A phalanx of combines rolled across a wheat field that we passed on our drive home the other evening.
Perfect, I said, as I stopped the car and marched into the field just as one of the behemoths rumbled out of line and sidled up to the grain truck to disgorge its golden load.
The driver opened the door and I climbed the ladder to the bridge, or whatever they call the wheelhouse of a combine. Dressed for the office and not field work, I must have radiated troubling vibes. But his expression changed when, after my best countrified “Howdy,” I asked if he would sell me a bushel of wheat for 20 bucks.
The seed of this transaction was planted some months ago when my wife and I made a pledge to try to eat as locally as possible.
We would grow what we could ourselves, but to avert starvation, we also would shop the farmers’ market, the grown-in-Kansas section of the grocery store and, in a pinch, order stuff through the mail.
Except for her morning hit of Mudslide coffee and my fix of hot tea, we figured we could do more than nibble around the edges of our goal. So we (by “we” I mean “I”) decided to make bread the cornerstone of our local food commitment. This is because I make a lot of bread, conventionally and in a bread oven, so it made some sense to start with wheat.
Local grocers sell flour milled in Kansas, but is the wheat grown in Kansas? We have purchased products from Heartland Mill way out west in Marienthal, but we thought we could do better. I figured I had this problem licked a few years ago when, in a coals-to-Newcastle moment of derangement, surrounded by a sea of wheat, I decided to grow my own wheat in the garden. It remained wheat through the growing, shocking and drying stages. At threshing, however, it changed from wheat into a spawn of Satan!
No amount of increasingly violent beatings with a flail could force the heads to surrender the apparently shatter-proof seed. There has (pant) to be (pant) a better way (pant). There was, which is why the other evening I was shouting over the roar of the combine’s engine to the now-smiling farmer, who, relieved I wasn’t threatening a noise-and-dust abatement lawsuit, offered me the bushel for free.
That’s not what this is about, I said. At 60 pounds, more or less, a bushel of wheat will yield 12 five-pound bags of flour, more or less. Depending on the kind of flour and the brand, 12 five-pound bags will set us back about $20, more or less. Probably more.
I hesitate to mention the farmer’s name or his field in case there is some footnote on page 4,724 of USDA regulations (volume XIX) protecting the wheat-processing middlemen, who were completely cut out of the loop by this drug-deal-like transaction conducted al fresco in the dimming of the day!
Instead of working their way through the gut of industrial bread-making, these kernels were diverted into a plastic washtub that now sits just inside our front door. Like drug money, the wheat will need some cleaning. It also will need to be ground into flour. When the government stimulated us a while back, we invested some of the money in a hand-crank grain mill, making Uncle Sugar a co-conspirator in our attempt to monkey wrench Corporate Food.
As soon as the mill arrives, we’ll be eating local and fresh. This begs the question: Suppose sellers of bread machines also stocked a selection of grain mills? People grind their own coffee beans, why not wheat and other grains? If this catches on, perhaps more farmers would be willing to idle their combines long enough to spew a bushel or two or three. Maybe they wouldn’t have to haul it all to the elevator, thus saving fuel. Instead, they could sell it roadside right out of the combine to patrons queued up like diners at a fast- food restaurant drive-up window.
By the time the men in black suits and dark glasses catch wind of this agricultural subversion, it will be too late.
[guest-author]Gordon D. Fiedler Jr.[/guest-author]