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|
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.