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American do-nothing farming: Wheat and buckwheat

My long-term goal is to grow most of the grains Mark and I eat using Fukuoka's do-nothing farming --- utilizing heavy straw mulches from previous crops and a groundcover of clover to fertilize the soil and prevent weeds from growing in the field.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to find any definitive information from people who have translated this Japanese method to the United States, so I'm prepared for the first few years to be dismal failures.  Here's a rundown on the current incarnation of this experiment.

Wheat is our winter grain
Types of wheatThe first step in a do-nothing rotation is finding a winter grain.  From everything I've read, if you live in a climate colder than zone 7, your choices are slim --- wheat or rye.  (Barley is another option if you live further south.)  I'm not a fan or rye, so wheat will be our winter grain.

Winter wheat should be planted early enough in the fall that the plants grow 5 to 6 inches before going dormant (which equates to 8 to 12 weeks of growth), but late enough that the Hessian fly has died back for the year.  From browsing extension service sites, it sounds like we should plant our wheat in early to mid October, after the first freeze.

There are half a dozen different types of wheat, so I expect I'll be talking about seed choice in more depth in a later post.  Here are the main decisions you have to make when choosing a type of wheat for your garden:

  • Soft wheat, hard wheat, or durum wheat.  Soft wheat has less gluten and protein, and is great for baking biscuits and cakes.  Hard wheat is high in protein and gluten, so it makes great bread flour or all-purpose flour.  Durum wheat is also high in protein, but is low in gluten, so it is primarily used to make pasta.
  • Winter wheat or summer wheat.  This is pretty self explanatory --- one grows in the winter and one in the summer.  This distinction does not necessarily relate to the other distinctions --- winter wheat, for example, can be soft or hard and red or white.  Clearly, we'll be choosing a winter variety.
  • Red or white wheat.  Among the hard winter wheats, you can choose between the widespread red wheat or the newly trendy white wheat.  I'm actually intrigued by the latter since it has just as much nutritional value as red wheat, but results in bread that is paler, less bitter, and softer --- sounds like just the way to complete Mark's conversion to whole grains.


Buckwheat is our summer grain
Buckwheat flowersThe summer grain in a do-nothing rotation should be of a different genus than the winter grain so that diseases and pests from the winter crop won't ruin the summer crop.  In addition, the summer grain needs to mature relatively quickly since the winter grain usually eats up over half of the year.

My top choice for a summer grain is buckwheat.  This "grain" is not even in the grass family, so it shares no diseases with wheat, and it can be planted as late as mid June and still produce a good crop.  I have to admit that I've never actually eaten buckwheat, but the grain is supposed to have a complete set of amino acids (unlike other grains, but like meats) and blooms for at least a month, making it a great nectary for honeybees.  Buckwheat flour is often used in pancakes, but the seeds can also be sprouted or cooked whole (or fed to the chickens if we hate it.)  On the negative side, buckwheat is not a good choice for bread and the hulls must be removed before cooking.

Buckwheat likes warm soil for growing, but cool nights during bloom and seed set, so it is best planted two to three months before the average fall frost free date --- July or August here in southwest Virginia.  Unlike many of the true grains which can be left in the field to dry, buckwheat needs to be harvested before the frost so that the seeds don't fall to the ground.

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer, the best way to give your chickens clean water on a budget.



This post is part of our Homegrown Whole Grains lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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I love buckwheat. I use it in my morning smoothie with yogurt and fruit.
Comment by Lisa Tue Mar 30 14:39:44 2010
I'm hoping we love it too! From everything I've read, it's a perfect "grain" for beginners like us.
Comment by anna Tue Mar 30 16:33:20 2010
I've been thinking about growing grain once I have more land for it. I'd like to use it to brew beer, though. I'm not sure what will grow well in southeastern areas.
Comment by Eliza Tue Mar 30 16:57:47 2010
If you haven't read it already, you might be interested in reading my post about grain varieties suitable to the backyard. Corn is always the easiest since you've probably grown sweet corn before, which works pretty much like field corn. I don't know if it'd make beer, but it'd make moonshine. :-)
Comment by anna Tue Mar 30 19:12:11 2010
Check out photosensitivity.
Comment by Walter Jeffries Tue Mar 30 20:46:51 2010
Sounds interesting. But photosensitivity in relation to what, exactly?
Comment by anna Wed Mar 31 07:53:01 2010
Maybe you were referring to the shortening days bothering the buckwheat? That would be a valid thing to worry about --- I usually give my fall vegetables extra days to make up fr the shortening daylight. But shorter fall days seem to be factored into the growth of buckwheat since most sources report that's the time to grow the grain.
Comment by anna Wed Mar 31 08:15:03 2010
Some plants can make animals more sensitive to sunlight. - photosensitivity.
Comment by Walter Jeffries Sat Apr 10 23:08:51 2010
Wow --- I had no idea! I looked it up, and it sounds like the seeds are safe, but the greens can cause problems. So the solution would be to make sure the plants are killed by frost before I turn the chickens in to eat the seeds. Thanks for posting that --- I didn't know that buckwheat was potentially problematic!
Comment by anna Sun Apr 11 08:32:47 2010
I will often eat buckwheat straight-up (cooked of course) and will use it as a side-dish grain with a meal. It takes some getting used to as it has a very particular aroma and flavor (I was introduced to it living in Russia), but it is good for you and very filling.
Comment by Anonymous Wed May 26 12:22:07 2010
We'll have to give that a shot! I figure if we hate it, we can always feed it to the chickens, who seem capable of eating anything.
Comment by anna Wed May 26 12:41:38 2010

Can you give us an update on your wheat/buckwheat rotation? Have you learned of similar efforts in the United States since you began your attempt?

I just read The One-Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming by Masanobu Fukuoka, and am very interested in an adaptation of do-nothing farming that can be applied in the United States.

Comment by John Kintree Thu Jan 27 12:06:10 2011

You can read the highlights and lowlights of our backyard grain experiments by clicking on the link above.  From my experience (and what I've since learned from others), you have to start with tilled ground to make Fukuoka's method work, and I just ran the chickens over an area before planting at first, which didn't work well. 

For my second experiment, I got the chickens to really clear the ground and then went in and dug up any serious roots.  During that experiment, I learned that buckwheat is a lot more sensitive to environmental conditions than I had thought, and I again didn't get much harvest.  I didn't have weed problems, though, and had no trouble planting winter wheat amid the buckwheat after letting the chickens run through and harvest the buckwheat grain.

Comment by anna Thu Jan 27 17:53:14 2011

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime