Sunday, January 27, 2013

When To Harvest

Harvesting Schedule … how’s our wheat coming along?

Not very long into the road trip, the voice from the back seat asks, “Are we there yet?”   We apprentice small grain growers also want to know:  “Is it grain yet?”

More than impatience prompts the question.  Research suggests there are optimum times during the life of a wheat field for applying fertilizer, attacking weeds, or watching for pests.  One way of looking for wheat growth milestones has been found to be fairly reliable, no matter where the wheat is planted.  The key is knowing how much heat that field has experienced since the seed was planted.

Vincent Van Gogh's Wheat Fields

... in the hot Provence sun.

Growing Degree Days is the magic incantation.  Each day gets a number, which is simply the mean temperature – halfway between the high and the low – for that day.

From Hot ...
... to cold.

Just to make it a challenge, the temperatures are on the Centigrade scale and the lowest temperature that you use is never below freezing, or 0 degrees C.

Maggie's Farm -- Agoura Hills
Agoura Hills, NOAA reports, gets about 156 Growing Degree Days in December, on the average.  Since we planted Sonora, Red Fife, and Glenn at the very tail end of November, those seeds and seedlets had about 156 GDDs of magic warmth by the end of December. Maybe a bit more since the month was warm.  Another 173 during January (probably less since we had some colder weather) adds up to 329 on the 31st.  It just keeps accumulating.
What does this have to do with the entreaty, “So when is the wheat ready to eat?”

Over the years, growers have noticed how much heat is required to encourage wheat through each of its basic stages of growth.  Sprouting (or emergence), leaf development, stem growth, flowering, seed filling, and kernel maturity all require a certain number of GDDs. 

Well, maybe not a “certain” number, but an approximate guess, based on a lot of watched wheat.  And those guesses may prove a bit off if the weather is different from the average, or if we get a week of chilly downpours.   Or the goats get into the wheat.  It’s a speculation, based on estimates, opinions, averages, and hunches.

With much of our wheat now emerged from the soil up into the warm sun and well into leaf development, here’s what might happen.  Leaves will continue to appear through much of February.

Our Red Fife 54 calendar days and 279 Growing Degree Days after planting

During March we’ll see the boot stage start, with real stem growth.  That often happens after a total of 768 GDDs.  Based on previous years, Agoura Hills will reach that number on about March 26th.  

April will be time for heading, the appearance of the seed heads and maybe, before month end, the flowering of those wanna-be seeds.  During the month of May we are likely to see the kernels ripening, with maturity anytime from late in May to the middle of June. 
Or maybe earlier.             Or later.            And each of our five main varieties will be on its own schedule. 

So we’ll wait and see.  But at some point in the spring, the real timetable will make itself obvious.  Kernels will reach their full size and be considered "watery ripe."  They'll gradually turn from green to amber, and this is when the calendar is put away and it is all there in front of us, pressing kernels between our thumbnail and index finger …

... watching for the soft dough stage, the hard dough stage, the time when you can only leave a dent in the grain, and, finally, when your nail can no longer make an impression. 

Then, it’s time for harvest.

The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel

Local grain for local mills, providing local flour for those great local loaves.    Mmmm.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Update on Wheat Growing

  On January 22, 2013, here is how things are progressing at Maggie’s Farm.  It has been three weeks since the last visit, with many nights below freezing.

The first plantings of Sonora, Red Fife, and Glenn, on November 29, 2012, are very lush and green.  Many Sonora plants are more than 15” in height.

They continue to seem very crowded, and are matted down in some areas.  The Red Fife and Glenn are more than a foot in height and are more erect.  Not quite as dense.   This first planting shows three leaves, with a fourth leaf emerging strongly, but still curled around the stem, so not sure whether it counts yet.  A majority of the plants have tillers emerging, though none yet with their own root systems.

The wheat planted on December 11th includes two varieties of Spelt, here shown about 40 days since planting.

Oberkulmer Spelt             &               Maverick Spelt

Oberkulmer, an older classic on the left, and Maverick, a newer cultivar on the right.  Both plots have thin areas where no germination is yet seen.  The Maverick seems better filled in than the Oberkulmer Spelt though individual plants of the two seem equally vigorous.

On the far western plot, the second planting of Glenn – on about December 12, 2012 – has sprouted quite well, with heights of 3 to 4 inches.

Glenn --  planted about 12/12/12

It is much more uniform in appearance than the Spelt plots.

