Some things are really hard to wait for. Harvesting grain is I guess one of those things. I took some time in August for some family downtime, so now that the kids are back in school I rushed back into the work in anticipation of harvest.
For us to harvest rice, we need ripeness, of course. As the rice ripens on the stalk, the grain becomes progressively harder and dryer. The plant also dries out and yellows, transmitting all its remaining vitality to the grain. Last year I began harvesting on September 27th. This year, despite the differences in the season--this year was cold to start but warm, sunny and dry in the middle and finish--the grain seems to be ripening on about the same schedule.
Some volunteers came last weekend, and though the grain wasn't ripe enough yet--a kernel would still crumble somewhat when peeled, and wouldn't satisfyingly crack when munched--we busied ourselves with retrieving the duck netting and various field supplies. Warm, humid September weather--and a lot of work to bring the 3000 or so feet of electric and nylon fencing in and organize it all! Normally I tend to put this kind of work off, big-time, and usually don't get to it until November. It's good to be ahead of the game on this one count.
There have been several other rice projects hurried along in late-season. Several engineer friends and I have been going back and forth about the issue of drying. Drying grain is one of the curses of labor-efficient modern agriculture. When we started out, we hand threshed. Then we progressed to a thresher. When you use a thresher, you bind sheaves in the field (as we did in 2012 with 12 workers from the Burlington Nepali community to help!) and then hang them to dry somewhere. If the sheaves are hung properly, time is on your side and they will surely dry out eventually. But I was frustrated with the time and effort required with this method and also the persistent loss of rice at every handling step, and from birds and rodents as well. I decided a more 20th century approach would be necessary, and in 2013 ordered a rice mini-combine from China. A "combine" harvests and threshes in one single step.
The combine has the delightful feature of putting your grain into a bag right out there in the field, and a field of standing grain is reduced to chopped straw spread everywhere and a wonderful pile of burlap bags full of rice. The only problem is that those bags are kind of like time bombs, as they usually have moisture content too high to be stored in bulk for any length of time.
The grain needs to be promptly spread out and air and/or heat applied to it. We built a simple forced air dryer that could dry out one ton in a few days. But starting last year, our volume of production, combined with the number of varieties we grow, meant that we would need a larger and more powerful drying solution. Unfortunately, the commercial grain dryers I was able to locate cost around $15,000. A little beyond my budget.
However we were able to design, with the involvement of my engineer friends, an affordable rice dryer in the spirit of Good Companion Bakery. Made out of concrete blocks and oil drums, with a mesh floor to spread the rice out on, it is designed to dry down about 3000 lbs in 12 hours. Giving it its maiden voyage in just a week or so!
The plastic roof is removable, and the hole in the side is there to accommodate a large squirrel-cage blower.
Additionally, we built several grain bins to hold the rice once dried. The most exciting feature of these bins is that a machine will load them, and gravity will unload them. I figure that in the past I have had to lift each pound of rice I produce about 15 times. The new operation aims to cut that in half, with a variety of scale-appropriate techniques.
A visiting friend and volunteer from Quebec commented in French that our approach is "rentable," for which there's no perfect English translation, but it means basically that it's affordable and easy to scale up as needed.
Once the dust has settled after harvest, I look forward to getting some of this rice into your hands! I am particularly excited about two new Hokkaido varieties we are working with this year, but everything looks great and there will be plenty of it. The pre-order system through this site is still live and I would encourage anyone with the ability to pick up locally to order soon. I am starting also to make some third-party wholesale arrangements, and I am sure that whatever the yield works out to be, it won't stick around for too long!