The Chiltern Open Air Museum farm is a key part of the Museum’s operation. It’s not just a static display of historic farm buildings and artefacts, but a working example of Chiltern farms of the past.
Traditional practices are maintained where possible although the farm does not focus on any one particular era. Artefacts are used in the farm’s day to day operation as much as possible and key to this are the tractors. The four sturdy workhorses in all have around 200 years of hard labour between them. And there is the other – more about this later!
Tractors have been the backbone of farm labour for over 100 years, slowly usurping horses and man’s physical labour. The first steam powered tractors appeared in the 1860s and by the end of that century the first petrol tractor was patented. However, it was not until just after the turn of the century that petrol tractors went into production.
Tractor innovation has come a long way in the intervening 100 years. And the next inevitable step is the driverless, computer controlled vehicle for tasks such as ploughing and harvesting and who knows what else.
Innovation is essential, but remembering the past is also important, not just for nostalgia and the pleasure this brings to many, but to help remember how things were done to provide lessons for the future.
Currently two tractors are regularly used on the farm, a 1950 Ferguson and its junior partner, a 1981 Ford 4600. The Museum also has two Fordson Super Majors. One dates from 1950 and is only used on special occasions such as driving the threshing machine during the Museum’s Harvest Festival event.
The second Fordson, a later model dating from 1961, needs much renovation work before it can play a more active role in the farm’s operation. The project is now underway, although it may be sometime before she is working on the farm again.
The task in hand is being led by volunteer and former agricultural engineer, John Smithson. John’s wealth of experience working with agricultural machinery around the world for many years has been a major plus for the Museum, with his superior knowledge of machinery no longer in regular use. John first became involved with the Museum when he offered advice on renovating the ‘Ransoms’ threshing machine. Having become fully involved with that project, he then stayed on as part of the Museum’s farm artefacts team of volunteers who ‘tinker’ with the farm machinery every Thursday.
Progress has already been made and the engine is running again. But other essential work will take many hours and the team must also continue to progress other projects.
Considering the basic conditions the team have to work in, they do a superb job in keeping the mechanical farm artefacts operational. Volunteer Olly Mazzitelli is adamant that if the team were provided with a new, modern workshop, the tractor renovation would be completed in no time. However, it would take significant funding to provide such a facility and the Museum has other priorities. And of course, it would not be in the spirit of a traditional farm if the conditions did not replicate those that the Chiltern farmers of the past often had to work in!
Developments on how John, Olly and the rest of the Thursday team are progressing with the project, as well as more about the individual tractors, will appear in this blog in the future.
And the other tractor? Well, it has to grow up first, but in the meantime it provides lunchtime entertainment for hard-working volunteers!
“Volunteer Jane Bland finds time to try out the Museum farm’s latest tractor whilst the Ford takes a rest”
Crystal, one of the Museum’s two goats was not impressed by a recent blog about goat walking and had other issues she wanted to air.
“I was not amused by the recent blog about goat walking. It does not exactly put me in a good light and completely misinterprets the purpose of the walk. This and a number of other issues need to be brought to attention of my visiting fans to put the record straight. I feel that I need to personally report these facts as my friend Beverly, who is older than me and not so pretty, is too nice and does not want to upset the Farm Manager Conway.
Let’s firstly put the record straight on walking. We are not taken for a walk; we take the staff and volunteers for a walk. We appreciate how they like to have a look around the Museum site to check out that everything is hunk-dory each morning, so we are happy to go along and escort them. We only allow them to put dog collars on us as it makes them feel like they are walking their dogs.
What is very annoying is that they like to stop and stare into space. So we entertain ourselves by helping to keep the vegetation under control whilst we wait for them to come around. But to allude to us having a second breakfast – what an insult. We are not greedy goats!
And then sometimes we see some vegetation that needs pruning or hay that needs tidying up, but they get annoyed and try and drag us somewhere else. This is when I sometimes have to remind them to behave by giving them a gentle nudge with my horns. And then they get annoyed with me. You would have thought one volunteer had been shot by the way he hoped around just after I touched him. He’d been watching too much football if you ask me!
Sometimes we walk past the sheep. I like to put me head through the fence to give them a cheery good morning. And what happened the other day? A grumpy sheep nipped me on the nose! If she was not pregnant I would have given her a reprimand with my horns. Maybe she is grumpy because she is pregnant.
With lambing in the next month, I guess the Farm Manager Conway will have to move us back from our temporary home, the isolated lambing fold, to our proper home. I mean, would you like to live in a maternity wing! I am not sure why he insists on punishing us by keeping us there at night. We just want to go back to Hill Farm Barn so we can keep an eye on comings and goings and make sure no undesirable characters are around the farm (volunteers excluded).
