Local Organic Grain: From Kernel To Mill

In our last post, we discussed the concept of local grains and how supporting the local grain economy can have a positive effect on communities, farmers and consumers. Let’s take a look at the process of how this local, organic wheat begins as a seed and becomes the high-quality grain we use to mill into flour.

Like most plants that we eat today, wheat starts with a seed - also called a wheat kernel. Millions of wheat kernels are seeded with a piece of equipment commonly called a grain drill. In the simplest terms, grain drills are large machinery pulled by a tractor made up of a grain box and many small openings for the seed. Depending on the size of the equipment, the drill can seed 10 rows and up. The seed falls from the grain drill through a designated opening, lands on the ground and is covered up just enough to be at the right depth to germinate and then sprout in a week or two.  

Planting For The Future

But let’s back up a moment and take a closer look at the field the farmer has planted. In a farming system, it’s important to properly prepare the ground before you plant into it. This process varies widely depending on the farmer and their farm operations. A conventional farmer and an organic farmer may use different methods for preparing their fields for seeds. We will stick to discussing organic systems here.

Oftentimes farmers will begin preparing their fields for crops weeks or months ahead of time. An example of this is planting a cover crop many months or even a year before planting their wheat crop. A cover crop is a crop planted solely for the purpose of improving soil health and discouraging the growth of weeds. So a cover crop is planted, allowed to grow to a certain stage of maturity, and then tilled in and incorporated into the soil. Weeds that might have grown have been suppressed by this cover crop, and many of the nutrients that were in the cover crop are now in the soil - ready to be of use to the wheat that is yet to come.

In this example we see how farming requires a constant eye toward preparing for the future while working diligently in the present. This is partly because very few things in the plant kingdom happen immediately - soil, plants and even the weather happen on their own time. And try as we might, we can’t make growth happen any more quickly than the plant’s internal programming will allow. In some ways, farmers are always operating within two types of time - human time and the earth’s time.

When it comes to planting there are, broadly speaking, two types of wheat: Spring Wheat and Winter Wheat. In Wisconsin, varieties of winter wheat are planted in the fall and they will germinate (or sprout) and grow a few inches before winter comes. During winter the plants go dormant, and in the spring they begin growing again. The fall planting gives them a head start, and - perhaps more importantly - the wheat actually requires a cold period in order to flower. The plants must flower in order to produce a seed, which eventually becomes what we think of as wheat.

By contrast, spring wheat is planted in the spring - it does not require the cold temperatures in order to produce a wheat crop. Both winter and spring wheat are harvested in mid to late summer.

Care and Cultivation

So first the fields are prepared. Then our wheat crop is planted, and tended to by our farmers through cultivation and a careful eye. Farmers will check the crop’s moisture levels and nutrient levels, to make sure the crop is as healthy as possible and can resist any diseases that might come its way.

Because our farmers are organic, they will never spray an herbicide like round-up (glysophate) on their wheat crops. Not only is it simply outside of their production systems, but it would cause them to lose their organic certification - a process that takes time, money and significant effort on the part of the farmer to achieve.

Because they can’t use an herbicide, the farmers will cultivate (weed), their wheat crops with cultivating equipment. Wheat is a crop that can compete fairly well with weeds, so sometimes a farmer might not worry too much about getting every last weed out of a field. However, weeds can also become a problem at harvest time, because the weed plant may remain green and lush while the wheat plants have become dry. The fresh green weeds can clog harvesting equipment, making it a good idea to remove them as much as possible before harvest. We can picture this problem by imagining two leaves: one dry and brittle and one fresh and green. If we  hold them, one in each palm, and attempt to crush them with our hands and fingers, we see that the dry leaf will crumble but the green leaf will remain mostly intact. This is similar to what happens during the harvest of a dry wheat crop that contains green weeds.

Harvesting The Hard Work

In mid-July to early August it’s time for the harvest.  Wheat is harvested by combine, which cuts the plant at its base. Inside the machine, something called a threshing drum works to separate the seeds (the edible part at the top of the plant) from the chaff (inedible parts like the stalk.) The seeds fall away and are caught in a grain tank, then sent up an auger off the side of the combine. A second vehicle will run alongside the combine to catch the grain that comes out of the auger. The stalks are either spread on the field or taken away to be used for another purpose.

After harvest, the seeds are run through a cleaning machine. Although the combine works well to separate out the wheat from the chaff, pieces of the stalk, weed seeds, small rocks, and soil will make their way into the separated seed and must be removed before milling. This is often done through screening the grain through successively smaller screens, effectively leaving the farmer with clean grain ready for milling.

Gravity Tables For Grain Greatness

Some grain mills will stop at the grain cleaning, and consider the cleaned grain “ready” for the mill. But at Grafton Stone Mill we take things one step further. In every grain crop there are a small percentage of kernels that may look perfectly healthy, but are actually underdeveloped or even diseased. A seed cleaner will not pick up these minute differences, because the kernels are often the same size and shape as a fully developed, healthy kernel.

The only way to tell is to use a piece of equipment called a gravity table, which uses density to grade the grain. Through constant vibrations and blowing air, the heaviest (healthiest) kernels fall in one direction and the lightest (underdeveloped) kernels fall in another direction. This process also pulls out any remaining non-grain debris that may have slipped through the screening process. For the most part, the vast majority of the grain screened on the gravity table is in perfect condition. But by using this technology as the final step before milling, we can be certain that only the highest quality grains are made into consumer products like flour.

Next Up: An in-depth look at the inner workings of our mill. Stay Tuned!