Wheat is the world’s most important grain crop, and approximately 70% of all agricultural land is planted to wheat, more than any other crop. For generations people have been sustained by this important food staple. However, recent research has raised questions about the possible detrimental health effects of wheat, most notably gluten intolerance, allergies and celiac disease. Increasingly, it seems a greater percentage of the population is suffering from these maladies, more than has historically been seen before. Since people have been consuming wheat in some form for millennia, researchers have begun to question the recent increase in these health issues. Some research has pointed to modern varieties of wheat that have been genetically selected and adapted for high yield and high gluten (protein) content. For centuries, farmers have been selecting plant varieties for better quality and yield, however continual selection for yield over other traits can lead to the loss of beneficial nutritional qualities. Wheat that has been bred for higher gluten content allows large, industrial baking operations to produce more bread per day per oven because the higher gluten content will cause the bread to rise more quickly. However, some dietitians and nutritionists believe that longer rise times as well as fermentation (sourdough) and pre-sprouting can develop more flavor and enzymatic activity which aids digestion and assimilation. Many older varieties of wheat require this slower artisan process in order to produce quality bread.
In addition, most modern wheat has been bred to grow shorter so that large combines do not have to deal with as much straw during the harvest. However, small-scale horse farmers prefer the taller varieties because they are more easily harvested by horse-drawn grain binders. Also, straw is a valuable commodity on a sustainable farm, serving as mulch, compost material (carbon source) and animal bedding.
This past year the research farmers at The Ploughshare searched and found several old varieties of wheat and are now growing them here on our research farm in order to determine which varieties perform best in our climate and soils. For the past 16 years we have grown and saved seed from Russian Beardless Wheat, an heirloom variety that has been a consistent performer. We are using this wheat variety as our control variety to measure and compare to the wheat varieties in the trial.
Using organic whole wheat flour and water, you can easily culture your own sourdough starter from scratch. Organic flour naturally contains plenty of wild yeasts. In culturing a sourdough starter, you are simply providing an environment in which those wild yeasts can thrive and reproduce. Below is a step-by-step process to produce a starter that you can use in making all kinds of sourdough, including breads, bagels, pizza dough, pancakes and waffles.
Ingredients and Supplies
1/2 cup room-temperature, purified water. Be careful not to use chlorinated water because it may hinder the growth of your sourdough culture.
1/2 cup freshly ground organic whole wheat flour.
Clean, half-gallon glass jar
1. In the half-gallon jar, combine 1/2 cup flour with 1/2 cup water. Cover the jar with plastic wrap and let it sit 3-5 days until you begin to see bubbles forming on top of the mixture.
2. Once you see bubbles, discard all but 1/4 cup of the mixture. The jar may have a lot of dried starter on the side by this time, so you may want to transfer the 1/4 cup of mixture into a clean, room-temperature half-gallon jar. Feed the mixture by adding 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup room-temperature, purified water.
3. Once a day, discard all but 1/4 cup of the starter and feed it by adding 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup room-temperature, purified water. Continue to do this daily until the yeast can double in size within 4-6 hours. One way to keep track of the results is to mark the outside of the jar with a permanent marker immediately after feeding your starter. Then you can easily compare its growth to its original volume. When it becomes vigorous enough to double in size within 4-6 hours, the starter is ready to use in making breads, bagels, pancakes, waffles and other recipes.
There are several ways to start your top bar hive. One is to begin by buying a package of bees from a bee supplier. When you order packaged bees, your supplier will set an arrival date, and he will mail the bees to you in time for them to arrive on that date. The bees will be shipped in a wooden box with wire screen on two sides for ventilation, and the package will contain three or four pounds of worker bees and a queen. Each package ships with a can of syrup to feed the bees during transit.
Preparing for Arrival
Before your bees arrive, there are several things you need to do to be ready for them. First, paint your hive, allowing enough time for it to dry thoroughly, and set it in place. When your bees arrive, you will need to have each of the following on hand:
Spray bottle of sugar water (recipe below)
Bee feeder for feeding sugar water to your bees (recipe below)
Sugar water. To make sugar water, mix one cup of sugar with one cup of room-temperature water in a quart jar. You will use sugar water in your spray bottle and in the bee feeder.
Installing a Package of Bees
When your bees arrive, remove ten top bars from the hive, and place the bars next to the hive. Your hive has one divider board. Place that divider board in the space that had been occupied by the tenth bar. Since the new bees will have to work to keep the hive warm, it is best not to give them too much space. Using the spray bottle of sugar water, lightly spray the packaged bees through the screen. This helps calm them. Remove the cardboard shipping label that covers the top of the bee package. With a pair of pliers, remove the can of syrup. Spray the bees again with sugar water. The queen will be in a queen cage that is hung in the package next to the can of syrup. Using the hive tool, remove the staples that hold the queen cage in place.
There are two common types of queen cages. One is wooden with three sections in it. Two of the sections will have the queen and a few worker bees. The last section will be filled with sugar candy. On each end of the cage is a cork. Remove the cork on the end of the cage that has the candy. After you have finished setting up your hive, the bees will eat through the candy and release the queen.
The second type of queen cage is made of plastic and has a candy-filled tube extending from the bottom of the cage. On the end of the tube is a cap. Remove the cap.
When the bees and queen are packaged, they are taken from many different hives, so the bees are not familiar with the new queen. As the bees eat through the candy, it takes time, and during that time they become accustomed to their new queen. Take a nail and remove some of the sugar candy. This will help the bees release the queen much more quickly. Next take the queen cage and hang it between two top bars. Place the two top bars and cage in the hive.
