Friday, July 29, 2011

Growing wheat in Alaska -- the Little Red Hen



    Turns out that you can indeed grow wheat in Alaska. Some estimate that by 2050, the climate will be warm enough to make a commercial success of it -- although Alaskans with long memories recall the Delta barley fields and are understandably skeptical. For now, though, you can grow wheat on a small scale, and there are survivalists and locavores who are interested in doing just that. 


     The Little Red Hen is the child's story about the virtues of sharing and hard work, but it's also an excellent vehicle to tell a tale of how to turn some wheat grains into a loaf of bread from your own backyard. As you may recall, the Little Red Hen is scratching about in her (free-range) barn yard, one day, and finds a grain of wheat. "Who will help me plant this wheat?" she clucks, and the other barnyard animals say, "Not me," one by one. So the Little Red Hen goes off and plants it herself.


     Actually, she would need more than a single grain if she wanted a loaf of bread. According to this site, she needs about 31 square feet of land planted in wheat for a one pound loaf of bread. A pound of wheat yields about .85 pounds of flour (the rest is husks and inedible parts of the grain), and it takes about .8 of a pound of flour to make a one-pound loaf. The remaining .2 pound is water.


     A University of Alaska Fairbanks website provides great detail about how to grow the grains suited to Alaska's different climates on a small scale in your garden. http://www.uaf.edu/files/snras/C135.pdf. They start by saying that "Wheat is of limited importance as a grain crop for Alaska due to its long growing season requirement." Compared to barley or oats, it takes about ten days longer -- but those few days can be hard to squeeze out of the brief summer. And they have to be warm, dry days, which as the summer moves on become fewer and fewer. Even light frosts can stop the grain from developing. 


     "Early maturing hard red spring wheat varieties are the best adapted for Alaska’s growing conditions but are considered somewhat marginal. From the little red hen's standpoint, hard red spring wheat is one of the better types for bread baking. UAF says that "The seedheads of hard red spring wheat can be awnless, tip awned, or fully awned depending on the variety. All other things being equal, kernels of awned varieties photosynthesize more than varieties without awns, resulting in higher levels of carbohydrates, higher test weights, and quicker drying during ripening."


     That's enough for today. Above is a photo of a Little Red Alaskan Hen (she's actually a Buff Orpington) with friends.




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