Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Harvesting wheat by hand

This is a very long post, so grab yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine and follow us as we harvest our wheat.

We've been keeping a strict eye on our wheat field because we knew harvest was imminent.

According to our reference book Small Scale Grain Raising by the incomparable Gene Logsdon, grain is ready to harvest when it's crunchy hard. If the grain is chewy-soft, it's not yet ripe.

Don tested the grain every few days. On August 16 it was still too chewy.

On August 23 it was much crunchier...

...and the field had turned a beautiful wheat-gold.

We have four scythes, which Don carefully sharpened. (Before I hear the howls of protest, please understand these are American blades, not European blades. Peening works with European blades but not American blades.)

Meanwhile we had spent the last couple years on the lookout for a cradle for a scythe. A cradle attachment catches the grain and pushes it over in one direction, making it easier to bundle into sheaves. Without a cradle, the grain falls every-which-way.

Scythes are fairly easy to find, but not cradles. I took a screen shot of a scythe-and-cradle for sale on eBay some time ago (no, I have no idea who these gentlemen are). But because they're so bulky, scythes and cradles cannot be shipped.

Last year I made inquiries at a local antique/junk store. The store owner said she had a cradle she would be willing to sell for $50. Last week we asked if she could bring it in.

We brought along one of our own scythes to see if it could be attached.

However, knowing my interest, the woman said the price was now $75 instead of $50, so we said thanks but no thanks.

So early one morning before sunrise, Don and I got to work. (He wore his Hawaiian shirt so, he told me, I wouldn't accidentally scythe him.)

Here's what the first two passes (one for each of us) looked like.

Meanwhile the sun rose.

It took us awhile to decide which scythe worked best for us. It's one thing to take a few whacks in an overgrown lawn. It's something entirely different to scythe a half-acre. I'm shorter and needed a shorter snath (handle), for example.

Also, being older, the grips on the snaths needed to be duct-taped into the correct position, otherwise they slid around too much.

But once we got those difficulties ironed out, we were on our way.

It takes about ten minutes to become an expert with a scythe. It doesn't leave you breathless and panting. It's not physically hard -- it can't be, otherwise farmers from an earlier age couldn't keep it up all day as they did -- and once a rhythm is developed, it goes rather rapidly.  It took Don and me ten minutes to scythe one row the length of the field. It's rather soothing and satisfying. The scythe does the work -- that's the important thing to remember -- and as long as you allow your body to go with the flow, you can keep it up for a long time.

We stopped after every second row to re-sharpen the scythes. Dull scythes merely push the wheat over. Sharp blades slice right through the wheat stems like butter.

Then it was back to work.

Although we didn't (thank God!) have the cheat grass problem we had last year, we did have a few thistles. At first we didn't think much about them -- we scythed through them just as easily as the wheat -- but later seriously regretted it. Those thistles hurt our hands all out of proportion to their size when it came time to bundling the wheat into sheaves.

One thing we discovered during the scything process is the importance of even seed distribution. When we planted the seed late last May, there were times when seed got dumped rather than broadcast (one of the perils of amateurs trying to broadcast seed -- broadcasting is truly an art).

Well, this is what that dumped seed grew into. Can you see the darker, shorter patch?

Doesn't look like it would be any big deal, but in fact the seed heads were smaller and less mature, and the stalks wouldn't slice. They just pushed down in front of the scythe and wouldn't cut at all. This meant that when we finished scything the field, we had lots of little dense patches of uncut wheat. Oh well, live and learn.

This is what the bases on better-spaced plants looked like -- much easier to cut.

Rocks -- the enemy of scythes. Trust me on this.

When we finished cutting, it was time to start raking and bundling. Here's where the girls' help was essential.

But we only got a small start on this process before we called it a day. It was brutally hot and none of us felt like working under that blazing sun.

Besides our muscles were starting to ache. And ache and ache. Scything isn't bad over short spurts, but several hours of it brought out muscle groups I never knew I had. By evening I was horribly stiff and sore, and even my hands were seizing up with cramps while using a knife and fork.

Early the next morning -- shortly after the girls stumbled out of bed -- we hit the wheat field again. I'd already been at it since 6 am, when it was light enough to see. There was a chance of rain coming in, so we had a lot to do.

It took us awhile to figure out how to do things, but we finally fell into an efficient rhythm. The girls were the rakers, and I was the bundler.

The wheat field is roughly triangular in shape, so we started at the apex and worked our way down. Can you see the sheaves?


after hour

after hour

after hour we worked. The girls were absolute troopers.

We broke at noon to pack about a hundred tankards for shipment to our booth at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, which necessitated a trip to Spokane. When we got home in the evening, we tried shocking some of the sheaves (just a fancy way of saying we stacked the sheaves against each other in an upright position). In theory shocks protect harvested wheat from rain and allows it to dry faster.