Our small test plot of older varieties and some lesser known more recent cultivars continues to grow at what seems a slower pace.

Test Plot
Clear White

India-Jammu and Clear White show most promise, with plant heights of 5 and 6 inches.  Also good progress by JD, Kelse, and Glee.  Some of the older varieties like Surprise, Poole, & Marquis are quite thin, with heights of 2 or 3 inches.  Almost all of the varieties in the test plot are at the 2 to 3-leaf stage.

It’s nice to see a green blush over all of the fields that Maggie’s Farm has set aside for our local wheat. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Domesticating Wheat

 In describing the history of wheat, no one can guess the date when someone first bit off a bit of grain and ground it up with her molars.  Archeologists can estimate that humans began to cultivate wheat more than 9000 years ago, planting & growing it to feed themselves and the kids.  Those first Neolithic farmers started a relationship that has continued for ten centuries, during which wheat has changed a good deal.  It has evolved into a domesticated crop.
Wild Wheat in Turkey
Domestic Wheat at Maggie's Farm

WIKI says domestication is the process whereby a population of plants is changed at the genetic level through a process of selection, in order to accentuate traits that benefit humans.  Wheat is a good example.     Wild wheat matures over a period of time and falls to the ground to reseed itself when ripe, but domesticated wheat stays on the stem for easier harvesting. There is evidence that this critical change came about as a result of a random mutation near the beginning of wheat’s cultivation.  Wheat with this mutation was harvested and became the seed for the next crop. Therefore, without realizing, early farmers selected for this mutation, which would otherwise have died out. The result is domesticated wheat, which relies on farmers for its own reproduction and dissemination.
Seeding Oberkulmer Spelt 12/11/12
Turning the Oberkulmer Spelt seed under

An unsought repercussion of domestication is that modern wheat is unable to survive wild in competition with better adapted species.   

Early farmers picked the biggest seed heads, re-planted kernels that made the best bread, chose the plants that did well in the weather of that place.  Not caring whether their wheat could arm wrestle weeds into submission, our ancestors made it survival of the tastiest and easiest to gather.  Not survival of the fiercest.   

In the much more recent 1880s, John Bennet Lawes, an English landowner and early plant researcher, did an experiment to prove it.  He left part of his wheat crop unharvested, monitoring the growth over subsequent seasons.  Within three years, the abundant fields of wheat had dwindled to a few shrunken sheaves.  It couldn’t stand alone against the briars and pests.

When Lawes died in 1900, he left his 16th century estate and its impressive research center to a perpetual trust. 
Rothamsted Manor

 Since then Rothamsted has contributed much to world food production, including the development of 2,4-D during WWII, for better or worse, one of the widest used herbicides in the world.  And last year Rothamsted was again working with  wheat, managing to do something that this small grain has resisted for decades – create a wheat GMO that reduces depredation by aphids.  The wheat is modified to produce an aphid alarm pheromone produced by aphids when under attack.  This helps deter the pests.   An angry crowd of anti-GMO protesters laid siege to the Hempstead facility, but a “large police presence” prevented serious damage.  The protesters, like those pesky aphids, were repelled.

For a very long time now we’ve been asking the plant and animal kingdoms to be generous and more user friendly.  Concern about how we’re affecting Mother Nature is something we’ll always need to face, whether using caution in genetic modification or saving heirloom seeds.  The hope is to make it a better world for all, not just for us humans.  Our green thumbs are apt to leave their fingerprints on things as we try to improve them.   

Sonora Wheat Berries (top) and Spelt firmly in their husks
Right now, out in Agoura Hills, we’re growing a hard red spring wheat called Glenn, first developed by North Dakota State University in 1997.

Glenn 13 days after planting
Glenn with Red Fife & Sonora in background

When it was released in Canada, that country’s Food Inspection Agency reported:  “Overall, 'Glenn' was selected, particularly for its high yield, very good milling and baking traits as well as disease resistance.”  However, many farmers report that Glenn is difficult to thresh, the kernels tending to remain on the spike despite their best efforts.  Two steps forward.  One back.   

Hey, shouldn’t someone be developing a strain of wheat that can stand on its own against dandelions and crabgrass?   Never mind the amount of gluten.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

More on Wheat Tillering

I described tillers on a previous post.  They are like little photo copies of that initial evolving wheat plant, emerging from the main stem, establishing roots, and growing upward alongside the parent plant.  Each of these offspring can themselves produce more tillers, giving each plant the potential for as many as fifty followers, though only 5 or 6 usually reach maturity, with 2 or 3 of them setting full spikes of wheat kernels.  Considered together, this crowd of tillers is called the stool.  They not only help support the plant, they are complete wheat plants, capable of doubling or tripling the overall yield.