The only reason we got evicted from our home was because of those stupid film people who did not like us. I mean, they would not give us parts in the drama. What can I say if the critics don’t like it? Goats always add something special to a production, particularly if we can chase the baddies! We always get them. But they would not even let us stay around as extras. Their loss!
Another concern? Why do they shut the Museum during the winter? They say it’s because our fans won’t visit and the staff and volunteers have maintenance to do. Maybe that is why they hide us away so they can sit around drinking tea all-day! People want to come and see us all year round. Do you really think they come to see those old buildings when they can see nice new ones for free where they live.
Anyway, when they finally let you back into the Museum in April to see us, don’t forget we do like a chin rub. You can find us in a field somewhere mowing the grass. We would maintain the hedges as well, but they insist on putting an electric fence around the field to keep our fans out. Don’t forget, I’m the pretty one and Beverly will probably be daydreaming!”
January arrived with an air of peace and tranquillity about the farm and Museum site. This followed a disrupted December when for a number of weeks much of the site, including the farmyard and barns was taken over by a film production team, actors, extras and the associated entourage involved in a major TV drama.
With the Museum closed to visitors and school groups from December until late February, it is the perfect time for Museum staff and volunteers to get on with tasks, particularly those that would impact on visitors if the Museum was open.
The progress of many tasks would be so much quicker if it was not for visitors wandering around, getting in the way and engaging staff and volunteers in conversation! If only there were not any visitors. So much could be achieved!
Even though there are occasional times when it might be nice not to have to worry about visitors, there is not a member of staff or volunteer who does appreciate and enjoy the interaction. Volunteers give up their time and staff choose to work at the Museum because they get pleasure seeing visitors, whether retired reminiscers, historical enthusiasts, exuberant school children or just those wanting to relax in a wonderful rural environment, enjoy their visit.
The problem is that everyone enjoys engaging with visitors, whether imparting knowledge of the buildings and artefacts, offering directions or advice or just passing the time of day. This can of course slow down the completion of tasks. However, everyone relishes their role in ensuring that visitors have an enjoyable and safe visit.
So whilst it was quiet, the farm team were getting on with the tasks in hand. There was firstly the need to return artefacts removed for filming back to the farm buildings. Fortunately there had been minimal physical impact on the farm site, which was a relief considering the number of people involved as well as the vehicles used.
A key winter task was to increase grazing available for the farm’s livestock. With pressure on existing grazing space, it was decided to open up Toll House field and other areas where scrub had encroached in recent years.
Volunteers worked hard to remove intrusive scrub, much of it hawthorn and bramble. These have the habit of fighting back, inflicting minor wounds on any unguarded parts of the body, ripping into clothing and causing just a little cussing!
With the scrub cleared, it will be easier for grass and other meadow plants to re-generate. But it is also important to control scrub re-growth. So bring in Beverly and Crystal, the farm goats who will be the first animals to use the field as they will enjoy munching away at any intrusive re-growth.
As well as clearing the scrub, a bigger task was to ensure that the hedging and fencing was in a suitable condition to stop the escape artist goats and lambs from testing the boundaries out. One side of the field had a relatively recently planted hedge that was just about ready for laying. This has now been laid and filled with some of the cut scrub to ensure there are no holes for stock to squeeze through whilst the hedge continue to develop its strength.
The next stage of field preparation was to renew stock fencing where the hedge was not a sufficient barrier, particularly for inquisitive lambs. And with this complete, staff and volunteers have moved on to mending or renewing fencing in other fields including the Hidden Meadow, which is also part of the plan to increase stock grazing capacity.
Another more mature hedge was laid in one of the arable fields through December and January. Whilst this work was being completed, the farm’s artefacts team commenced working of the renovation of a Fordson Super Major tractor and a hay sweep, but more on these in separate blogs.
The Museum’s peace and tranquillity was shattered towards the end of February with the visit of Doris. She was an unwelcome visitor that all were pleased to see the back of. Causing havoc across many parts of the Chilterns, storm Doris gate-crashed the Museum inflicting damage on some buildings as she rampaged across the site. Fortunately for the farm team, there does not seem to have been any major damage to farm structures or woodland. So staff and volunteers can continue to focus on the planned activities prior to welcoming all ‘well-behaved’ visitors on 1 April.
The Pleasure of Volunteering – A New Volunteer’s Endorsement
It’s a bitterly cold winter’s day. The sky is grey and the increasingly heavy rain is threatening to turn to snow. The icy wind’s tentacles feel their way through every gap in my clothing. I am working alone.
