What I learned at WSU’s Growing Grain in Western Washington Field Day
Any doubts about whether it is possible to grow wheat in Western Washington were dispelled at WSU’s Field Day which took place yesterday at Chinook Farm in Snohomish. The approximately 60 participants toured fields of Spring and Winter wheat, tritacale and rye.
The Field Day was led by Dr. Andrew Corbin who answered lots of questions asked by participants and who introduced many experts in the group. Eric Fritch, the owner of Chinook Farms made special delicious salads from his tritacale which was enjoyed by the participants.
Some of the things I learned at the Field Day:
- Organically grown wheat can yield between 3000 and 6000 lbs/acre, even in a poor growing year, such as this year.
- Grain should be seeded at about 75lbs-120lbs/acre.
- The grain fields at Chinook farm were sewn by spreading using a machine and then raking in.
- The Spring sewn grain was planted in the end of April and about ready to be harvested at the end of August.
- Bread baked from one variety of winter wheat developed specifically for Western Washington, Bauermeister, was described by the bakers as being “chocolatey with spice overtones.”
- The Winter wheat grown this year has about 10-11% protein, a good amount for spring wheat acceptable for organically grown hard red wheat.
- One problem with grain in Western Washington is the moisture content. If the grain is harvested when the moisture content is too high, it can quickly heat up and spoil. Keeping it in smaller containers–the accompanying pictures show 2000lb bags of grain which are much smaller than commercial silos–, and providing air circulation can minimize the risk. If the grain starts to heat, it needs to immediately be spread out and exposed to good air circulation or the crop will quickly be lost.
- Eric bought his 1977 John Deere combine for $3800! Just the metal in that enormous machine must be worth more than that. He said it was in perfect working order when he bought it, but not quite as fancy as the newer monstrosities. It is large enough, however that I think it would need a “wide load” flagger when being hauled. He said that it goes quite slow, about 1 acre/hr. He didn’t harvest the straw this year, citing the value vs. labor.
- Weeds are an issue when growing grains. The fields are plowed to slow down the weeds and vigorous varieties of grain that crowd out weeds initially are favored. Some grains such as rye work as a good ground cover to compete with weeds. On Chinook farm, some of the fields naturally have a lot of red clover growing under the grain. The clover plants nitrogen which in turn feed the grain plant. Some of the fields had a lot of horse tail growing which Dr. Drew said did affect the yield of grain.
- Kevin fertilized his fields with about a ton of composted chicken manure/acre.
- If fields are fertilized just after the grain plant sprouts heads, the protein content can be increased by up to 4%. An experiment was conducted by graduate student, Karen Hills that proved that the timing of adding the fertilizer is paramount. Fertilizing winter grains in the fall is not as beneficial as fertilizing after the plant heads form. This is because the plant has already determined how many heads it is going to do so the fertilizer works to beef up the quality of the grain produced, rather than just make more grain. The problem is that it is difficult to apply the fertilizer without harming the crops. On Chinook Farm they just drove the tractor and manure spreader through the fields and accepted the damage caused by the wide wheels of the tractor.
- Planting red clover with the grains is a good idea.
Eric showed us a field of rye which was about ready to harvest. In fact it had been partially harvested by his herd of steers who had gotten out of their fence earlier. The grain had initially been planted as a cover crop to discourage weeds but grew so nicely that he let it grow out. The stalks were 6-7 feet tall and beautiful.
The field of titicale was interesting because the grain had some stalks that were quite a bit higher than the uniform majority which grew about 2′ tall. This is because tirticale is a cross between wheat and rye and the rye has a tendency to cross pollinate. The taller stalks were evidence of the cross-pollination and were examples of possible hybrids within the field, rather than the developed variety that was the majority of the field.
Dr. Drew talked a little about crop rotation and felt that these grain fields should grow some kind of legume next. I asked him about whether he thought it was possible to use a “no till” method here and he said that the fields could be planted thickly with an oil turnip which would die during a hard frost int he winter and provide nutrients to the organisms in the soil upon thaw. He said it could be a problem if the turnip overwintered, because then the turnip would be essentially another weed. He also said that no till methods are difficult using organic methods and work best using herbicides for weed control. We did discuss using plastic mulch, but of course that is difficult over large areas.
I asked Eric what he does to deter deer and he replied that he plants enough for them, too. He added, “we’re thinking about having venison in the CSA boxes.”
Here are some pictures of the event: