Grain: the staff of life. We’ve heard that before. And to an extent, it’s true. Much of the world uses one grain or another as their staple crop. Wheat is popular in much of the temperate anglosphere, rice reigns across much of Southeast Asia, barley is epically important as the main grain for brewing… and corn is king over all. Beyond these, rye and oats are both of high importance worldwide, and to a lesser extent, minor grains like millet and sorghum, plus pseudocereals like buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa fill key food roles in some cultures.
That said: are grains worth growing on your homestead? Let’s take a look.
Wheat, Rye, Oats and Barley: The Painful Truth
Yield-wise, most grains aren’t all that impressive. For example, if you wanted to survive on a small acreage, you probably wouldn’t plant wheat, rye, oats or barley. Not only are they cheap to purchase, these grasses are also out-yielded by potatoes and other root crops. However, if you’re sold on trying something like wheat or rye, here’s a good place to start:
Hey! It looks like they’re growing it in a small space, right? I could do that! Yeah!
But… wait… did you see all the work that goes into producing and harvesting from their small-scale rye plot… and at the very end, did you catch the yield? Five one-pound loaves of bread. And this is grown in a biointensive double-dug bed – the yield is about the best you’re going to get without delving into black magic or making sacrifices to Ceres. OUCH! I sometimes grow barley, wheat and oats through the fall and spring… yet I rarely eat what I grow. The chickens get the stalks, seed heads and all, as bedding. Sometimes the kids and I pick through a few… but usually… forget it. The work is murder. Yet, fortunately, not all grains are like that.
Corn: A Decent Small-scale Grain
The only grain I think makes sense on a small scale is corn. A good-sized patch of grain corn will produce a decent amount of kernels for grits, cornbread, flour, chicken feed, etc. As I mentioned in my previous post on gardening without electricity, the yield of that space skyrockets when you add squash and beans to the mix. That’s something you can’t easily do with other grains.
Corn is easy to harvest and clean. We’re not talking sweet corn – we’re talking corn varieties like this:
There’s a reason that corn became king. The plant is amazing. If I were to recommend one grain to add to your homestead, this would be it. That said, it still takes up a lot of space, even if it’s the best grain you can grow. Bonus: the cobs can be made into tobacco pipes. Aww yeah.
Amaranth: Easy, but Low-yield
Beyond corn, however, there are a few minor grains that are pretty easy to deal with. One that I’ve experimented with for the last few years is amaranth. Amaranth is a relative of spinach and isn’t a member of the grass family like most grains. Its broad leaves are also edible, which gives it a multipurpose edge over most seed crops. Originally, I grew Amaranth as a chicken feed… then discovered my chickens weren’t all that keen on it. Thanks, birdbrains. Then I wondered if it made sense to use for porridges and such for my family. The answer… sort of. The yields are less than exciting, though it’s a lot easier to deal with than a true cereal. To harvest amaranth, you basically massage the mature flower heads and let the tiny seeds fall into whatever receptacle you have available. Trashcan lids work great. In the photo here, I’m using a stockpot with a loop tied around my neck. Easy.
Once you’ve collected a batch of amaranth grains, you can put them in a big bowl with rounded edges and blow the bits of flower head out of the seeds. This is also a good time to pick out all the bugs. One unintended benefit of the amaranth in my backyard is that it attracted a lot of stinkbugs. So, being a good survivalist, I picked them out of the grain, fried them, and then ate them with a bowl of amaranth porridge. Not bad at all.
One other thing you need to know about amaranth: it self-seeds magnificently. All those plants you see in the photos? I didn’t plant them. I simply harvested a garden bed of amaranth two years ago, threw the spent stalks and heads to the goats, and the seeds have been popping up in that area ever since. Awesome.
One more crop that strikes me as a potential “grain” worth growing is buckwheat. Confession: I haven’t tried it yet. However, I do have a big bag of seed that’s waiting for cool weather to arrive. According to Mother Earth News, buckwheat is a great grain for the small homestead… even though, again, it’s not a true cereal. The reason I bought some was I was interested in using it as a green manure and compost crop – getting edible seeds is just a bonus. Once I’ve put in a plot, I’ll post on its progress.
Grains can be a part of your small homestead, certainly. Some will even provide you with moderate yields. However, if I were in a situation where I needed high-yield in a small space, I’d look elsewhere. Cabbages, collards, turnips, potatoes, carrots, beets, pole beans, mangels, Jerusalem artichokes, winged yams and heck, even okra, will out-yield grains. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth trying or using as cover crops. There are grains that will keep the ground covered during winter. There are grains that will produce valuable food for your animals and matter for your compost pile. There are even grains that make great Thanksgiving decorations… just don’t count on them to be your staple in a crisis unless you’re willing to work like a slave.