During a week of drama from the RNC and Hurricane Isaac, my family and I were quietly involved in something very different than watching coverage on TV. In fact, we did something very few people in America have done in the last 50 years: We harvested wheat.
With a scythe.
Here on our 20-acre homestead in north Idaho, we are continuously engaging in projects involving self-sufficiency and food independence. In this we’re not alone. There are expert gardeners all across America who produce most or all of their own fruits and vegetables. But very few have raised that most elemental and taken-for-granted grain in our diet, wheat.
North Idaho is wheat country. In August it’s a common sight to see massive combines rumbling across vast fields, chewing up wheat and spitting out chaff. Every identical strand is cut, every precious grain is captured. Nothing is wasted.
In contrast, the harvesting process for our plot was wildly inefficient, further handicapped by our ignorance. Scything is not perfect, and lots of stuff got missed. We harvested just a bit too late in the wheat’s maturity cycle, so some of the brittle wheat heads fell to the ground. We raked the entire field and bundled the wheat stalks into crude sheaves, but we missed a lot. (We also learned why gleaning the fallen seed heads was such an important part of the biblical economy.)
Harvesting this half-acre parcel took three days of hard work. One day was spent scything and beginning to rake. The next two days were spent raking and bundling the wheat into sheaves. Last of all we gathered the sheaves and put them away where the mice and chipmunks couldn’t get to them. Then finally, at last, we could rest our aching muscles and be thankful it was done. (See our photo essay here..)
“Why don’t we just buy lots and lots of flour and store it?” grumped our older daughter, unable to appreciate the finer points of wheat production after fours hours of raking.
“What if we can’t buy flour?” I replied. And that sums up the philosophy behind our wheat-growing experiment. We no longer feel secure in being totally dependent on someone else for our food.
In my opinion, there are not enough people in this nation engaged in growing food. In fact, there are more people locked up in prisons than there are farmers. In 1870, 70 to 80 percent of America’s population was directly involved with agriculture. Today only 2 to 3 percent feed a growing population of 350 million. For the vast majority of our nation, the result is a massive disconnect with the reality of what it takes to eat.
Americans are largely unaware that our modern, comfortable, abundant American way of life is also precarious and fragile. It’s based on an aging electrical grid that is subject to intermittent failures from high demand or natural disasters. Shut down the grid, and you shut down everything … up to and including a modern farmer’s ability to sow and harvest wheat.
Last month I returned from a business trip to Portland, and in driving around that lovely city it became painfully apparent how vulnerable our urban cousins are to interruptions in food availability. Take away the grocery stores and people would panic. Panic, then starve. While urban farming is (thankfully) beginning to catch on, the amount of food produced is not even the tiniest fraction of what a large city needs to feed itself. Let’s face it: Cities are utterly dependent on farmers near and far.
Rural people aren’t much better off. While most of us keep gardens and maybe a few chickens, very very few country people are much more self-sufficient than those in suburbia.
And above all, Americans are ignorant, massively ignorant on how to grow, harvest and preserve the food that magically appears on our dinner table nightly. Most of us haven’t the faintest clue where our food comes from, nor do we care. The only important thing is that it’s there.
Only when food is not there do we start to panic over its absence. Most grocery stores only carry a three-day supply of food, and even that cushion disappears in advance of a blizzard or other storm when shelves can empty within hours.
And yet most people still won’t stockpile food even when it’s cheap and abundant.
Meanwhile farming remains one of the most misunderstood industries in the nation. I have no intention of excusing the massive environmental abuses the big agri-corporations inflict upon the land, but there are hundreds of thousands of responsible farmers and ranchers who (directly or indirectly) produce nearly everything you find in your local grocery store.
And yet these hard-working men and women are seldom thanked, and are more often criticized because they don’t live up to the lofty progressive standards set by urban armchair experts.
One thing became absolutely crystal-clear during our week of harvesting by hand: Without the modern, fossil-fuel dependent, incredibly efficient farming practices we have today, this nation would starve. Literally starve. Farmers have hundreds of millions of people to feed, and they can only do so by specializing and by incorporating every modern trick in the book necessary to get food to the market.
In other words, modern farming practices – including the judicious use of herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and other miracles – are the reality of what it takes to fill your belly. Take away those modern tools, and yield would decrease while food prices would skyrocket.
This is why harvesting a small half-acre plot of wheat by hand was so illuminating. The amount of work involved to produce what one family will use in a year illustrated with painful clarity how dependent we are on modern agriculture.
If something should happen that would cause farmers to lose the ability to grow and harvest crops, it won’t matter who’s president. We’ll all be toast (oops, except toast is made from wheat).
So this was the reason for our experiment. We hope the wheat we harvested (which is still unthreshed, unwinnowed and unground) will be enough to feed our family for the next year. We learned a lot, including the amount of sheer hard work necessary to bring in the harvest. On this Labor Day weekend, we truly labored.
Yet most people can’t or won’t grow wheat. Therefore, they should store lots and lots of flour.
It’s better than nothing.