A relatively new volunteer on the Museum farm, I am working at the side of a field today, adding the binders to a nearly completed laid hedge. My hands in my saturated work gloves are cold and the rain is creeping through those not so waterproof parts of my old rain jacket.
One year previously I would have been sat in my warm and dry office feeling pity for the wet and cold workmen on the building site opposite. But today I am happy. In fact, I am far happier than I was in my office going about my stressful managerial role. I am enjoying myself in these inhospitable conditions. Thank you Fate that gave me the early retirement opportunity to stand here on such miserable day!
So what attracted me as a volunteer and why am I happy to be wet and cold in a muddy field today? I had previously worked with another voluntary group that occasionally helped the Museum farm with specific projects. This gave me an insight into the Museum and its people. I had noticed the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff and other volunteers and their welcoming nature, and thought that one day I would like to become a regular volunteer.
The opportunity came and I took it. Over six months on, I am thoroughly enjoying my small role and remain enthused by the positive environment. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. There are no targets or expectations other than your own. You can dedicate as little or as much time as you want. Of course volunteers want to do a good job and be effective in their own way. One word of warning though – it’s addictive!
Volunteers can choose to bring their own skill sets to their role. They often volunteer in areas they have an interest in such as building construction or gardening. Others, as I have chosen, do something completely different to their skills and interests. And what is so encouraging is that the staff and other volunteers give you the time, patience and encouragement to help you learn new skills.
Working in a cold wet field on my own today is entirely my choice. The task needed completing and the farm is short of volunteers today. So I just get on with it. But I am not unusual. Far from it. The Museum has many volunteers working on the farm, maintaining the Museum’s buildings and gardens that will also be out working in all conditions to help run and maintain the Museum – and enjoying it!
Although there is no pressure, volunteers are very committed to the Museum and are usually more than happy doing something they might not really want to do. And when it’s done, they feel great!
Volunteering is critical for the successful operation of the Museum. Without volunteers there would probably be no Museum as funding would not cover the value volunteers bring. And this value cannot be brought. As well as skills and experience some volunteers bring, others just bring enthusiasm, dedication and determination.
So it is a win, win situation. Volunteers get to do something worthwhile which they enjoy and the Museum gets the additional resource it needs to maintain an enjoyable visitor experience.
One of the pleasures for staff and volunteers alike at the Chiltern Open Air Museum farm, advises Farm Manager Conway Rowland, is taking the Old English Goats, Beverly and Crystal for their morning walk. Well that was what I was told as a rookie volunteer some months ago. I guess he would say that to encourage volunteers to take their turn!
Goats were a feature of many traditional Chiltern farms of yesteryear supplying milk, cheese and the occasional meal. The Museum previously had rescue goats of varying varieties and behaviours. But a little after these had one by one passed on to cause trouble in a higher place than they had previously been able to reach, a decision was made to acquire two new goats.
But not any old goats. They had to be Old English, a breed that had been doing their job well for 5000 years only to be ousted from the late 1800s by higher yielding foreign goats from Switzerland, India and the Middle East and interbreeding became rife in the desire to improve goat productivity.
With low numbers of this traditional breed remaining, it was only right that the Museum’s goats, which arrived late in 2015, should be the Old English breed.
Visitors may see Beverly and Crystal in their night time pen outside of Hill Farm Barn, but more likely in one of the fields around the farm during Museum opening hours – assuming they have not escaped! So at sometime around 9-10.00am, someone has to escort the two young ladies on their daily walk from their pen to the field.
With dog collars and leads secured, the walker is ready to depart on a circuitous route to what has in effect become a second breakfast opportunity for the goats, who have already demolished their buckets of dry food. The walk, at a relaxed pace (or not), gives the chance for Beverly and Crystal to enjoy, for much of the year, the nutritious hedgerow greenery including hawthorn, nettles and brambles. And even better, the late summer feast of sumptuous fresh blackberries and rosehips.
In fact just about anything goes, preferably from the most awkward place to get at and where the other goat and the walker do not desire to be dragged. Being dragged around is part of the fun of goat walking, particularly when Beverly wants to go one way and Crystal the other!
And watch out the goat walker who disagrees with Crystal. Those horns hurt! If she is in a mood and does not get her own way, a quick butt aimed at the offending goat walker can be delivered. So the walker must alert to deflect the offending horns and deliver a gentle reminder about who is (or thinks they are) the real boss.
