For honest reasons, I suspect, many homesteader type folks like to grow grains. This desire dovetails with the “prepper” mindset as well. And I’ve struggled with it. But we must allow our rational side inform us here, at least partly. All of the small grains: Wheat, Barley, Rye, Triticale, Oats, Sorghum, Rice and Buckwheat (which is a pseudo-grain) are harvested efficiently by large-scale mechanical means, and anyone who endeavors to grow them on a small scale in their backyard is up against the John Henry predicament. I’ve been there. I’ve grown Wheat, Rye, Barley, Flax, and Buckwheat on small scales, harvested them with a sickle and makeshift threshing and winnowing contrivances, and been so exhausted by the whole affair that I think I downright resented the little grain I got out of it. I used it for seed, which is about the only reason why anyone should grow such grains to maturity, as it is the greatest return on investment–a 50 fold increase. These grains DO have worthwhile uses, but not as grain. I certainly wasn’t going to eat it, or worse, feed it to an animal. The little of these small grains most people need can be purchased for far less than they cost to produce yourself, and with a fraction of the aggravation. And besides, there are other grain-like plants that are WORTH growing because machines are still relatively inefficient at harvesting them. Focus on these instead!
What makes a grain worthwhile? Of prime importance is that they are not cheaply available due to efficient mechanical harvest. This therefore excludes all the small grains, as well as Corn (though some exceptions exist), Soybeans, Lentils, Peanuts, and many other plants. Even though everybody with a sickle in their hand thinks they’re going to be the next John Henry of harvesters, they aren’t. I’m convinced any person who grew up in the comforts of modern living will lack even the ability to match the manual harvesters of the past. The only reason we moderns get by is our machines and use of cheap fuel. But their are some grain-like annual plants, which provide considerable amounts of macro-nutrient (Carbohydrates, Fat, and Protein), yet are not easily mechanically harvested, while the harvest by manual means is fairly easy and can yield worthwhile amounts of product.
Sunflowers are this way. These Mammoth Grey Sunflowers are very easily harvested by hand and do not lend themselves to easy mechanical harvest (Sunflowers that are mechanically harvested are not this big). Each one of these enormous heads is filled with a tremendous quantity of very fatty, nutritious seeds. All you need is a knife and a means to tote the things, and in a little time, you can harvest enough by hand to make all the vegetable oil a family would want in relatively little space. The seeds, when ripe, rub off their heads very easily, and little manual oil-seed presses are quite efficient. They also allow you to fresh-press the vegetable oil, which is greatly preferable for both flavor and health reasons, since all mostly unsaturated vegetable oils oxidize rapidly, which isn’t very good for your health, and the rancidity tastes bad. Sunflower seeds are handily kept in clean metal garbage cans with tight fitting lids, which protects them from rodents, and unlike wheat berries, are actually worth storing this way. One 31 gallon can ($17 at Rural King) of sunflower seeds is more oil than a family will eat in a year, while a family could go through ten or more cans of wheat berries for fresh-grinding flour. That’s over $250 worth of cans, and that can buy a whole lot of flour!
Another grain that is this way is grain Amaranth. Though more trouble than Sunflowers, Amaranth is not easily harvested by mechanical means. The first time you harvest it by hand and you’ll know why, but I’ll tell you anyway. It’s because of its indeterminate growth habit (which it also shares with Buckwheat). Some of the flower heads will be full of ready grain, and on the same plant, other flowers will be growing, and they will all be at different heights and sticking out in every which way. When one harvests the plant, it is slow going. You spend a while at each one with a pruner cutting off heads and putting them in a bucket or sack and then binding them up with twine. Once that is done the bundles are hauled off to complete drying. After this comes the threshing and winnowing, which are much easier with Amaranth than any true grain, thankfully. Rub them over a window screen, and hope there aren’t too many bugs in it, and winnow with a box fan. There is also no grinding/cracking/dehulling necessary. Amaranth seeds are so tiny they can be cooked up directly. They can also be popped to make what my kids call “Barbie popcorn” since it looks like popcorn scaled to the size of a Barbie doll (this is surprising since none of my children have been given a barbie doll). Amaranth is definitely more trouble than sunflowers, but it is also very expensive to buy, and it goes a long way in cooking. Only a cup or so cooks up into much nutritious porridge that is also much higher in protein than the true grains (like Oatmeal). In any case, if something goes wrong with the amaranth, then just feed it to chickens.
Another plant I have grown is Flax for grain (not for fiber). The main problem with flax is that it just doesn’t yield much per plant (each plant makes about 10-20 flax seeds, which are tiny), so it is much of the same problem as the small grains. Plus the plants are short. Grain Amaranth, Sunflowers, Sorghum, and Corn are all as tall or taller than a man, so your back suffers the harvest much better. But Flax does yield a worthwhile amount of very high quality oil, which unfortunately tastes bad to me. The seeds can be stored the same way as Sunflowers, but the oil is very light, so it should be pressed daily, and it has a very low smoke point, so isn’t very good for cooking. In other words, Sunflowers have Flax beat. But Flax grows in places that Sunflowers wont, and it has such a short season that you can follow it easily with other crops, whereas Sunflowers can only be followed by a winter grain.
Another plant I have a troubled relationship with is Buckwheat. On one hand Buckwheat it remarkable in that it will grow in extremely poor soil, even gravel. Some of it sprouted and grew remarkably well in a pile of old roof shingles, once. And Buckwheat has a very good amino acid balance, containing much more lysine (which is usually the most deficient amino acid in grains) than the true grains. But it is a very troublesome plant to work with, and doesn’t yield much. The plants are short, so there is bending, and they suffer the same indeterminate growth habit as amaranth. The little buckwheat grains have a papery cover on them that is very difficult to remove and doesn’t taste good, and almost always contaminates the flour. It also doesn’t bake up well, or it doesn’t bake as well as wheat flour does. Making noodles from it is a nightmare. It is an OK overcrop, and it grows fast, and can potentially smother weeds with its broad leaves and dense canopy (if you plant it thick), but I’ve found it is no better than Red Clover, which also fixes nitrogen, and is cheaper to seed.