Growing Grain in a Home Garden

Jake Holt, a physician and a father of young children, somehow finds the time to grow small seed crops for Southern Exposure in his home garden.Jul2015 (301) in Jake Holt's garden smallJul2015 (306) Jake Holt demonstrates small scale rye threshing small Not only that, but he also processes home grown rye into flour for pancakes.

During a visit this summer, Jake showed us one way to thresh rye at home.  We pulled seedheads off rye stalks until we had about half a gallon of seedheads in a bucket, enough for a demonstration of the process.

Jul2015 (313) Jake Holt demonstrates small scale rye threshing small Then Jake brought out a flail made of chains attached to an eye attached to a cordless drill. The contraption also included a shield made from a plastic dish. He put the flail in the bucket and ran the drill for several seconds to thresh the grain.

Jul2015 (312) Jake Holt demonstrates small scale rye threshing small The deseeded husks, still attached to the stem, were easily lifted off, leaving us with a few handfuls of rye seed and light chaff. Jake would then winnow the chaff off by pouring the grain in front of a fan, then grinding it with a hand-crank mill.

It isn’t very difficult,  and his famJul2015 (319) threshed grain to be winnowed and ground smallily really loves the pancakes, but this process is long enough that almost none of us will get a significant portion of our calories this way.

If your goal is to get a significant portion of your calories from home grown grain, grinding corn is much easier – you can harvest it with a pair of hand pruners, shell it with a hand corn sheller, and hardly winnow it at all.  But most of us want wheat products, too.

You can grind corn as well as small grains at home in a hand-crank grinder such as a Grain Maker mill.  With some grains, you can also find recipes that use whole kernels.

For wheat, rye, oats, and other small grains, I hope there will be a revival of intermediate scales of threshing, winnowing, and milling – larger in scale than Jake Holt’s method, and smaller in scale than modern commercial millers – so that homegrown or locally grown rye flour can once again be used as a staple, rather than just a once-a-week pancake treat.

Yanceyville mill

It might be a long shot, but then again, so was the organic movement 30 years ago.  And even as recently as the mid-1980s, a water-powered grain mill in our part of central Virginia was grinding grain from neighboring farms.

You might think, “Flour doesn’t cost much at the supermarket. Why grow grain in a moist climate like mine?” Michael Pollan, in his book Cooked, provides us with good reasons.

image from

Almost all the flour at the supermarkets has been separated by modern roller mills into its component parts: germ, bran, and endosperm. Even the whole grain flour at the supermarket has been separated out before being reconstituted. Commercial mills just aren’t set up to do it any other way anymore. As Michael Pollan writes,

“Not long after roller mills became widespread in the 1880’s, alarming rates of nutritional deficiency and chronic disease began cropping up in populations that relied on the new white flour. Around the turn of the century, a group of French and British doctors and medical experts… many of them posted to Britain’s colonies in Asia and Africa, had observed that, soon after white flour and sugar arrived in places where previously what one of them (Robert McCarrison) called ‘the unsophisticated foods of nature’ had been the norm, the Western diseases would predictably appear.”

Pollan also cites a 2003 study by epidemiologists at the University of Minnesota, showing that “the health benefits of whole grains cannot be completely explained in terms of nutrients we know those grains contain…. Either there are synergies at work among these nutrients, or there is some X-factor in whole grains that scientists have yet to identify.”

You might think, “In that case why don’t we all just buy whole wheat flour or whole wheat bread at our supermarkets?”  I’ll mention a few of the reasons:

— Once the germ is separated from the rest of the grain, it can deteriorate and become rancid.
— Former workers in big commercial mills told Pollan that those mills leave out the germ (and thus most of the identified vitamins) when they reconstitute “whole-wheat” flour.
— When modern industrial bakeries make dough, they usually add a lot of ingredients that most of us can’t pronounce.
— When we use local grain, we support the local farm economy rather than CEOs and shareholders.

There are still wheats, ryes, and other small grains (in addition to corns) that are adapted to growing in the Southeast.

In an upcoming blog post I’ll share our experiences visiting two bakeries that mill their grain, bake with wood heat, and buy from farmers, two of whom I’ll also profile.
Jul2015 (452) at Farm and Sparrow bakery small

Breeding Peppers and Tomatoes

Continuing our summer road trip adventures!   We visited two individuals doing exciting vegetable breeding work.  While lots of universities and other institutions do great work with agricultural research and breeding, valuable information and great new varieties can also come from individual farmers and backyard gardeners.  If you’re thinking about doing your own breeding, you might be interested in our books Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe or Breeding Organic Vegetables: A Step-by-Step Guide for Growers by Rowen White and Bryan Connolly.

Craig LeHoullier is well known to tomato fans.  Starting in the ‘90s, he introduced many heirloom tomatoes through SESE, including Cherokee Purple.  A more recent project that Craig and tomato breeders from all over the world have been involved with is the Dwarf Tomato Project – using great-tasting heirlooms in breeding new, shorter tomatoes (2-4 feet tall) that are easier to trellis and to grow in containers.

We stopped by Craig’s house in Raleigh, NC to see Craig’s garden.  This year Craig is growing out all 36 dwarf tomatoes that have been released so far.  Craig cautioned us before we visited that with the heat and rain and all, his tomatoes were starting to get some diseases, but we thought that was great – a nice chance to see how the different varieties handle disease!  We already carry one of the dwarf varieties, Rosella Purple, and as we tasted our way through the dwarf tomatoes, we were taking notes for our wish list of more dwarfs to grow for seed crops.

Craig grew these plants in straw bales in his driveway!  A great gardening technique is to add some compost to the top of a straw bale and plant into the compost; as the plants grow, they’ll reach their roots into the straw, and since straw bales hold a lot of moisture, the plants won’t need much watering in between rains.  It’s a great way of growing tomatoes in containers without actual containers – Craig’s writing a book about it, look for it sometime this next year!

Craig’s book Epic Tomatoes came out last December, and he’s been busy giving talks and doing book signings for it.  He’ll be at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, giving a special pre-festival talk on Thursday, September 9th as well as giving talks on Friday and Saturday.  Many of the tomatoes featured in Craig’s book will be featured in this year’s tomato tasting at the festival, so expect to see Craig hanging out there as well!


Pittsboro, NC farmer Doug Jones is an passionate about pepper breeding.  If you’ve ever been to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference, you’ve probably seen him at the Seed Swap table, sorting through his peppers, checking each for taste before he takes the seed out to save.

The photo below shows pepper seed from different fruits spread out for drying.  Doug bred Sweet Jemison, a long yellow pepper, which we now carry; he’s a big fan of long Italian bell peppers!

Doug farmed for many years at Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro.  Here’s a photo from November 2011 of Irena with 10 foot tall peppers in their high tunnel!

This year Doug is dividing his time between The Farm at Penny Lane and Paz Farm, where he’s also doing pepper trials for Johnny’s Selected Seeds and continuing his pepper breeding work.  Hot, wet weather had him going along the rows to prune off infected pepper leaves to keep Bacterial Leaf Spot at bay; as Doug himself described it, wet weather had him despairing that the disease would get out of hand, while a few days letter dry weather had him optimistic that the peppers would pull through…

Sustainable Agriculture Research Stations

Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip.  Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.

North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.

There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.

A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.

Jeanine is the co-author of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. Her blog about the work at the Mountain Research Station is a great read. She’s a dedicated outreach person, and besides giving talks at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, she regularly speaks at many conferences, including this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 11-12.

A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.

Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!

Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.

Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years.  He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.

Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!

Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Central for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials.  Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!

Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.

Saving the Past for the Future