Glenn Hard Red Spring Wheat 14 days after sowing in Agoura Hills

All this action emerges from one wheat seed, or berry.  I admire the fecund and complex nature of the modern hexaploid wheat species, with three times as many chromosomes as the earliest wheat-like grasses.  Thought to have been under cultivation for 9,000 years, the small grain called wheat has evolved into tens of thousands of natural varieties and cultivars.  Varieties are successful in a wide variety of climates: hot/cold; wet/dry; low & high altitudes.  And now we’re looking to see how certain cultivars do near our City of Angels, just off the 101 in Agoura Hills.

Sonora Soft White Winter Wheat 30 days after sowing.
For our crops, sowed in Late November and mid December, I was thinking that tillers will only begin appearing some 60 days after sowing, about when the fourth leaf appears on the main stem.  The Sonora plants that I unearthed on December 28th had three leaves and no obvious tillers, although I know that us city dwellers are likely to have trouble telling the difference between tillers and leaves.  Looking at web sites on tillers and tillering (both a noun and verb form) I found this image of wheat at the fifth leaf stage.

Leaves and tillers looked pretty straight forward, but my eye went to that Coleoptile Tiller.  Here’s what I read about growth stages.   “Each tiller (like each leaf)  is numbered when it becomes visible. There are two types of tillers: those arising from a crown leaf axis and those arising from the coleoptile node. When present there will only be one coleoptile tiller. The plant in the drawing has two tillers and a coleoptile tiller.”

I’d read that the first shoot that emerges from the germinating seed is encased in a coleoptile sheath that protects the shoot, burrowing an easier pathway upward from the seed to the soil surface.  And now I see that one tiller benefits from the same protective sheathing.  Another kind of redundancy.  A study group in Australia is currently researching the benefits of a larger, faster growing coleoptile tiller.  They hope to find out whether it increases plant leaf area and biomass, while playing a role in improved water use (cutting down on ground surface evaporation) and helping reduce competition from weeds.  This is apparently an area of research that hasn’t been pursued in depth.

I took another look at the Sonora plants I’d uprooted.  Almost all of these 3-leafed plants show what appear to be tillers – I’d thought they were secondary stems -- emerging from near where the first stem had grown out of the seed.  In the photo, the now-empty coleoptile sheath is visible on the main stem (at the bottom) and on the coleoptile tiller (at the top).

Indeed our Sonora has coleoptile tillers!  And they were likely to have been just at the soil surface in late December.  My thought is we might really see tillering in progress early in February.  After that, we get stem extension and those plants will soon be knee high.  Or higher.

I'll try to avoid using the term coleoptile in subsequent posts.

Friday, January 11, 2013

LA County -- California Cottage Food Law -- Getting Started

California Homemade Food Law in Los Angeles County -  In response to some requests from LABB members, here's the link to the LA County Environmental Health Departments Cottage Food Law page. On it, you'll find step-by-step instructions for applying for either your Class A or Class B permit. And, of course, see the LABB's Meetup page for information about the February 2 event at which Health Department representatives will answer your questions about California's new cottage food law. Once again, many thanks to all of you who helped pass this law!!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Piper gives Retail View of AB1616

Video documentation of Los Angeles Bread Bakers’ January 5 meeting on the background of AB1616, California’s Cottage Food Law is available at:
A detailed Q&A session with  L.A. County Health representatives at that meeting is also available at:

The video on this page is a portion of the background segment, featuring comments by Piper Goldstein, owner of Atwater Village Farms.  7:31 minutes.
She talks briefly about how she intends to work with those creating homemade food products under AB1616.

Background on AB1616 Cottage Food Law

Complete video documentation of Los Angeles Bread Bakers’ January 5 meeting on the background of AB1616, California’s Cottage Food Law is available at:
A detailed Q&A session with  L.A. County Health representatives at that meeting is also available at:

The three short videos on this page are of Mark Stambler's comments on how AB1616 came to be.  They are incorporated in the background video on YouTube, above.  Mark, a bread baker and co-founder of Los Angeles Bread Bakers, is the recipient of the first Class B permit.

Part one.

Part two of Mark Stambler's remarks.

This is part three of Mark Stambler's remarks.