Although Crystal’s behaviour is much better as she is maturing, a tactic of keeping Beverly between yourself and Crystal can be a good idea. And no, the reason is not to let Beverly be the recipient of a butt. Crystal would not dare as the smaller Beverly is the dominant goat. However, this tactic can have its problems when the larger Crystal decides to climb over Beverly to get at some tasty treat and the leads get tangled up. Trying to untangle two goats from yourself with absolutely no cooperation from the goats can be interesting!
Both Crystal and Beverly are friendly, gentle goats that on occasion can display nothing worse than a petulant child might. Well they are still ‘kids’ at heart! If they have had a late start to the day and should you come across them on their daily walk, do not be concerned. Well only for the walker!
Please visit them in their field. They both enjoy attention and a good chin rub can make you a friend. But watch out for the electric fence. It’s the only way to keep them from escaping. And please, do not feed them yourself, whether voluntary or involuntary!
And the evening’s walk. Nothing more than a sprint back to their pen where their supper awaits them.
Although the Museum was closed to visitors much of December, it was not a quiet month on the farm – far from it!
Like the rest of the Museum, the farm can usually enjoy some respite during the winter months, taking the opportunity to catch up with outstanding tasks, do some housekeeping and plan and prepare for the season ahead.
The goats, sheep, cows, horses and chickens still needed looking after and this meant that farm staff and volunteers had to come in every day of the Christmas holidays to feed and care for them all.
Then there are the winter tasks that need to get under way in December such as hedgelaying. On many Chiltern farms of yesteryear, hedgelaying was an important task before the advent of wire fencing to keep boundaries maintained and stock in the fields. The winter months provided a little more time for the farmer and farm workers to complete this time consuming work. It is also the best time of year to avoid disturbing nesting birds (today hedgelaying must not take place from March until September).
So December is a great time to get on with this important job at the Museum and the farm’s volunteers have certainly spent some profitable time doing this, completing one side of an arable field. Good going in light of other disruptions!
Hedgelaying is not a quick and easy task and requires skill and patience. One of the characteristics of the Museum is the willingness of staff, assisted by experienced volunteers, to teach skills to new volunteers. So all members of the farm team and other Museum volunteers get the chance to take part in this popular activity.
Hedge and tree maintenance tasks including coppicing, are also best done during winter. This activity provides stakes and binders for hedgelaying, materials for hurdle making and logs for the Museum’s buildings’ fires.
The Museum also can benefit from skills brought along by volunteers. Farm volunteer, Steve Davis, who works in an unrelated full-time job, takes annual leave to come and help with tree maintenance. Steve has invested his own time and money in chainsaw use management. His help significantly benefits the farm team in completing work that would take much time and effort using traditional hand tools or valuable funds if contractors were needed.
During December the farm was to experience major disruption. On a minor note, the chickens were confined to quarters for a month as a precaution due a new strain of avian flu that put all birds at risk across the UK. Not a major disruption, but the chickens were mighty put out by being shut away!
Also not so happy were Beverly and Crystal the Old English goats. They were evicted from their home in one of Hill Farm Barn’s outer buildings. The two goats like to keep an eye on comings and goings around the farm from their prominent home, but they had to spend much of December in temporary accommodation in the more isolated lambing folds.
This was because of three weeks of preparation and filming that took place on and around the farm for a major TV drama. Farm buildings including Hill Farm Barn, were required as set locations. And the production company did not want Beverly or Crystal to have starring roles – their loss!
Few of the artefacts housed in Hill Farm Barn or around the farmyard were wanted for filming. So as well as not being able to get on with many of December’s planned tasks, the farm team spent days clearing out the barn and tidying up the farmyard. This required moving artefacts large and small including farm machinery such as the threshing machine, wagons and other machinery.
Although this additional work and restricted access to the farm disrupted farm manager Conway Rowland’s plans for December, Conway appreciated the benefits to the Museum from this opportunity stating; “Revenue from filming is a useful source of additional funding for the Museum. As well as underwriting the day to day running costs, it provides money for projects that help the Museum progress its plans. Hopefully the farm will benefit from some of this extra money!”
Although a useful source of revenue, the Museum wants to minimise the impact such activities have on the visitor experience. So with the Museum closed to the public, there was no disruption to visitors, the production company got the time and space they wanted and the Museum some additional funding.
So with animals and artefacts restored to their normal accommodation, the farm team is ready for January. And another major plus for Conway, “It made us give the barns a good clear-out and tidy up. With a busy schedule throughout the year, it is easy to put off such activity, but when forced to, you realise it was worthwhile!”
Following on from my earlier blog post (‘The Art of Haymaking’) the other big job that the farm team have been busy with over the summer months has been getting our rye crop harvested.
