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Threshing rye

Finally I got my little harvest of rye threshed and cleaned. Actually, I threshed the rye already three weeks ago. That left me with a mixture of grain and chaff. Only today I got the chaff separated from the grain, thus completing the whole process. But let's start from the threshing.

It was a crisp clear autumn Monday. I had booked my next customers for Thursday evening, so it felt like a small holiday - several free days in a row, no strict timetables, no strict plans of what to do. Monday evening I decided to thresh the rye. I placed a pallet on the ground, and a piece of plywood on top of the pallet. I took the first bundle of rye, and tried just to gently beat the stalks against the plywood. That made some of the grain to turn loose - but not all of the grain. I used a brush to sweep the grain into a bowl. I realized that it is probably going to take a while to get all the rye threshed, so I fetched a tablet for background music. I listened to Devilwood's album Osmanthus Americanus. On their bandcamp profile they list Acid Folk as one of their genres. Well, I don't have any idea what does it exactly mean, but it sounds good and I've been amused imagining countryside musicians tripping on acid and playing in a barn for local folk dancing and boozing moonshine. Hmm, maybe that is not the official genre description =)

I tried different methods of threshing. I placed the stalks lying on top of the plywood, and beat them with a wooden club. That was effective, but it also made a lot of chaff to turn loose, and I had to avoid hitting too hard to avoid the grain bouncing all around the yard. I also tried picking one or two stalks and twisting them back and forth, basically just breaking the whole structure to grain and chaff. Beating with a club seemed to be the best method - maybe for next year I could build some sort of semi-closed box to keep the grain from flying away. The sun was getting near the treetops, there was a hint of autumn chill in the air. I tasted a grain or two, just to give me the idea what I am working for - food, I'm working for food. I noticed that in some stalks there is a grain or two which is darker and bigger than the others. Like the shape of a cat's nail. Maybe I harvested my rye too late, and some of the seeds have started to germinate already in the stalk? I tasted some of those bigger grain, too. They had a soft sweet taste to them, bit like malt. I got myself a small bowl half full of grain and chaff. It was starting to get dark, I went indoors and sorted through the bowl, picking away some of the chaff, and eating some more of those nearly-malted grain. Hey, no - wait - isn't there this thing called ergot?

I searched (not googled, but duckduckgoed instead, that's my default search engine) for ergot, and found relevant information. Seeing the pictures and reading the description it was pretty clear that these larger darker grain are contaminated with ergot. "Highly poisonous" it said. The symptoms of ergot poisoning are seizures, spasms. vomiting, gangrene, hallucinations and psychosis. Severe poisoning can be lethal. And, indeed, LSD seems to be originally derived from lysergic acid of ergot. OK, so, since I had already consumed some of those contaminated grain, there was nothing left to do but to try to find out some information about harmful dosage. How many contaminated seeds I have to eat to get gangrene in my toes and fingers? The only figure I found was that ergotism symptoms appear, when the harvest contains 0.1% of contaminated grain. For a short while I tried to estimate how many grains do I need for one portion of porridge, and what is 0.1% of that - but then, it didn't say if one portion of contaminated porridge is enough to induce symptoms of ergotism.

This also sent me thinking about real survival skills. It is relatively easy to learn to identify ergot by just reading a text and looking at pictures. But there are so many other things you can only learn with experience. And there has been so much of silent knowledge, passed down from one generation to the next. Just like in UrW, in real life you can also die because of one stupid mistake. Oh those silly moments when you just forget to think a step ahead and only realize your mistake when it is too late to cancel. So, there I was. Only that I felt calm and peaceful, something told me that the amount of ergot I consumed is not a problem. But, to be sure, I took a barf bucket next to my bed before going to sleep. And I warmly laughed to myself: "let's see what kind of acid folk this night is going to be!" Well, luckily enough I slept tight and woke up feeling well. The morning coffee tasted so good, I was greeted by another shiny beautiful autumn day. I got up and went on to cook red paint.

Now, let me sidetrack a little. Earlier in the summer one of my friends played Devilwood music. We had been drinking some beer at the garden table, and the music made me to dance on the table. Just for the silly fun of it I shot a video clip and posted it on youtube. Nothing special in that, but funnily enough, about the same time I was pondering about possible acid folk effects of mistakenly eating ergot, I noticed that the Devilwood band had noticed my video. They even posted a link on their facebook page. Well, that is nice! I mean, I don't post youtube videos to get attention, but just to spread a tiny bit of this "life isn't that serious, let's do silly things and enjoy it while it lasts"-attitude. And if some other people get glad because of that, it makes me happy. So, I asked them if I can shoot some more videos to their music. They agreed, so first we have step-by-step instructions of how to dance acid folk. And then an idea I wanted to do long since, and now I found a perfect piece of music for this; Cursed Hill.

