Harvest with a Hege & a farmers lunch

On January 12th 2023 we were invited to witness the last day of harvest of the heritage trial plot. Nick and Dain went to see farmer Steve and Noel harvesting the purple straw mix with the Hege 125 plot harvester that they borrowed from fellow Biodynamic farmer Darren.  Being a much smaller field of wheat than what Steve usually does it required some borrowed equipment and fortunately, Darren was kind enough to lend it… however it also required farmer Noel to run alongside and swap out the grain bags as they filled up. It was a pretty hot day and this plot harvester built in the 1980’s was a little reminder of yesteryear for farmer Steve.

Hege 125 plot harvester
Purple Straw Mix

It had been a considerably wet spring in 2022 with lots of flooding across Victoria and even during harvest in December there was still risk of bogging in paddocks.  Again Steve and Tan felt they may have planted the heritage grains in the wrong spot because the trial plot area was in the lowest part of the paddock.  A disused channel which had recently been filled in by Steve, redirected even more water to the heritage plot area than usual.  The Yecora Red Wheat thrived on the excessively wet conditions though.  The light purple heritage wheat mix however fell over a bit.  Luckily they were still able to be harvested by the little Hege 125.

If you’ve been following along on our heritage plot journey, you would have noticed it is largely written from the perspective of a baker (the two of whom have very little farming experience). This year we wanted to get more of the farmer’s voice in to the story, so we wrote a Q & A which Steve and Tan very considerably filled out for us once all the Winter seeding was done.

What were the best performers and the worst performers of last season’s heritage plot?

“The mix of Yecora Red Wheats yielded well, not too surprising as it was a variety bred in the 70’s when yield was a priority.

The Purple 27548 also yielded well. This variety has been a standout since the original plant in 2020.  We are putting this down to suiting our conditions.

In 2022, the Purple Straw mix looked impressive in the same paddock with the Scout Wheat (Burrum’s usual wheat crop that they grow each year), but only yielded a third of what we stripped from the modern Scout crop.  Eg.  Scout yield 1000 kg /acre vs Purple Straw Mix yield 337 kg / acre.

Purple Straw Mix
Dark Purple Wheat Mix

Your favourite variety or mix from the heritage planting and why? 

The Heritage 4 Variety Mix is our favourite:  Made up of 11101 Aus, 1051 Purple Abyssinian, 1053 Purple kernal Durum and 3894 Triticum Aethiopicum.  The seed heads and grain are really interesting.  The Triticum Aethiopicum plant has excellent ground cover spread to deter weed competition.

What’s a good amount to keep on hand for planting next season?

We are currently focused solely on building up seed so it’s all planted, except for the Hat Full (Steve’s Hat), cleaned out of the airseeder between variety changes.  Ideally, we would like to keep at least 1 tonne of each heirloom variety mix annually as a buffer in the future.

Which varieties are ready for baking tests and how much can be spared?

We have kept 1-2 kg of the Yecora Red Mix and 2 -3 kg of the Purple Straw Mix for test baking.

At Blue Wren Bakery, we use about 400g of flour for a 800g loaf using our country dough (aka our bird house-loaf), not including the flour we use in our sourdough culture. So 2kg would be more than enough for 2-3 loaves.

There were a couple varieties (eg. Koelbird and Aus Wheat) that Steve and Tan thought were really interesting and worth keeping separate for a couple seasons to see how they went. For planting in 2023 they were blended with the other mixes as they had similar characteristics and it also helps to increase the seed stock. The light purple blend was then renamed Heritage Wheat mix.

Is there any new infrastructure or considerations required to continue with a certain variety? New silo or other equipment? 

“The 2023 harvest will be kept in bulka bags at our sealed coolshed.  The Yecora Red Mix might need an existing seed silo in 2023 if it yields as well as it did last year.  If there is continued demand we will consider purchasing a couple of new silos in 2025.

What hassles / lessons (if any) have come with doing these trial plots? 

Not having appropriate small-scale equipment was the biggest inconvenience.  Fortunately, we experienced a lot of interest from bakers who helped support us through the build up phase.  Blue Wren Bakery, Redbeard Bakery and Goodness Flour all collaborated to keep our time-poor moral up, helped weed and even harvested with scissors.  Liesl from Goodness Flour knew a guy called Stretch with trial plot equipment.  Stretch made our life a lot easier in 2022.

Without the support we would never have bothered to embark on heirloom varieties.  Tan swore she would never try “something like this” again after building up 2 tonnes of Khorasan by 2008 only to find nobody wanted to purchase it.  We gave the Khorasan seed away.  However, John Reid who helped weed our 2020 trials had other ideas.  John joked “You should plant a whole paddock of heritage varieties one day Steve.”   Fast forward to 2023; We never imagined that trying “something like this” again, would deepen our connections with bakers and micro millers.  The heritage trials now total 25 acres and could potentially reach that whole paddock size John joked about sooner than we think.  ”     

Khorasan is considered an ancient type of wheat, originating from the province of Khorasan, what is now a large portion of northeastern Iran and parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia. The wheat variety grows large wheat kernels and like other older varieties of grains is growing in awareness and demand. Particularly in the US, Khorasan has been used for bread for quite a while. It is sometimes referred to as Kamut which is a trademarked name of a specific subspecies of Khorasan by the Kamut Company founded in Montanna. Khorasan is gaining a bit more popularity in Australia, used mainly by artisan bakeries for its rich flavour, think butter popcorn with a bit of nuttiness. So Steve and Tan were ahead of the curve on this one but unfortunately the demand wasn’t there yet.

At the time of writing, the 2023 season had started off great, a bit of extra rainfall has had all the crops emerge nicely and looking good.

Purple straw 2023

Photo credit: Tania

We were kindly invited out to the farm again in June as Steve and Tan were hosting a gathering of local farmers and the Greens member for Western Victoria, Sarah Mansfield, to discuss the effect of the planned construction of transmission lines through farm land and flood plains. Tan asked us if we could bring some bread to share with everyone and we figured it was a great chance to showcase different grain varieties. We brought wholegrain spelt, wholegrain rye, spelt and oat porridge loaves all using Steve and Tan’s spelt, rye, whole wheat and oats. We also had some flour given to us by our friends at Woodstock Flour, so a few Spitfire and Rosella loaves made it into the bake. It was a great way to demonstrate what we are doing with these heritage grain trials, showing that each different grain variety has its own unique flavour and bread making characteristics. After Nick bumbled his way through a bit of an explanation on the types of grains, breads and techniques we use at the bakery, it was time for lunch! Steve and Tan had cooked up a storm of local snags and delicious sprouted lentil and oat pastry rolls, followed by an afternoon tea of cakes and slices brought by some of the farmers.

We felt very lucky and humble to be invited and play a part in this local grain economy.

Additional reading:

The Organic Grain Grower: Small-Scale, Holistic Grain Production for the Home and Market Producer by Jack Lazor

We found this one useful as an introduction to farming terminology, small scale farming considerations and processes and some tid bits on the history of wheat growing.

Until next time, thank you from baker Nick and baby Dain.

With edits from Tan and Jac.