting because what’s used for beer is maltose-laden water that is leached through the sprouted, cracked grain.) Hullers are available for small-scale grain processing, but are neither economical nor capable of handling nano-yields such as my 40 grams.
A conversation with Ben Falk (, who had given me the seeds and has harvested over 100 pounds of rice in Vermont, did not leave me optimistic about getting off those hulls. (He has a small huller.) No need for me to try cracking them off with a rolling pin, boiling them and hoping they would float up to be skimmed off, or toasting — he’d already tried all that.
Years ago, I got a Solis coffee grinder that does an adjustable grind. How about setting the Solis to barely grind the rice, just enough to crack off the hulls? The problem is that the largest setting was a bit too small for the rice grains. Still, no other options presented themselves. What I now have is cracked rice. I cooked some; the flavor was very bland, even for rice.
It isn’t only a lot more growing experience that is responsible for my much more successful crop of a third grain: corn. Corn is easier to grow, to harvest, and to process than other grains on a home garden scale. I grow popcorn and polenta corn in addition to, of course, sweet corn, the latter considered a vegetable because it’s eaten “green,” that is, before full maturity.
It’s with good reason that corn has been such a success for so long here in the Americas. The grains are large, they come packed together in a single ear, and that ear is covered by one easily shucked husk. Corn is such a successful cultivated grain that it can’t even survive in the wild. An ear dropped to the ground would sprout too many seedlings so close together that they would be stunted fighting each other for water, light, and nutrients.
Processing popcorn and polenta corn entails nothing more than picking it, pulling back the husk, and hanging it from kitchen rafters until ready for use. Giving a ear an “indian burn” snaps off kernels for popping or grinding.
One more home-grown grain rounds out my larder. Chestnuts. They’re not actually a grain but are a uniquely starchy nut so fulfill much the same purpose as any grain in the diet. Chestnuts have the advantages of being perennial, borne on an attractive tree, and, because they bloom late and have few pests, bearing reliably.
Chestnut preparation is easy: One cut crosswise about half way through each nut, then roasting in a hot oven for about 30 minutes. Delicious.

Three Fermentations

Here it is, 9:10 am in the morning, and I already feel very accomplished. Three fermentations are well under way. It’s fun and tasty working with our microbial friends.

The fun began last night when I scooped out a half a soup spoon’s worth of sourdough starter from a jar in the refrigerator to add to a mix of 3 cups of whole wheat flour, one and a quarter cups of water, and 1/8 cup of maple syrup. That sourdough starter is in its third year — here, at least. I carried it, dried, on a paper towel, back from Alaska, a gift from a friend there who said its caretaker’s ancestry traces back at least 100 years to . . .  was it governor or captain someone? I’ve kept the starter refreshed by stirring a teaspoonful of it every week or two with an eighth cup each of flour and water, and incubating it. The microbial population, a mix of various species of Lactobacillus bacteria and Saccharomyces yeast fungi, has no doubt shifted under my care; whatever the present population, it makes fine loaves of bread.

Back to the bread . . . I mix it in a breadmaker or by hand for a minute or so, incubate it 12 to 18 hours (depending on the temperature), dust it with flour and give it two light folds, let it rise again for a couple of hours, and then throw it (almost literally, and the hardest part) into a pre-heated baking dish from a 450° oven. Into the oven it goes: thirty minutes covered, 15 minutes uncovered, and voilá. Delicious, hearty, fragrant bread.

What’s this got to do with gardening? I wish I could report that I grew the wheat. I tried, last summer. Yields were lower than expected, exacerbated in part by difficulty in threshing it. Kernels were reluctant to part with seedheads despite severe batting of the heads in a pillowcase. I’ll try again, and hope to grow at least enough for one loaf of bread.
One of my sourdough yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, was invited to my second fermentation, the preparations for which began much earlier this morning. Actually, this second yeast was more probably a relative of the sourdough yeast, a different strain or species, one best suited to fermenting malt syrup into alcohol. The finished product, in this case, will be beer. Saccharomyces cerevisiae came in a sealed packet from a store although beers have been made by mere capture of wild yeasts floating around in the air.

The first step in my brewing was to boil malt extract with hops. I have grown barley, from which malt can be made. Note the “can be;” my barley crop of last year is still hanging, stems and all, from a kitchen rafter. I bought the malt extract rather than go through the threshing, sprouting, toasting, cracking, and sparging steps needed to extract malt from barley. Hops is easier; all you need is the dried seed heads. I grow hops, a decorative and fragrant plant, which is all my young plant is thus far. I also bought hops.

I did go out to the garden after the 45 minute boil to gather black currant leaves and clove currant fruits. These two aromatic plants, steeped along with more hops in the cooling malt-hop mix, will add a subtle and unique flavor to the batch of beer. 

Once diluted to 2 gallons, poured into a glass carboy, and cooled, the mix was spiked with the yeast. An airlock tube with water in it lets carbon dioxide exit without letting air in.

It’s now 1:30 pm in the afternoon, and already bubbling noises from the airlock offer evidence that the Saccharomyces are happily at work. Well, not working, just eating. In two weeks, they will have digested all they can and the brew will be ready for bottling.

Around here, compost-making — the third fermentation du jour, is always in progress. Composting is perhaps the most complicated and the easiest of all the fermentations.

This evening, I plan to get some manure to feed the panoply of microbes that call the compost piles home. Not that manure is necessary for making good compost. Basically, all that’s needed is any organic material, which is anything that is or was living. Microbes in my piles have been eating old lettuce plants, pulled weeds, banana and orange peels from the kitchen, some coarse, weedy hay I cut with my scythe, and occasional sprinklings of ground limestone, kelp, and soil.

Fermentation in the compost differs from that in sourdough bread and beer in that conditions and foodstuffs are always changing. If I add a bunch of material at once, temperatures within the pile rise rapidly, up to about 150° F. Different kinds of fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes become prominent within different temperature ranges. Also, different microbes become dominant depending on what foods I add to the pile and their stages of decomposition. For instance, old cornstalks are rich in lignin, which only certain fungi can use as food; once the fungi have gone to work on that lignin, certain bacteria might move in to work on byproducts, which include dead fungi.

Compost happens quickest when just the right balance of food, moisture, and air exist within a pile. The nice thing about making compost, though, is that whatever goes into the pile eventually becomes compost no matter what the foodstuffs or conditions. Sooner or later, compost happens

Compost is not, of course, for eating, but spread on the soil makes for some mighty tasty fruits and vegetables.

The fun part of working with these microbes is not only the tasty products that result, but the congenial blend of art and science that get you there.