>On wheat

>It’s Canada Day today and, to celebrate, a very light rain fell in the morning. I was grateful for that because I wasn’t feeling great and didn’t feel like hauling (yet more) stones. The weather somehow justified staying indoors. In addition, the harvest wheat I planted a week ago started to germinate and I wondered whether I would have to figure out a way to irrigate it. Problem solved, for now.

Why did we plant wheat? First, because it was the only cover crop seed that we had at the farm. We bought it at Top Shelf in Duncan on a whim. Second, because it will look nice in the fall when M and kids return from Ontario. Third, the leftover seed from the 25kg sack can been used as chicken feed and for human food.

We did not plant it because we thought it would make a good cash crop or promote food security to any significant degree*. Others on the island think there’s money to be had and are currently growing it. I don’t begrudge anyone from growing wheat here but I would recommend that anyone who considers the prospect first sharpen their pencils. Once our own wheat heads up but before the seed gets too viable, I plan to under sow some winter pea and then crimp the wheat down to kill it.

The new grain partnership I’m aware of on this island has three members who have bought a used combine. Say what you will about using fossil fuels in farming but unless you are a gifted scyther with a lot of energy in September – right after the wheat is ripe and just before the rains come – you pretty much need some mechanization to produce the harvest before it rots. In the case of the partnership, the combined acreage should be large enough that, provided the crop is clean enough and of good quality … and considering that it will be organic, they will be able to realize a decent profit. Everyone else has their work cut out for them.

As a volunteer on an organic farm a couple of years ago, I was handed a pair of scissors and a wicker basket and told to cut wheat heads off of the small stand they had planted. It wasn’t physically hard work but I had a difficult time with it mentally when I calculated that a combine could have likely done the job of our 10 person-hours in about 3 seconds. There really is no competing with a Great Plains grain farmer. Having said that, Foxglove Farm is offering a small scale grain growing workshop this summer and perhaps there really is a way to make money in grains. In the past I have considered purchasing a sickle bar mower attachment for the BCS; there might be an economic payback using that scale of equipment.

It seems to be accepted wisdom these days that it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food. I won’t dispute that only because it is meant as a North American average and, as such, it may motivate some people to grow their own food or to buy food locally. But the number itself is subject to all sorts of assumptions such as regional and seasonal variation. I highly doubt an organic farmer in California consumes 10 calories of fuel for every calorie she consumes. If she were, then the weather observer stationed in Yellowknife would probably be consuming 1000.

In reality, the 10:1 figure, as useful as it is in soundbite form, should be analyzed by the individual in order that growers, in particular, don’t start making uneconomic crop planning decisions. After all, growing food beyond basic sustenance is a business like most others and is subject to all sorts of economic forces like supply and demand. In addition, it is subject to natural conditions like climate and soil. There may be a large demand for pineapples on Salt Spring but there is no economical way to grow them here.

Some distinction needs to be made in the form of food calorie being produced. Conventionally grown wheat on the prairies undoubtedly uses copious fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides but, per calorie, I suspect it would be much lower than conventionally grown lettuce mix in California simply because the calorie density of wheat is so much higher than that of lettuce. Most fruits and vegetables are 90%+ water whereas dried wheat is ideally 14% moisture. Furthermore, because lettuce is so perishable, it needs to be moved quickly – often by inefficient air transport – to its distant markets. Grain, on the other hand, is shipped for much of its distance via slow but cheap rail or water and shows up at market in almost perfect shape.

The ultimate proof of this phenomenon is seen in the grocery store. Every two or three months the local stores discount a 10kg sack of flour to $5. For comparison, I’ll guess a 1 lb head of romaine goes on sale for $1 from time to time. At those rates, the lettuce is 100 times more expensive per calorie than the wheat. Without doing the math, I’ll guess that any combination of organic and locally grown prices for those crops will follow the same basic relationship. And even if I’m out by a factor of 10, can there be any doubt as to why it makes more sense to grow salad greens here than wheat, at least for the time being? As oil – and Californian water! – gets less affordable, the equation should shift even more decidedly in the direction of growing salad greens and other water-dense crops locally. Shipping water is silly.

The problem then is how to produce water-heavy produce like salad greens during the winter when most people have put their gardens to bed. I believe it is the winter when we in Canada eat the most of our yearly fossil fuels. In future posts I hope to explain the techniques Eliot Coleman has popularized for the medium-scale organic farm as I put them into practise this summer and fall for the winter harvest.

* I reserve the right to completely change my mind on this.

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