At COAM we use the long straw of the rye we grow in our arable fields for thatching the ricks in our rickyard, keeping the weather off the hay and straw. During the Middle Ages in England poorer people made a coarse, dark bread, called ‘maslin’, out of rye mixed with weed seeds, ground legumes and sometimes acorns. Wheat was reserved for making ‘manchet’ – a much finer, whiter bread only available to the gentry.
For many centuries the tools used to cut ripe cereal crops such as barley, wheat, rye and oats, remained unchanged: these were either a sickle, a reaping hook, a fagging hook or a scythe. The technique and tool varied partly according to the type of crop and to whether the straw was needed to be kept long and in good condition for thatching, or could be broken up for use as animal bedding.
Impression of medieval labourers reaping a crop. The tools they are using are either sickles or reaping hooks. For reaping, the crop was held in one hand and cut using a sharp, curved blade. A different technique was fagging (also referred to as ‘bagging’ or ‘swopping’), in which a hooked stick was used to tension the straw and the blade used to slash at the crop close to the ground.
Scythes were one of the tools still in frequent use in the arable fields of England right up to the 1950s, and after receiving some basic training in their use and history (see also previous blog post ‘The Art of Haymaking’), I had a go at cutting some of the rye using a scythe.
HLF Site and Farm Trainee Lyndsey Rule using a scythe to cut the rye crop in the Museum fields.
I found the technique was not quite the same as it was for mowing hay. For cutting cereals, the blade did not need to be kept as close to the ground; however it was even more important to swing the blade round in a full arc to ensure the crop all fell neatly to one side. If not, the stalks became quickly tangled and life became an awful lot harder for the poor binders following on behind!
During the Victorian period, mechanical means of cutting were invented such as the horse-drawn reaper. Initially these implements were only able to speed up the cutting process, but later models were developed which could bind the corn as well.
Reaper-binder adapted for a tractor, cutting the rye crop at COAM in 2009. This sort of setup was in use in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Once the crop is cut, it needs to be gathered into manageable bundles – a ‘sheaf’ – and tied, using a few lengths of the crop twisted together. The sheaves are then ‘stooked’ in the field to allow them to continue to finish ripening and keep dry. These jobs would historically have been largely carried out by women and children, with even very little children assisting with making the twists of straw used for binding the sheaves. Gathering up and binding the corn is harder work than it looks, especially out under the hot summer sun. As well as being a very active task, the rye is incredibly scratchy – particularly the long awns protecting the grain itself, which manage to get into your clothes so they continue to irritate even after you’ve stopped working. Although I loved the experience of being part of the harvest team, this job did make me much more appreciative of the invention of the combine-harvester! I also felt a massive admiration for the many harvest-hands in the late 19th century who were frequently carrying out this hard physical work on a poor diet of little more than rough bread and cheese. On some farms, small beer or cider was provided for drinking, as clean water supplies were few and far between: the only water available was like as not just that which could be scooped out of a nearby field ditch.
Binding a rye sheaf, August 2016. (Photo by Daniel Romani).
Farm volunteers stooking rye sheaves in COAM’s arable fields, August 2016. (Photo by Daniel Romani).
Once it had been stooked, the corn was sometimes built up into a field stack before being taken down to the barn – perhaps for a time when more farm-workers were available from other tasks on the farm, or to allow the corn to keep drying out in the field. We built our rye harvest into three field stacks this year, each stack containing enough for approximately one day’s work with the threshing machine.
Assisting with building a field stack in the field above the Iron Age House. September 2016
The finished field stack. September 2016
Just like the haycocks, these ephemeral mounds would have been a familiar sight in the fields of the past. A few weeks later and it was time to dismantle the stack and load the rye onto the trailer to bring it into the farmyard, ready for threshing at our Harvest weekend. As with most things, there is an art to loading the sheaves safely. Conway talked me through the basic technique while I stood up on the trailer. By about the third layer I think I’d just about got the hang of it. The sheaves are laid in slightly offset pairs, heads inwards, down the length of the vehicle, with their ‘feet’ hanging out over the edge on the first layer (making sure the load doesn’t end up too wide to fit through gateways!), but gradually being brought in as the load is built up to keep the balance in the centre. At each end, sheaves are laid at 90 degrees to the rest (though still heads inwards and feet out) helping to knit the sheaves together and avoid creating a dip in the middle. I soon got the idea of looking at the differing shapes of each sheaf as it was handed to me and judging how to best to place it to fit neatly against its neighbours, in order to build a balanced load and allow the rain to run off. The most important trick though, especially as I built up higher and higher, was making sure to turn around when I got halfway down the trailer so as not to fall off!
