This post is the first in a series discussing our adventures helping Jeff & Amanda Barger harvest and process an experimental plot of wheat into flour the traditional way—using traditional hand tools and equipment. This process requires a number of separate steps completed over a long period of time.
I well remember the first time I used a scythe. It was nearly 45 years ago when I was a young child growing up on our family dairy farm in North Charlestown, NH. I can’t tell you the date, but it occurred during our summer school vacation, which was a misnomer to any kid raised on a farm. Back then, a vacation from school was just an excuse to do more farm work.
I came to the breakfast table that morning and found my father sitting there waiting for me. As I sat down, he simply said, “I need you to help me with the haying today.” Apparently, that was all I needed to know. My father was a man of very few words. At first, I let my mind fill in the details of his request. I became excited because I thought he was finally going to let me drive the tractor to mow some hay. That was what he had been doing the previous day, but he had never trusted me to mow with our side bar mower, which was a rather persnickety mechanical device that was powered by its own wheels, rather than the tractor that pulled it, and it was so old that it broke down frequently. My father felt I wasn’t skilled enough to operate it without accidentally damaging it. Perhaps he was now ready to trust me with it. However, as with most times when I tried to read the hidden meaning between his words, I was wrong.
After finishing my breakfast, I learned that our mower broke down more seriously than before, and he had to order a lot of cutting teeth to repair it. It would be out of service for weeks, and we had only a brief window of time to finish mowing, raking, and baling the hay before the next big rain. Weather in our area, as it is throughout the eastern U.S., changes frequently and often challenges your ability to finish outdoor work when it needs to be done. My father was trying to finish mowing our first cutting that day, and we had only one small three-acre field to mow before we had to begin raking the next day. As I quietly followed him out the door of the house, he led me to the corn shed, where he produced an antique scythe that my grandfather had given him within the past year. He handed it to me and instructed me to sharpen it because I was being sent to the lower meadow to mow the last hay field with it.
Before passing it on to us, my grandfather had demonstrated how to sharpen the blade and use it properly. I remembered his instructions on how to use a whetstone bar to sharpen the cutting edge of the long, curved blade using my wrist to make short scraping strokes down the length of the blade along both sides. “Make sure you work the stone with your wrist, not your arm,” he instructed, “it’s all in the wrist.” Once sharpened, he demonstrated the mowing technique, teaching us to hold it low and level to the ground with our arms and swing it with our shoulders. “Never swing it with your arms, twist it into the grass you’re mowing with your upper body.” I replayed those instructions in my mind as I prepared to mow the field, because my father was never one to explain how he wanted me to do my work. He would only tell me to do it over, if I failed to do it to his liking.
I spent that entire day mowing the small hayfield, breaking only for lunch or to resharpen the blade. Mowing with a scythe didn’t appear very difficult when my grandfather first demonstrated how to do it, but I found it much more difficult than I thought. I spent most of my first hour struggling with my cutting stance and technique. I quickly learned I was trying to mow too much grass on each stroke, which made it much harder to swing the scythe and complete my cut. However, as I exercised my vocabulary and adjusted my technique, I managed to make some clean strokes that “felt right” and realized I needed to swing the blade so that it sliced the grass along the length of the blade, rather than trying to hack it down like you would with a machete. I understood why my grandfather told me to swing with your upper body, as it helped me keep the blade level with the ground throughout each stroke, resulting in a clean and level cut. It took time, but I eventually learned to step into each cutting stroke I made with it as though it were a dance partner.
Although I was instructed how to use the scythe before I began mowing, I realized it was something you had practice until you got the “feel” of it. Using the old antique hand tools to do heavy work is more of an art than a science. The tool becomes an extension of your body and the work you do with it is as much artwork as is a sculpture. It requires skill and experience as you apply your mind to the physical task. Perhaps that’s one reason why old-time craftsmen treasured their hand tools and maintained them so carefully. They were as delicate and important as an artist’s paintbrush, and the work he did with them said as much about the artist’s skill as a fine painting. Working with hand tools in those times was a craft, not a job.
The lessons I learned using a scythe that day so many years ago flashed through my mind the day that Jeff Barger asked me if I would be interested in helping him and his wife, Amanda, harvest and process an experimental plot of wheat they had planted at the edge of one of their fields using nothing but traditional tools and methods. I had never worked with wheat before, because none of the farmers I knew during my childhood grew any grain crops, such as wheat, buckwheat, rye, or barley. Since I now owned my own scythe, which I used occasionally to mow the grass and weeds in the small orchard we had planted more than six years before we began living in our retirement house, I felt I was well prepared for the task. This job sounded like a great new experience in traditional farming, so I eagerly accepted.
