When we think of growing grains, typically a vast horizon of wheat heads comes to mind. And big tractors. Only the slightly lunatic farmer/gardener would attempt to grow grains at a small scale. After all, a 4×8 plot in the backyard is what a field-scale combine digests in about an eight of a second! Anyone who has harvested grain by hand and attempted to thresh it (as I did this summer, its still half-threshed in my garage!) knows that some simple equipment could go a long way.
But there are many reasons people might want to grow grains on a small scale.
Firstly, grains make a great contribution to crop rotations. Grown densely, their rapid growth can outcompete weeds and be useful as a cover crop. And growing grains for animal feed is a cheap alternative to buying this expensive input.
Secondly, there is very little selection available in terms of crop kinds and varieties of grain. If someone wants heritage varieties of wheat (like Red Fife), or a special variety of malting barley, or hulless grains, they could just grow it themselves.
Third, small plots of grain are grown for variety trials, for research purposes (like a participatory breeding program), to test them on a farm (like in this trial), or to multiply seed (like these guys).
Each scenario may have slightly different needs. For example, multiple little plots need to be separated out, so a single row type harvester might be best if only one or a few rows are being grown. Different types of grain may also require different harvesting and thrashing equipment. For example, oats and ancient grains like Kamut require a dehulling process.
After doing a bit of research, I have found a few tools that may be useful for growing grains on a small scale. I’m focusing primarily on harvesting, as this is the biggest bottleneck for small plot work. There are small-plot seeders available, such as a multi-row Earthway or Clean Seeder. And there are several models of narrow plot seeders that serve will for a slightly bigger scale.
Harvesting grain was typically done with a scythe that had an attachment on that help hold a sheaf together for binding. There is still a strong scything culture out there, and it’s not hard to find some equipment and online how-to videos. (Maybe this is the best option for small-scale grain growing, but I’m going to present some mechanical alternatives). Scything was replaced by a horse-pulled reaper-binder like this:
which would have been horse-drawn. There are still Amish communities and the like that use this kind of equipment. However, while smaller than a combine, these things are not really that small. The concept of reaper (cutting the stalk) and binder (collecting into a sheaf or bundle and tying it together) instead of an all-in-one combine (which combines reaping with thrashing), means that the bundles still have to be collected and thrashed.
Here is an example of a small-scale, single-row reaper-binder in action at the Canadian Gene bank in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Plant Gene Resources Canada)
This is called a Mitsubishi Reaper-Binder. It was designed in Japan as a small-scale rice harvester and is available from Oregon for about 13-15,000 CAD from Willamette Exporting. Working capacity is 0.21-0.37 acres an hour (2.7-4.8 hours/acre) (one-row or two row models respectively).
As you can see in the video, this is an ideal tool where plots are single-rows that need to be segregated out, such as very-small plot variety trials. However, it does’t seem that practical for anything over about an acre. That might require something that uses a tractor, not a walk-behind tractor.
This company also sells a mini-combine that you can walk-behind or sit on. It runs for about 25,000 CAD, which may sound like a lot, but purchasing the reaper-binder and a thrasher individually may add up to something close to this. They sell 33″ and 45-80″ header models. The biggest one does 2.5 acres an hour (24 minutes an acre).
There may also be opportunities to buy second-hand plot harvesters or mini-combines from agriculture stations, seeming as there are so many closing down these days! This government site has the latest listings of all government surplus items for auction across Canada. Occasionally there is agriculture equipment available. There may also be equipment that is not being used at agriculture research stations that could be leased out. Its worth asking!
Here is an example of a 3-point hitch, side-arm harvester that reaps and binds:
This tool is made by BCS, an Italian company that manufactures the popular and versatile walk-behind tractor (Italians must be masters of small-farming!). It is available in the US from Farrari-Tractor CIE for about 10,000 CAD. This company also has a very useful page on these and other tools for use for small-farmers. Here’s another look at it:
This guy will cut a 1.4 meter wide swath and bind a bundle automatically when its full. The working capacity is about 1.5 acres an hour.
Now that covers getting the crop off the field, but it still has to be thrashed and cleaned. Thankfully, this task is much easier. There are several models of stationary thrashers and odds are there are some nearby available second hand for a good price.
Please share any other equipment that you use or that you have heard of. I’m always looking for new ideas!