Very picturesque to be sure, but the reality was we needed to get this wheat under cover.

But first we had to finish raking and sheaving it. So early on the third morning we were back at it.

Working our way down the triangle, the girls raked the wheat into long rows, like windrows, while I followed and bundled.

To make a bundle, I took hay bale twine and cut it in half...

...and used it to tie the bales. Traditionally sheaves were tied with wheat strands and couldn't be more than about eight inches in diameter (limited by the length of the wheat strands), but I could make the sheaves bigger by using twine.

It was tough work on my fingers, the constant and repetitive jerking and pulling the twine tight, so I wrapped them in duct tape to cut the pain. (Can you see where the term "farmer's hands" comes from?)

I don't know if this was the "right" way to make sheaves, but here's how I did it. Since we weren't using a cradle and therefore the wheat fell every-which-way, I piled wheat into a pile big enough that I could "embrace" it. Here I'm running twine below the pile.

I pull the ends of the twine around to the top of the pile...

...and yank the twine into a half-hitch.

Then I pick up the bundle and give it a good shake to shake loose all the wheat strands that didn't get gathered by the twine (the girls would then come behind me and rake up the fallen wheat into the next windrow).

Then I stepped away from the loose wheat and put the bundle on the ground, where I completed the knot.

Gradually the girls and I worked our way down the field until by about noon of the third day, we got everything raked and bundled into sheaves.

It may not look like much from this perspective, but I assure you it was a massive amount of work to harvest a half-acre of wheat.

But what to do now? Last year we didn't have a rodent-proof place to store the cut wheat, and ended up losing every last grain kernel to the @&%$ chipmunks. After all this hard work I was darned if I would let that happen again.

We seriously thought about buying a giganto cargo net and suspending the wheat from the rafters in the barn (which we may yet do). But for the moment we decided to use a friend's trailer, which he had loaned us a couple of months ago, to store the wheat.

This trailer isn't huge (about 6x8 feet) but it's entirely rodent-proof.

We laid a brand-new clean tarp on the floor, then I brought sheaves while Don stacked them tightly. Wheat kernels were rattling down during this process, giving us hope that when it comes time to thresh the wheat, it won't be too arduous a task.

Don packed those sheaves into the trailer more tightly than I could imagine. We knew we couldn't fit all the wheat into the trailer, but we wanted to fit as much as we possibly could.

Can you see the wheat that has come out of the seed heads?

Don did a remarkable job, packing it in.

This left us with about one-quarter of the field still full of sheaves. Where to put it?

For the time being, we decided just to pack the back of the truck full, hoping that chipmunks are unlikely to scale the sides of the truck to access the wheat. Not a great plan, but about our only option at the moment. So we opened another clean new tarp and spread it over the truck bed.

I handed up the sheaves to Don, and he packed them as tightly as he could. He paused to strike some manly poses, which had me laughing my head off.

It felt good to laugh and be silly after such long days of hard work. After 22 years of marriage, this man can still make me laugh and feel silly.

After the truck was full and the field was empty, we threw another tarp lightly over the top...

...and Don carefully ratcheted it in place to hold everything down while he drove to the barn.

In contrast to the long and back-breaking work of harvesting, raking, and sheaving the wheat, loading the trailer and truck only took about an hour. While it was a relief to get the bulk of the wheat safely picked up, there was unquestionably still a huge amount of loose seed heads scattered on the ground. Don estimates about 20% of the wheat simply fell.

As time permits (ha!), we may carefully rake the field again and try to gather it up. It's hard to waste grain we worked so hard to grow and harvest.

Nonetheless as Don drove out of the field, it made me realize how much we'd accomplished. We'd also done something few other people in America have ever done: hand-harvested a field of wheat.

For the time being, we parked the truck under cover in the barn...

...and parked the trailer off to the side.

As the sun set after these three days of harvesting our wheat, I remarked to Older Daughter how glad I was it was done. She replied, "That's why they used to have harvest parties." Suddenly her words made perfect sense. During a time when a good harvest meant the difference between life and death, who wouldn't want to pause and celebrate God's bounty?

It's important to remember that this is only Step One on the road to flour. We still have to thresh, winnow, and grind the grain before we can make bread.

But that will come later. We're too busy right now to do anything more.

Will we grow wheat next year? Probably not. Not necessarily because of the work involved, but because harvest falls at exactly the same time we're at our peak of busyness with our woodcraft business. The woodcraft business takes precedence since that's our source of income.

It remains to be seen how much wheat (in pounds) we got from this experiment. We started by planting 200 lbs. of seed wheat. If we didn't get a significant amount more in return, then the experiment wasn't worth it.

On the other hand, we grew wheat. That's saying something.

By the way, it never did rain. But that's okay. It gave us the motivation to get the job done. And if we hadn't gotten the wheat under cover, it would have rained buckets. Ain't it the way it always works?