Loading rye sheaves on the trailer. (Photo by Heather Beeson).
During the winter months, a key task that took place down in barns like our Hill Farm Barn was threshing the crop with a flail to separate the grain from the straw. This was a long and arduous job, but it provided work for the farm labourer at a time when there was little else available after the busy summer months. Then in the late nineteenth century the Thrashing Machine was invented. This incredible contraption manages, via an intriguingly complex journey, to neatly separate relatively large amounts of grain from straw from chaff in a matter of minutes. Although it still needs quite a lot of people around to work it, feed in the sheaves, collect up the straw and bag the clean grain, the thrashing machine was seen as a massive threat to people’s jobs and livelihoods when it first came on the scene. Many farm labourers across the country rebelled, in the form of riots and machine-breaking under the moniker of ‘Captain Swing’. Nowadays, the combine harvester manages to do both the work of the reaper-binder and the thrashing set all in one, and it is a day’s excitement to see a thrashing set such as our handsome pink Ransome Thrashing Machine, in full swing!
Ransomes Threshing Machine in action threshing this year’s rye crop at the COAM Harvest Weekend, October 2016. (Photo by Clive Thompson).
Ransomes Threshing Machine in action threshing this year’s rye crop at the COAM Harvest Weekend, October 2016. (Photo credit Clive Thompson/COAM).
Our harvest event this year took place over the weekend of the 15-16th October. The beautiful dark blue Fordson Major tractor, dating from 1950, was used to provide the steady power which pulls the belt and drives the thrasher. As it started up, an air of hushed, excitement fell over the farm team at their various stations around the machine and the expectant visitors crowded around the hurdle barriers alike. All focus was on the pink and red giant box as it began to thrum and vibrate, getting increasingly louder and more urgent as it picked up speed. To set it up correctly for the safe and steady running of the machine, our expert thrashing machine technicians John Smithson and Keith Baggaley, from our Large Artefacts Volunteer Team, felt for and listened to the note created by the vibration, as well as counting the turns of the main drive belt. Using a pitchfork, sheaves were handed up to the two people stationed on top of the thrasher. They cut the bindings and fed in the untied sheaves. I was part of the gang stationed at the back of the thresher, binding the straw back into sheaves as it was chucked out. At the opposite end, Keith showed me the clean grain as it trickles out into the sack, free of all bits of chaff and straw after following its adventurous and convoluted route through the machine.
Over each afternoon we thrashed one trailer-load of rye which gave us just over 3 sacks (around 100kg) of grain. In total we now have ten sacks of rye grain currently stored in Rossway Granary to plant back in the field for growing next year’s crop!
“…so come, my boys, come – we’ll merrily roar out ‘Harvest Home!’”
(Words from a traditional English folk song ‘Harvest Home’, learnt from the singing of my parents; I’m not quite sure where they picked it up!)
“Oh our hay it is mown and our corn it is reaped, our barns are full and we’ve garnered the seed…”
The last couple of months have seen everyone down on the COAM Farm toiling out in the hot fields under a bright sun helping with two of the most important summer jobs in the farming year: haymaking and harvest.
Part One (July): ‘The Art of Haymaking’
Before I arrived at COAM I was under the impression that ‘hay’ – an all-important winter animal fodder – was grass that had been cut and then just abandoned in the sunshine for a few days before being efficiently gathered up into the familiar bales. However, I was very quickly to learn how much more complex and delicate a process is the art of making good hay!
First, using an appropriate method, mow your meadow
I did get the basics right: to make hay first of all your meadow full of grasses (diversified perhaps with some wildflowers, such as Hardheads), which has been ‘shut up’ since the Spring to allow it to grow tall, must be cut. This usually happens sometime between midsummer and the beginning of August; exactly when you decide to cut may be down to several different factors but the timing, ideally when several dry and sunny days are forecast, is critical to the nutritional quality of the hay. Cut too late (especially in a beautiful hot summer like we’ve had this year) and it will be little more than desiccated chewy stalks more appropriate for bedding than food. Cutting it too green will result in its needing more turning to dry it out which again decreases the nutritional quality, and the longer it is sitting out in the field after cutting the greater the chance of a rain shower to require even more handling and increasing the risk of mould.
Historically, hay was mown using the English Scythe, and I spent a day along with the rest of the Farm Team being trained in the use of this graceful implement and it’s close Continental cousin, the much lighter Austrian Scythe. To start with, we learnt a little of the historical changes in English Scythe production, particularly how advances in factory steel-making affected the shape and robustness of the blade. After we were shown how to adjust and set up each scythe to our individual proportions to enable comfortable and safe use and had had a lesson in technique, we were let loose onto the tall grass in Grey’s Field.