Barb and I first met Jeff during one of our many visits to Central Tie and Lumber in Petersburg (where he works part-time) to buy materials to build our Peeper Pond Farm retirement house. I have told many people we bought our house from Central Tie one stick at a time. Some assembly was required. Apparently, during our brief informal meetings, Jeff learned something about us and our plans that captured his interest. We were making one such trip to the store in January 2017 when Jeff invited us to attend an old-fashioned pot-luck supper and bluegrass sing-a-long at his home the following month. We accepted, and at the event, we met his wife, Amanda, her parents, Bonnie and Wayne Ours, and a number of their local friends. Our efforts to start a dairy goat operation at our retirement farm was of great interest to Bonnie, who also grew up on a dairy farm and had raised goats. Over time and many subsequent visits, a close friendship blossomed founded largely upon our shared interests in farming and traditional folkways. Their desire to undertake this experiment was another exciting extension of those shared interests.
We arrived at Jeff and Amanda’s farm on North Mill Creek Road in Grant County early yesterday morning (July 5). The air was heavy with humidity, which would build into oppressive summer heat by the afternoon, so an early start was essential for the work we had to do. The heat was already becoming quite intense by the time the morning dew had evaporated, which had to occur before we began reaping (mowing) the mature wheat. Although I brought my scythe as a back-up tool, we began cutting the wheat with Jeff’s antique four-fingered cradle, which is a scythe with four wooden prongs above the blade (one of which had previously broken) that gently catches the wheat stems as they are cut to minimize the loss of grain from the stems by the mowing process. We sharpened the cradle blade with my whetstone and went to work reaping the wheat. I found the cradle to be more challenging to use than my scythe because the handle was short and lacked the ergonomic curvature that later models had to allow the reaper to stand more erect while mowing. As I began using it, I had to bend over closer to the ground with each swing than I was accustomed to make level cuts. Even so, my cuts were not very consistent, but I did the best I could. Unfortunately, the cradle was so old that the stress of active use eventually made the fingers loosen and fall apart, so we had to abandon it and finish our work using my scythe. I could make better cuts with it, but it wasn’t the best implement to use for reaping wheat. I could not cut the stalks so that the heads would fall on the ground in the same direction, which the cradle was specifically designed to do. This made it harder for the rest of the crew to collect the cut wheat and bind them into sheaves.
We had a work crew that included Barb and me, Jeff and Amanda, Wayne and Bonnie, and two of their close friends, Amy and Doug. While I was cutting the wheat, Barb, Amanda, Bonnie and Amy worked to collect the cut shafts into fist-sized bundles called sheaves. Jeff, Wayne, and Doug bound each sheaf together and staked them into shocks for further drying. To build each shock, a number of sheaves were stood upright (erect) on the ground in a circle with the heads bearing the wheat grains leaning against one another at the top. Once the standing base of each stack was formed, a final sheaf was fanned into a disk and pressed into place on the top as a cap. This structure keeps the grain husks above the ground so they can be further dried by the breeze. We only managed to cut half of the wheat crop before the heat became too intense to finish the job. Unfortunately, I no longer have the stamina I had when I first mowed with a scythe due to my advancing age and declining physical condition, which I attribute to the deleterious effects of modern living and conveniences I have suffered from a 30-year professional career of office work. I often refer to my former office job as “butt work,” because it was those muscles that I exercised most when doing it. Hopefully, the pictures accompanying this post will help illustrate the process I have explained.
Although we did not complete the reaping process, it is only the first step in producing wheat. The next step is to “flail” the wheat to separate the hulls containing the wheat grain from the shafts. This involves placing the sheaves on a tarp or sheet and beating them with a flail, which is a device constructed of two short shafts connected by a cord that most closely resembles nunchucks. Some people just stomp the sheaths like grapes to loosen the grains from the stocks.
The third step is to winnow the wheat, which may involve tossing the flailed wheat into the air so that the breeze blows the chaff (husks that surround the wheat grains) and residue away while the heavier grains fall onto the tarp or sheet. Jeff plans to winnow the wheat using an antique, hand-cranked winnowing device he has acquired.
The fourth and final step is to grind the wheat grains into flour. Jeff has acquired a small, antique grain mill for that purpose. With any luck, we can process the wheat we reaped and shocked yesterday into a fine flour that can be used to bake a loaf of homemade bread. This explains the process by which bread, a staple food that everyone consumes today, is made.
For those people who lived two to three generations ago, this process was common knowledge. However, few people who are becoming adults today have an understanding of where the most basic foods they consume really come from. It is that understanding and knowledge that forms the foundation of our traditional, self-reliant lifestyle that we at Peeper Pond Farm cherish and hope to preserve for future generations. Who can say if or when our modern society (and the wealth-driven monetary economy that fuels it) will collapse leaving behind a society of people dependent on modern conveniences and failed technologies to relearn these basic skills for their very survival? This is the inherent, intrinsic value of our traditional lifestyle skills that all too many people (including my own parents) casually reject as outdated or regressive. I only hope that you will not be one of the people who may someday learn what a colossal mistake that attitude may create. It is for that reason that I work so determinedly to preserve and teach those traditional lifestyle skills and folkways. I hope you’ll follow my later posts in this series to see if we can succeed in our efforts to turn a plot of wheat into a loaf of homemade bread. Thanks for your continued interest in our ongoing adventure.