Regenerative small-scale grain growing

| Appropriate Technology, Farming, Resources | comments | Author :

When I’ve thought about small scale grain cropping in the past, I thought of long skirts, plaited hair, and a whole lot of winnowing, threshing, and hard work. Somehow, I always thought this stuff was either the province of the seriously self sufficient, or the seriously delusional.

Nowadays I wonder why the heck in Australia we don’t grow more grains and pulses on a small scale. It would seem to me that grain production is one of those things we’ve whole-heartedly outsourced to industrial agribusiness without a second glance. And I think I want it back.

Col Seis’s pasture cropped oats, October 2010. Not your standard cropping regime

Growing up, my experience with grain cropping was your standard non-farmer suburban perception: precision farming using extremely large machines to do something extremely technical, in order to produce something extremely processed.

Since having met Col Seis and seen his pasture cropping setup, however, I began to see that there’s another way to approach growing grains. Pasture cropping sows crops (like oats, rye, wheat) into perennial pastures. The crop is raised and then harvested, leaving the stubble standing in pasture, with no bare ground or tillage involved.

That pasture is then grazed within a holistic management style regime with sheep, which suppresses the pasture plants growth while increasing their root mass, species diversity and creating impressive amounts of topsoil. And that regime is followed by another crop.

Col Seis digging down into a pasture cropped paddock to show Nick Ritar and Joel Salatin the soil profile
The classic shot of Col Seis’s pasture cropping results. Soil profile of pasture-cropped paddock is at left. Conventional cropped paddock with set stock grazing (next door to Col Seis) is at right. You’re looking at 50cm of topsoil on the left, after 18 years of pasture cropping, as opposed to 10cm on the right. That’s pretty impressive.

So no bare ground, happy pasture, happy sheep, and regenerative grain production. That all sounds very good.

Not that Col is the only one doing regenerative cropping. Victorian farmer Robert Ruwoldt has just been named Australian Farmer of the Year for his work in direct seed, zero-till cropping techniques. There’s many others too, including the notable Wes Jackson of the Land Institute.

But back my personal small-scale cropping concerns. What about the skirts and the plaits? Can the associated toil of threshing, winnowing etc be avoided somehow, in order to make small-scale grain production actually attractive?

How do we get around that bit without a massive combine harvester, those great big machines that harvest all industrial-scale grains?

Hmm. Well, given my research thus far, there are options. There’s all manner of funky mini walk-behind combine harvesters coming out of vietnam, china and india, which cater to their particular small-scale farmers. Just how much they cost and how available they are, is a matter for further research I guess. But they are there.

Mini combine harvester for rice and wheat

Or, you could go the old-school route, or the old-school-meets-new-school route, which is to say the techniques being trialled by the farm hack style experimental grain growing community.

These farm hacks are happening all over, in Australia and the USA and beyond, by small-time farmers trying out new ways of doing old skills.

Old-school corn sheller – photo by Skyline

Grain production, and it’s future, are worth getting involved in on an ideological level if nothing else. Because the growing of grains, and the accessibility and distribution of those grains, ties into seed sovereignty bigtime. And the importance of keeping heritage grain varieties viable and un-patented can’t be understated.

Some resources I’ve been looking through:

Small scale grain and pulse production – community blog of small-time experimenters, farm-hackers, and heritage grain growers.

Home Grown Small Grains: Grow, Harvest, and Cook Wheat, Barley, Oats, Rice, Corn and More – book by Sarah Pitzer

Small Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers – book by Gene Logsdon

All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming – book by Gene Logsdon (a grain book and a holistic management style grazing book, both by the one guy. He should come to Gulgong and visit Col Seis’s pasture cropping setup, i think!)

King of Kamut (pdf) – a really good article from Acres USA on successful, organic cropping of ancient dryland grains

Pasture cropping resources:

Pasture Cropping course – we’re running this with Col Seis at his ground-breaking farm farm near Gulgong NSW in mid October this year. It will be amazing.

Why Pasture Cropping is such a Big Deal

Soil Decision Making – great article by the fab Cam Wilson on Col Seis’s pasture cropping results from a soil perspective

I also have seen notices that Nick Romanowski (venerated Australian aquaculture expert) occasionally runs grains and grasses workshops but I don’t have any details of any workshops upcoming. Bear with me.

Grain thresher/cleaner by Marshall & Sons. Condition: used. Photo by ak5454
What an amazing machine… Photo by ak5454

And lastly, here’s an amazing example of 1900’s grain harvesting. It’s a very old thresher / seed cleaner that’s currently for sale at Glen Innes, NSW. The story is that it was in a shed, but the shed blew off. So now it’s sitting in a field. Anyone up for it? It’s going for a song…

I’d love to hear from anyone out there experimenting with or successfully doing small scale regenerative grain cropping, especially in Australia? Got any tips to share on the stages between growing and eating? Any stories, resource links or even flying rumors would be great to add to the brew…

(small caveat on the above text – I do know that there is a significant portion of the world’s population that are completely down with small-scale grain raising, but i haven’t discussed this issue with many of them personally. Yet.