‘Farm Team Volunteers Scythe Training Day, July 2016 (Lyndsey using English Scythe, left; Penny using Austrian Scythe, right)’.
In Victorian times, a gang of men would carry out this task, one man following on in a line adjacent to the next, once the latter had got far enough in front that the swinging arc of his sharp blade would be a safe distance away. The traditional song ‘One Man Went To Mow’ apparently gives approximately the right timing for the start of each man in the gang: the leader starts off on “One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow…” with the second following at the start of the second verse (“two men went to mow…”) and so on. (Though quite what the dog – Spot – did, I am still unclear!).
Just as in much else when it comes to traditional farming methods, to mow effectively using a scythe the devil seems to appear in the detail. The idea is to lean slightly forward from the hips, swinging the blade in an arc through 180o from one side of the body to another and slicing through the grass stems as low down as possible, rocking gently from foot to foot to creep steadily forward. The trick to graceful and seemingly effortless mowing (which is much harder, and a great deal more effort, than it looks!) is in working with the weight of the tool, using the swinging action to help cut the crop and carry the blade back to start the next arc. Another critical lesson was in maintaining the level of the blade across the length of the arc to prevent it either from raising up too high or otherwise from digging into the ground – not only potentially dangerous but a sure way to quickly blunt the blade!
Dry evenly under a warm sun, turning once or twice a day.
Once it is cut and lying in rows called ‘windrows’, the drying grass must be turned regularly to ensure it is drying evenly and not fermenting underneath. In the past, this was all done using pitchforks. The invention of the horse-drawn hay turner in the nineteenth century speeded up the process somewhat although it must have been a ridiculous sight when it first arrived in the fields, as in action it looks something like a giant insect running along behind the horse, flinging hay high in the air as it goes as if searching crazily for some special treasure! I was lucky enough to take a turn at driving Joshua, one of our Shire horses, with this rather unique machine, under the guidance of chief horseman Robert MacKenzie.
‘Lyndsey driving Joshua & the Hay Turner, August 2016’.
Josh pushed strongly into his harness as we started across the windrows at a smart pace; sitting high up almost level with his rump I had a good view across the field and the many Red Kites keeping a watchful eye for any unlucky rodents displaced by all the activity. I didn’t have much time for wildlife spotting however, as trying to keep Josh and the Hay Turner as straight along the windrows as possible and at a sensible speed for the implement took most of my concentration. Any spare attention was needed for maintaining my balance on the iron seat perched on top of the shaking, rattling, clattering, rather bouncy machine!
A familiar site in the fields of the past whenever rain was a possibility were ‘haycocks’. The grass-becoming-hay was piled up into egg-shaped mounds which allowed the water to run off, keeping most of the precious crop dry (a little bit like miniature hay ricks). In the morning, the hay was once more spread out in rows, to carry on the curing and drying process. Observing how the shapes of the ephemeral haycocks endlessly alter as the grass stalks settle against each other and the top layers are moved around by the breeze, seemed to me to reflect the subtle shifts that constantly occur in the landscape. I found the process of building a haycock also particularly meditative, the craftsmanship required focusing my attention in a very ‘mindful’ way.
Load loose hay, or gather and bind in small bales; best stored in a rick for use as required.
Once the hay is made, today we use machines to bale it up into manageable chunks. Historically however, it would have been pitchforked up loose onto waggons and carted to the rickyard where it was taken off the waggon again and built up in layers to create a ‘hay rick’. During the nineteenth century these large, almost house-shaped structures would have been a notable feature of the rural landscape, lined up along field edges through the autumn and winter months. A large, sharp implement called a ‘hay knife’ was used to cut off large slices as and when it was needed to be fed to livestock and the working horses.
We spend a few days loading bales onto trailers, using the Ferguson tractor or one of our other vehicles to take them round to the top of one of the arable fields, behind Skipping’s Field hedge. Here, they were unloaded and built into a big rectangular bale rick. Once again, there is an art to this, ensuring that the bales are arranged so that they tie each other in (a bit like ‘Sticky Bricks’, if you remember these awesome children’s toys!) maintaining the integrity of the stack as it gets higher and higher, and overlapping the edges and angling the peak to maximise rain runoff and keep the rick dry. The finished structure is about 4m high by 8m long by 5m deep and contains nearly 600 bales of hay, to help keep our hungry sheep, cows, horses and goats fed over the coming months.
‘Loading small hay bales with the Ferguson tractor and trailer’.
