Well worth the wheat: Gene Logsdon’s ‘Small-Scale Grain Raising’

The Ethicurean

As the price of flour and other grain-based foods has risen, creative-minded people have begun to consider growing their own wheat, corn, rye, and other grains. Groovy Green noted last year that one bakery — the Hungry Ghost Bread company in Northhampton, Massachusetts — even offered grain seeds to their customers through their Little Red Hen venture, encouraging them to grow the grains to sell back to the bakery for local loaves.

It’s an idea whose time is ripe once again. More than 30 years ago, farmer Gene Logsdon followed his publisher’s suggestion to write a book that would help aspiring grain-growing homesteaders of the 1960s and 1970s choose the right grain for their land and their garden or farming situation. The book went out of print many years ago, but the recession, the specter of peak oil, and the desire to take back some control over the food supply have all combined to prompt some folks to grow grains locally, sparking a renewed interest in the work and sending the price of used copies of “Small-Scale Grain Raising” well over $1,000.

It’s with some relief, then, that readers and homesteading hopefuls will welcome this revised second edition (Chelsea Green, spring 2009; pre-order from Amazon.com), in which Logsdon has updated the information based on new research and his personal experience. Logsdon returned with his equally knowledgeable wife, Carol, to farm a portion of his family’s land in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in the 1970s. He began a prolific literary career by working at “Farm Journal” in the 1960s before writing on practical homesteading and how-to topics, moving to philosophical essays, and in recent years producing two novels and a “fable” on reclaiming strip-mined land. He currently writes at Organic To Be, combining reprinted essays and passages from his books with up-to-date musings, and at Farming Magazine. (He also writes a more down-home column in his local newspaper that occasionally tweaks his neighbors’ sensibilities.) For my money, he ranks with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson as a realistic and necessary voice in the realm of agriculture, challenging how we see farmers and farming as well as challenging the agribusiness establishment in all its guises.

In “Small-Scale Grain Raising,” Logsdon lays out clearly just how easy it can be to grow grains for your family and your livestock, from his beloved “pancake patch” up to acre-sized plots. Interspersed with good-humored vintage anecdotes and his usual “Contrary Farmer” commentary, this primer elevates the status of grain-growing on farms of all sizes (from the backyard on up) to a happy essential. As he states repeatedly, there’s nothing so delicious — or so economical — as home-baked goods made with fresh grains you grew and milled yourself. And when those same home-grown grains can also feed your animals and build soil fertility… well, what’s stopping you?

Logsdon’s book covers all of the well-known grains and several of the lesser ones: barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, rice, spelt, sorghum, triticale, wheat, and others. He also devotes a chapter to soybeans and dried beans, despite their classification as legumes, because they partner so well with grains both in growing and in eating. For at least the major grains he discusses varieties, yields, nutritional value, and uses (both for human and animal consumption as well as other farm uses). He describes how to prepare the soil, how to plant the grain seeds (including optimal space requirements), what diseases and pests to watch for and how to deal with them, how to harvest and dry the grains, how to store them, and, finally, how to turn those seeds into food for your family.

Drawing on his personal experience growing almost all of the major grains, Logsdon describes “how we do it” even when it contrasts with conventional wisdom. He touts the value of open-pollinated seed, despite advances in hybrids, because of their superior taste and the satisfaction of not being beholden to agribusiness. He also demonstrates that old hand tools and techniques can sometimes be the most efficient when growing on a small scale. For example, though corn may be harvested by machine, he outlines how to bundle corn stalks into shocks for easy, inexpensive drying and storage (and aesthetic value). He claims to keep a basket full of old socks to slip over ripening ears of corn to prevent wild animals from dining on his crops. (I’d like to see that!) And for his money, the best weed control — the one to which pests never develop resistance — is the hoe.

Logsdon points out another benefit to small-scale growing: little or no waste in the crops. Once the ears of corn are harvested for drying, the cornstalks can be used as bedding for livestock or, bundled together and propped against a wall, as insulation for buildings like chicken coops. Naked corncobs can find new life as the base for corncob jelly or as fire starters. Straw from other grains can be used as bedding, too, or tilled or disked back into the soil.

Each type of grain has its place on the small farm, and though he admits to preferring corn, Logsdon gives each grain its due. Wheat, a grass, grows as easily as a lawn. Oats have the highest protein content and rank alongside wheat as having the highest overall nutritional balance. Rye grows well in cold weather and poor soils and serves well as a cover crop. Barley is the most widely adapted grain, growing from arctic to tropic regions, and is used not just for food but also for brewing beer and whisky. Buckwheat is high in lysine, is gluten-free, and can be planted late in the garden.

Aside from making grain-growing sound easy, he evokes the charm of old-fashioned traditions and the satisfaction of both self-sufficiency and community. One tradition he enjoys describing is that of “husking bees,” when a farming community would come together to husk the dried corn at a neighbor’s farm. As the story goes, if you husked a red ear (common enough in those days of open-pollinated corn), you earned a kiss from your sweetheart. How can running a big combine over a vast ocean of corn compare to that? (And why, he asks, would he plant anything but open-pollinated corn if there’s a possibility of such a delightful result?)

He also extols the joys of everything from threshing wheat with a plastic toy bat to popping wheat berries for a nutty-flavored snack similar to popcorn, and he takes a well-justified pride in making pancakes from his own home-grown buckwheat. In short, he makes raising a small crop of grain sound both easy and desirable.

A handful of easy-to-follow recipes follow each grain section of the book, thanks to the Rodale Press first edition (not, alas, pulled from the Logsdon family cookbook). I made the cheese-wheat germ biscuits with a few additions of my own, and they were a hit with my dinner company. Two no-knead bread recipes look like they might be worth a try, too, and the Indian corn pudding recipe sounds like a winner. But don’t expect a cookbook: the recipes provided simply give a starting point for using the grains you grow.

The book concludes with an appendix listing and illustrating the various terms and tools mentioned throughout the chapters. It does not, however, include a list of sources for locating and buying the tools or the seeds needed to raise grain because, as repeatedly noted, you can find more than you ever hoped for about any of these items on the Internet. But don’t rely on the Net solely for your information: Logsdon stresses the importance of making contacts with other growers in your area to find out what has worked for them — and thus for you — under local conditions.

As Logsdon states in his afterword, there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that something he published three decades ago is finding such an enthusiastic audience now. All the things that concerned him then — dependence on oil and agribusiness, the growing monoculture of farming, the lack of consumer control in the food supply, our economy — raise growing concern for the rest of us now, and more people are willing to take the steps needed to grow more of their own food in a sustainable way. A Contrary Farmer to the very last, he notes, “To all those agribusiness experts who ridiculed my call to garden grains 30 years ago, I now draw myself up in pompous self-righteousness, stick out my tongue, and gloat as sickeningly as possible.”

Full disclosure: I’m hardly an unbiased reviewer, as I’ve never hidden my admiration for Gene’s work (see my review of his book “All Flesh Is Grass”), and I was thrilled when he asked that I preview the manuscript of “Grain Raising” in order to provide a supportive quote for the new edition. But even without that connection, I’d have been eager to get my hands on this book. (I read the first edition months ago and knew then I wanted it.) Thanks to Gene Logsdon’s writing and inspiration, I’ve got my grain seed and my broadcast seeder, and I plan to be out in the garden this year planting plots of oats, buckwheat, and winter wheat for my own “pancake patch.”

Sound corny? Maybe. But just you wheat and see.

One Comment

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