All posts by Irena

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

Seed Growers Large and Small

Ken and I recently returned from a 2-week road trip, which we took primarily to visit farms that grow seed for Southern Exposure.  We work with about 60 farms that produce seed for us, which we then freeze, test for good germination, weigh out, and sell.  We took this trip to meet some of the farmers face to face, see their land, and get a better sense of how they farm, in hopes of collaborating better in the future.  We’re also glad that we can share some of their experiences with you.  Southwestern Virginia has one of the highest concentrations of farms growing seed for us, including two diversified family homesteads, which we’ll profile first.


The Moyer family has been growing vegetable seeds for us for seven years.  They also grow an impressive range of their own food, sell vegetables at a local farmers market, and raise cows, goats, and several kinds of poultry.

We pulled some weeds in their garden and collected harlequin bugs off of a kale seed crop; they served us fresh cornbread with fresh butter, squash that they had traded with another farmer, and pork, and the next morning, a delicious breakfast of fresh eggs, oatmeal, butter, and sorghum syrup. Several of the Moyer children have raised seed crops of their own, keeping the proceeds and calculating their dollar per hour as part of their math class.  This year seed crops they’re growing for us include Selma Suns sunflower, German Johnson tomato, Burpee’s Butterbush squash, Egyptian Walking Onions, Sugar Drip Sorghum, Painted Mountain flour corn, and Floriani flint corn.


Later we visited the Smythes, an extended family with a large vegetable garden, a cowshare dairy, and a young orchard.  To get to their property, we crossed a wooden bridge with low sides, and then entered a large family homestead, where we didn’t see any house numbers.  The door we knocked happened to be the right one.

Charlotte Smythe, who initially organized the family’s seed growing, has now married and moved up the hill to a new house on the family’s land, so more recently her younger sister Lydia has been heading up the seed growing.  The family decided to take a break from seeds this year so as to focus more on infrastructure development and perennials, but we hope they will grow for us again next year.


On our way into Southwest Virginia we stopped to see Beth Shelley in Bent Mountain, VA She and her family grow a wide range of vegetables in two huge old greenhouses.  They are further diversifying their farm to include Chinese medicinal herbs.


One of the biggest farms we visited just started growing seeds for us this year.  Fassifern Farm, in Bath County, VA, is managed by Mark Scott and includes 12 acres of cultivated land on various parts of a 2400 acre property.  Currently their biggest crops are vegetables that Cavalier Produce picks up twice a week for sale in nearby Charlottesville, after Cavalier unloads other produce for the local restaurants.  This year Mark and his crew are growing seed crops of Chires baby sweet corn, Black Amber Cane sorghum, Liana asparagus beans, Grady Bailley Greasy snap beans, Carwile’s Virginia Peanuts, and Orange Bell sweet peppers for seed.  Looking forward, Mark is excited to make seed growing a bigger part of his operation, and his farm’s large acreage, surrounded largely by forest, will give him the opportunity to isolate and grow seed crops of several varieties of corn per year.


Near the other end of the spectrum of scale, Ann Shrader, in Floyd, Virginia, grows a home garden of no more than a quarter acre where her biggest crops are the seed crops she grows for us – this year, Appalachian Red garlic, Charleston Belle sweet peppers, and Peking Black southern peas.  She also grows a few fruits and vegetables for her own consumption, and lets a wide range of flowers self-sow.


Monica Williams, Bill Whipple, and their young son Gabriel divide their time between Asheville, NC, and the remote West Virginia farm a ways down a one-lane road where they hosted us on the first night of our trip.

Their vegetable gardens include crops for home use as well as seed, but they find that on their rocky mountain land, berries and trees tend to do much better than annuals.  They are fortunate to have not only a very young orchard but also an older orchard that Bill planted at a time when farmers markets were much less common, with little idea of how they would sell the fruit it produced.  Now fruit is most of what they bring to market.



Troy Teets and his family hosted us for a night in Riceville, Tennessee.  The evening we arrived, they showed us their garden and their new goats and pigs, and in the morning we harvested tomatoes and blackberries for their farmers’ market.  This year they’re growing a seed crop of Grandma Nellie’s Yellow Mushroom bean.  They’re also growing a few short rows of Parker Half-Runner bean, a favorite in Troy’s area that’s more tender than the standard Half-Runner beans on the market.  They expect to harvest a few pounds of seeds from this year’s Parker Half-Runner so that they can plant a much larger crop next year.  We plan to offer the seeds from their 2016 crop in our 2017 catalog.


In South Carolina, we were hosted by seed growers Rodger and Karen Winn, who I profiled last year.  All in all we had a busy trip, visting about three farms a day on most days.  In upcoming blog posts, I plan to profile plant breeders, university research farms, and a bakery that mills its own grain.

What to do when your greens bolt

Bolting greens have essentially decided – in response to heat, lengthening days, and any other stresses – that it’s time to make make seed, and to make as much seed as they can, using all the energy stored in their roots.  Though we can’t convince them to go back to making large, tender leaves again, we can reap other benefits from them, and we can extend our harvest windows with methods like succession planting.

Once this spinach had started to bolt, weeding it was no longer a priority for us. Luckily we had a later planting of spinach just coming on.  The younger spinach hasn’t been through as much cold, and so it will tolerate more heat than this planting before it bolts.  We also spread out the harvest from this patch by harvesting taller plants first, thus giving the shorter plants more room to grow outward.

In the process of bolting, lettuce becomes extremely extremely bitter.  By harvesting early in the morning – not many hours after sunrise – I find I can often still get good-tasting greens off of bolting lettuce, but the lettuce in this picture is simply too mature to harvest. The lettuce plants to the left are farther along in the bolting process than the plants to the right, probably because they’ve gotten more sun.  The cilantro in the background has also bolted, but its leaves still taste about the same as they did when the plants were younger.  The cilantro flowers and immature seeds are also edible, and mature cilantro seeds are coriander.

Our farm’s fall and winter vegetable garden from late 2014 now looks like a meadow. The bluish leaves and yellow flowers are kale.  These flowers feed bees, other pollinators, and sometimes people.  We’ve also been letting our cow graze at the edge of this garden-turned-meadow.

The mature, flowering stems of plants in the brassica family, including kale, collards, mustard, arugula, and cabbage, tend to be tough, and the leaves have a strong flavor that you might not like, though it’s not nearly as bitter as bolting lettuce.  But the the flowers themselves can make great additions to salads and great snacks in the garden.  I especially like arugula flowers in salads, but for this salad we used mustard flowers.