Now take the package and begin pouring the bees into the hive. You will need to shake the package several times to remove all the bees that cling to the screen.
Once the bees are in the hive, spray them lightly with sugar water. This will keep them from flying everywhere. Fill the feeder with sugar water and place it in the entrance of the hive so the bees can access it from inside the hive. It is best to feed your bees sugar water at least twice a week for the first three weeks. After that, feed them once a week until they fill one comb with honey. This full comb of honey will ensure that the bees have enough food.
Checking the Hive for the First Time
Check the hive six to seven days after you started it, to make sure the bees were able to release the queen. After removing the hive roof, take your hive tool and remove the top bar that is next to the divider. Then look inside. If the bees have not yet built a comb on the next top bar, slide it toward the divider board. Continue until you see the combs. Carefully remove the first bar with comb.
This comb will be very small and fragile. To find out whether the queen is laying and in good health, check the comb that you just removed for the presence of eggs. Look for eggs at the bottom of the cells. Each egg will look like a very small grain of rice. Continue with all the combs. If for some reason there is no sign of eggs, check the queen cage. If the queen did not get out, you can release her by removing the screen and letting her walk out onto a comb.
The bees will start to build comb very rapidly during the first week, and they will most likely build three to four combs. The second week, there may be as many as seven combs. It is important to make sure the combs are built straight. If one comb starts to get crooked, all the combs adjacent to it will be crooked. It is easy to fix this when the hive is first starting. Take your hive tool and straighten the comb by pressing on it in the direction that it needs to go. You can also rotate the whole bar and comb so the spot that started to get crooked will be adjacent to the straight part of the comb next to it.
It is a good practice not to harvest any honey the first year, even if the hive has extra. The bees need as much honey the first year as possible to make it through the winter.
After our recent article about making a wooden spoon from a log, several people expressed an interest in taking our class on spoon making, so we’ve scheduled an additional class on Friday, June 1, 2012. If you would like to take it, you can register here:
Carving a wooden spoon by hand is relaxing and enjoyable, and the spoons and spatulas you can learn to make work very well in the kitchen and make great gifts. My family uses wooden spoons and spatulas in the kitchen on almost a daily basis, and we have a few that are over 20 years old and still in use.
In our one day hands-on workshop, you’ll make the four projects pictured above:
a stirrer made of pine (top in the photo)
a spatula (third in the photo)
a spoon (second in the photo)
and a ladle (fourth in the photo)
For the spatula, spoon and ladle, we’ll be using kiln-dried hardwoods. The hardwoods will vary from class to class.
In making the projects, you’ll be learning the basics of how to use a spoon gouge, a drawknife, and a spokeshave to shape wood. These are skills that will help you in other woodworking projects down the road.
You can register through our website using the link below:
Gardening and farming are an important part of sustainable living. When we farm and garden with traditional methods there is always more to learn that will help us raise food and care for our livestock and land more effectively. Therefore, we have a number of agricultural projects in progress right now, including:
Soil Amendments — We keep an eye open for soil amendments that work well and that are either inexpensive to purchase or something you can make, yourself. Ideally, we prefer soil amendments that you can produce on the farm. Two soil amendments we’re currently testing are Biochar and Sea-Agra-90. Biochar is made from charcoal, and you can make it on the homestead. Charcoal is able to absorb nutrients, and the idea behind Biochar is that it will absorb nutrients and release them slowly over time, so it may be useful if you have poor or sandy soils. Sea-Agra-90 is a mined sea salt that contains many trace minerals and is reported to boost yields. Some people might object to putting salt on their soil, but thus far, we’ve seen no reports of problems due to salinity, and the salt is not used in large quantities. We’re conducting a multiple-year test with these two soil amendments to determine their effects on the yields and health of various crops.
Low Gluten Wheat and Barley — Many modern wheats have been optimized for high yield and high gluten content. It seems that more and more people are experiencing health problems related to those high gluten wheats, so we’re conducting field trials of about twenty varieties of low gluten wheat and barley, some of which are rare and ancient varieties. Our purpose for this research is to identify varieties that will grow well here and that work well for making bread and other baked goods. We describe this project in more detail in A Wheat Trial of Ancient and Heirloom Wheat Varieties.
Hydrology Research — Dr. Yelderman, a geology professor at Baylor University and his students are working with us with this project. On our 500 acre farm, we have several wells for irrigation and domestic use. We’ve begun using a number of methods to improve our pastures and increase water infiltration into the soils. Our goal is to bring our farm to a higher level of productivity and document the effect that our land management practices are having on our water table, our wells and our ability to grow grasses and other vegetation as feed for our animals.
Micro-climate and Diversity — If you’re going to garden organically, it’s important to have diversity, both in regard to plants and in regard to beneficial bugs and other animals. Frogs, lizards and bluebirds help control garden pests. Ladybugs and lacewings are very effective against aphids. To attract the beneficial animals, you have to provide an environment that the beneficial animals want to live in — an environment in which they can flourish. That entails having plenty of ground cover and a diversity of plants, among other things. Micro-climate goes hand-in-hand with diversity and is also very important. You can’t control the weather and the general climate for your area, but with things like windbreaks and mulch, you can make a difference in the “micro” climate of your garden, reducing wind speed so that plants don’t undergo as much stress and keeping soil cool and moist while improving water infiltration. In our model homestead, we’re planting a living windbreak composed of grapevines and fruit trees and considering putting in a small pond and taking other steps to attract more beneficial creatures.