Thursday, May 31, 2012

Heritage Wheat Trials on Prairie Heritage Farm

A heritage wheat.
In 2009, here on Prairie Heritage Farm, I started trailing around 250 heritage and ancient wheat varieties. Each variety consisted of no more than 30-50 seeds. I seeded around 3 linear feet of each, made general observations all year, and harvested them with scissors and hand-threshed them. In 2010, I took the 30 best varieties and seeded approximately 50 linear feet of each, and again, hand harvested and threshed them. In 2011, I took the best 8 and seeded around 600 linear feet of each. Again, I hand harvested and threshed them.

2011 trials.

My goal all along has been to build up a seed base of the best varieties so that I can eat some of the seed to see how they taste and what they might be suited for (pasta, bread, soup, etc.), and to have enough crop to seed mechanically with a tractor and a drill. The problem with my drill is that when you have so little seed, the cups empty quickly and a lot of seed just sits between the cups, not getting put into the ground. In the past, I've had friends ride on the drill and hand-scoop seeds into the cups as they empty.

Empty drill.
My friend Tim helping me plant a couple years ago.
This year, I wanted to ensure consistency in planting, so I cut the tops and bottoms off used and cleaned quart bottles of oil and taped them over the drill cups. I was able to fill the oil cups with seed and it allowed me to seed the amount I wanted.

Empty drill with oil cup attached.
I took the 2 most interesting varieties (to me), a bread wheat called Ethiopian Blue Tinge, and a Persian wheat called Rusak (collected by the Russian botanist Vavilov in 1924, whose story is told by one of my favorite authors, Gary Paul Nabhan). Since I was seeding 2 varieties, I didn't want them to contaminate each other. My drill has 12 cups, 10" apart. To plant the first variety, I taped 6 oil cups on the left half of the drill. To plant the second variety, I moved the oil cups to the right half of the drill. This ensured that if seeds from the first variety got caught up in the down pipe of the drill, it wouldn't contaminate the second variety when I seeded it.

Drill with oil cups attached, filled with seed.

So my two heritage varieties are in the ground, it's rained, and now I wait for them to push through the soil. In the fall, I plan to use a small combine to harvest them, after which I hope to have enough to seed even more ground next year, eat some, and re-discover the valuable genetics and unique characteristics of these heritage varieties.