Like that. But after painting my house and partying at Tampere, I have felt slow and in need of rest. I have done little bit of this and that, but nothing special worth of mentioning. Today I finally decided to try if I can get the rye grain cleaned. I took one of the sieves of my drying rack, poured the mixture on the sieve and tired different ways of shaking the sieve. Rapidly moving the sieve up and down makes everything to jump, and light chaff gets blown away by the wind, while the heavier grain falls back onto the sieve. There were some pieces of stalk which still had grain attached to them, so I had to separate them one by one with my fingers. Otherwise, this method called winnowing seemed to work pretty well. All of the chaff didn't fly away with the wind, but they got spatially separated - soon all the grain was in the middle of the sieve, and the lighter chaff was spread near the edges. Those who have been reading my early posts might remember that years ago I was working as a miller. And at the mill one of the machines I operated was essentially just a bigger version of this. Well, the machine at the mill made heavier grain fall down into one tube, while the light chaff went to another tube. With my primitive make-shift winnowing system I now used just a table spoon to scoop all the grain from the sieve.

Looking at the last picture, I think that I sowed about 1/3 of the amount of seeds you see on my palm. So, I can kind of a see the idea of growing rye - just a tiny amount of seeds will yield a multiple amount of grain. But then, on the other hand, all this processing of the harvest feels like a lot of work. Of course I could use some machinery to speed up the process, but that might be bit of an over-kill for my small scale backyard agriculture. Well, let's see how it goes. If I keep on growing rye and barley, maybe I will learn efficient small-scale methods of harvesting, threshing and winnowing.

Now this needs to be cleaned of chaff
Rye grain
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That is really good-looking grain! We always seem to have an ergot grain here and there, but not enough to be problematic. Ours is all cattle feed anyway. I mean, too much of it can make the cattle sick too, but you know what I mean. :P

I vaguely recall my grandmother dumping the grain into a flat pan of pickle brine, and then whisking the bad grains off the top. But then it's all soggy and not good for much but porridge. :P

We don't grow too much grain, mostly barley and a little wheat, but when we have more ergot than usual we take a scoop of the grain out of the bin in a pitcher, spread it on a tarp, and pick out all the bad grains. Then we weigh both piles to determine the ratio, and assume that the whole grain bin has that ratio.

Crop rotation is key to preventing it. The spores (I guess?) won't live for more than a year, but if you keep planting the same grain in the same place, the ergot will keep coming back. They say you are supposed to plow everything under when you've gotten it, or it will keep coming back, but we seem to do ok with just a 4-year rotation between grain, corn, Sudex, and grass, and we sod-plant whenever possible rather than plowing and harrowing.

So, a modern combined harvester doesn't sort out ergot? To me it seemed that as contaminated seeds are bigger and probably weigh less, it might be possible to construct a mechanism to sort them out. But yeah, I don't know that much - I always thought that in my small-scale homesteading I won't be growing cereals. Maybe more about this topic later on =)

I think that if I keep on growing rye, I'd mostly use it to make porridge. So, using water / brine to sort out ergot sounds like a plausible idea. Hmm, I have an old manually operated coffee grinder which dates back to post-war era, and I'd like to test if that is good for grinding the grain, so that I could cook porridge out of coarse whole-grain flour. But with my limited experience about milling I'd guess that the grain has to be dry for grinding... So, yeah, let's see how it goes. As long as my harvest stays really small, it is possible to just manually pick the ergot away before storing the grain.

PS. Ah, and thanks for recommending those other bands. I've been especially enjoying The Hillbilly Moon Explosion. They rock!

They make these color-sorter contraptions that will supposedly sort out almost all of the ergot and uh... fusarium, I think it's spelled? But our combine is very old and doesn't do anything but thresh. :P

They make these big table-things that vibrate that will sort the grains, too, but they don't work very well for removing ergot. They get probably only half of it would be my guess.

I've made cornmeal with a coffee grinder. It works well for that, but it won't grind grain into as fine a flour as you are probably used to. But if you don't mind a rough flour, it works ok.

A certain amount of ergot won't hurt you, and I think it's only repeated exposure that can cause bad health problems (but don't take my word for that lol). I /think/ the buyers will accept 1:100 or better ratio here, but I am not 100% sure. That's something my old man has always handled.

OK! I'd guess "these big table-things that vibrate" refers to a same kind of piece of machinery I was operating at the mill.

This summer was rather rainy, which makes ergot more common So, I have to see how it goes in the following summers - be the weather less humid, and it might be that I don't have to bother that much about ergot.

I'll definitely post a blog entry when I get to try the coffee grinder. At the mill I was also operating that machine which has two drums next to each other, the drums rotate, making all the grain flattened to flakes. For a moment I was thinking about buying or constructing such a machine, as flakes are good for porridge. But then, since my harvest is this tiny, it would be wiser to go with the tools I happen to have at home.

You could try threshing the rye by putting it in a sack and beating it with a club.

Ah, sounds like a simply good idea!

Hi, ergot can be real a problem for pregnant women as it can cause uterine contractions and should be avoided( it is sometimes used as ergometrin to hasten the expulsion of the placenta after birth).


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