I’ve read plenty of books, and watched plenty of footage, but it’s the hands-on advice of successful, energy efficient, small-scale grain raising within the available labor force (read: just me and my friends) of a small developed country farming enterprise  that I’m hoping for here… many thanks)

See the comments

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28 responses to “Regenerative small-scale grain growing

  1. Thanks for this post.
    We are looking to do some small-scale grain growing ourselves, primarily to cut down on interstate transport costs for certified organic feed for our poultry flock and pigs.
    I have also seen some small-scale harvesters in the US as well.
    Keen to see what others contribute here.

  2. I wish I had some experience to share with you. I don’t yet but as I’ve been studying permaculture a big question for me has been “where’s the grain?” I’m ever so thankful that, as usual, you all are a year or two ahead of us and asking the same questions. Whatever I learn, I will eventually share. Thanks so much.

  3. Korea and Japan have huge great quality rubber tracked machines that can be used for grain harvesting and such. I would love to buy one but import of 2nd hand machinery is hard to do. I have done that but the machines that have harvested grains …well it is impossible to bring in. A new one yes. look at youtube tosee a few of them in action. Even a soybean harvester walk behind is available…

  4. I am currently working with a farmer in the UK who is growing ancient grain varieties in genetically diverse populations. I have been writing a post on cereals in Permaculture in light of this experience. Should be finished soon.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to seeing the development of cereals in permaculture in Australia. I will certainly be having a go in Western Australia when I get home.

  5. I think you guys are going way too far back for this. Rather look at the communal, small scale harvesting machinery used in the 40’s and 50’s. One person in a community would have a small harvesting machine and the whole community worked together small farm by small farm to assist with the harvesting. These small machines didn’t need massive fields or large farms to be economic.
    The Amish use smaller machines and less automation. Some of this equiment might also make small scale grain viable.
    Don’t think we need to go back to to the dark ages
    or too have the damaged bodies that pre-industrial farmers had to make this work.

    1. hi Barbara, good idea on the communal-scale tech – our prob is we don’t (yet) have a community to share it with, so we’re looking for single farm-scale solutions at this point – but no wish to go back to the dark ages, rest assured!

  6. Very interesting post. I found it while researching pigs for turning the ground. We planted a small experimental patch of wheat last year, a larger area of field corn this summer, and plan to follow that with winter wheat. We are also concerned about pasture improvement for our goats. We’ve relied on the resources you list, but you’ve given us something else to look in to. Thanks.

  7. We are planning on doing small scale grains at our place. we have been reading the little house on the prairie books as a family here, and I must say that I like the idea of the hand threshing and winnowing etc. Its a process but I think its that sort of meditative work that can be good for us to do, you just wouldn’t want to spend a lifetime doing just it. Oh, and nothing wrong with plaits and skirts 😉

  8. Hi
    I agree with the comments about small scale grain growing being an important part of food production. Coincidentally, i was just communicating with John Letts, who Harry is working with, as I’m looking for old varieties of grain to grow using the Bonfils method, which I’m currently experimenting with. John and I both scythe, which takes care of the harvesting, it’s the rest of the process that I need to find out more about. Good Luck

  9. Hi Kirsten.
    Having recently communicated with Graham Bell, who was involved with the production of ‘The Harmonious Wheatsmith’, and Patrick Whitefield, from whom I first learned of the Bonfils method, it seems that it hasn’t been proved by anybody else. I would probably have stuck to the basic method if I had known this back in June, instead of adding other elements. Now I’m just curious to see where it leads to.

  10. Some grains are easier to harvest than others. Maize and sunflower need no machinery for small scale plots other than hands and a sharp knife or machete. I cut the stalks for food for my goats. Perfect grains / seed for human or animal feed or small scale oil production.

  11. Hi,

    Does anybody know of a heritage grain seed supplier in Australia for varieties suitable for growing in South Gippsland?



  12. Really, Don’t over think it or be afraid of some labor, and dont think you need to spend money! I planted .133546 hectare in barley. Once ready I threshed it by rolling it under foot on top of hardware cloth collecting the seeds and blowing the rest of the chaff away using a shop vac hooked up backwards. It took a week of working in my spare time, but in the end I had almost 60 five gallon buckets of grain and enough straw to mulch the field very nicely. Some people would argue that is to much work, but these same people work their life away doing what the must to make money then pay someone for a place to get exercise.

  13. I cannot find a grain supplier in Australia, I’ve started to talk to AQIS about importing heritage wheat via Canada but am unsure if the costs will outweigh the benefits…is anyone in Australia growing Kamut, Emmer, or Einkorn?

    1. To those of you in Australia looking for heritage wheat grains, I contacted the Tamworth Seed Bank and got some small samples from them. They are in 10gm packets, but as I’m only looking to do experimental patches to trial the Bonfils-Fukuoka method for winter wheat, they were more than enough for me. I’ve just put in my first plot of Square Head Master late last month, but I also received some Black Winter Emmer, Red Winter Spelt, and several others that I hope to trial in additional plots next year. I’ll be logging the results of the experiment on my blog,, and our Facebook page of the same name.

  14. Chinese manufacturers make a huge range of small grain harvesters at very competitive prices. A machine that would be suitable for small areas down to 100-200 hectares will cost around A$12,500 CIF, Fremantle. Certainly there are port charges and Australian duties to pay but you could have it on farm for less than A$17,000.

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