Written by Lyndsey Rule, Heritage Lottery Funded Site and Farm Trainee
Right back at the beginning of April, I helped sow a crop of rye on two acres of our arable fields, which had been ploughed over the winter. We sowed the seed using our Monarch Corn Drill, made by L.R. Knapp & Co in the 1920s. Although originally it was designed to be drawn by two horses, the corn drill has since been converted for use with a tractor, as many implements were, and we used our little 1950s Ferguson to pull it.
Conway and Lyndsey drilling a rye crop using the corn drill and Ferguson tractor, 1st April.
The corn drill is essentially a long thin box, with small holes cut at regular intervals in the bottom into which the seed falls due to the movement of the drill. Below each hole, a chute guides seeds down into a shallow furrow in the soil, which is cut by the coulter attached at the bottom of each chute. We pulled a chain harrow behind the drill to lightly cover over the seed. The invention of the horse-drawn corn drill in English agriculture by Jethro Tull in the 1700s made a huge difference to the amount that could be sown efficiently, with much greater control over rates and consistency. It also enabled advances in weed control, as sowing in rows allowed for easier management of hoeing and the development of further horse-drawn devices. Before then, seed was either broadcast by hand or using a seed fiddle to scatter the crop rather randomly across the field. In the photo you can see that the newly-germinated rye is growing in rows.
The new crop – the drilled rye germinating at the end of April on the flinty chalk Chiltern soil
Before we got as far as sowing however, we had to winnow (or raddle) the seed. This means cleaning the chaff and straw and bits of thistle out so that you are left with clean seed, and was achieved by agitating a flat sieve held at an angle over a bucket or wheelbarrow. The seed falls through the sieve into the barrow and the rubbish either blows away or can be brushed off onto the ground. Cleaning the seed like this means it will be sown more evenly across the field and is less likely to clog up the drill. It also means that you can measure out a more accurate seed rate; we sowed one and a half bushels of cleaned seed to the acre.
Our Farm Manager, Conway Rowland, drove the Fergie, while my job was to ride on the drill and check that the seed was flowing evenly down each of the twelve chutes and to free any blockages (using a stick or a long-handled screwdriver), that the chutes remained attached to the coulters and that the coulter pegs, which allow the drill greater flexibility over rough ground, didn’t break. As well as this, I kept half an eye on the harrow being pulled behind to make sure it wasn’t getting too choked up with any debris. It was a very exhilarating experience: the combined clattering of the three pieces of machinery (tractor, corn drill and harrows) over the flinty Chiltern soil was very noisy and I had to keep at least one hand holding on tight in case of a sudden lurch over a particularly uneven patch. The noise and movement combined with having so many things to focus on doing was absorbing and I felt as though I was part of one big machine.
Lyndsey sowing a mixed grass forage ley using the shandybarrow
A fortnight later, we used the shandybarrow to sow a grass and clover forage mix under two acres of rye that had been sown before Christmas (which we will use to thatch the hay rick in the farmyard). The shandybarrow, which can be seen in action in the photo below, is a simpler version of the corn drill. It is a similar long (ours is 12 foot), narrow seed box, with holes in at regular intervals for the seed to fall out on the ground. A little metal plate which can be moved across each hole to different degrees allows some control over how many seeds fall out at a time. This box sits on what is essentially a wheelbarrow frame and the whole thing is pushed by hand. We sowed 7 gallons of the ley seed to the acre. It was rather hard work pushing the ‘barrow backwards and forwards across the field – especially up the steep hill behind the Iron Age house! I had to keep an eye on heading towards the point on the headland, which we’d measured out to the middle of the ‘barrow, in order to keep a straight(ish) line. When I got there, I turned the shandybarrow (making sure I didn’t clout the hedge with one end!), to start at the next point already measured out one ‘barrow’s width along, and set off again, back across the field. But it was a lot quieter than sowing with the tractor and corn drill, and although I still had to concentrate hard, I was more in control of the pace and able to notice the sound of a skylark singing across the valley and a robin watching me from the hedge behind Haddenham Croft Cottage. Since it was sown in April, this ley has been establishing under the growing rye crop, helping to compete with and keep down weeds. Once the rye has been harvested in the next few weeks, this forage ley will be able to grow up quickly and can be used for grazing in the autumn when other grass is becoming scarce to find.
In the Chilterns an historical practice as part of the mixed farm system was the folding of sheep on arable land, to provide a good source of grazing for the sheep (often over the winter) while fertilising the ground with manure, improving it for the next crop at the same time. Since the end of May, we have been grazing some our sheep on the two acres of rye that we sowed with the corn drill. Originally, folding would have been using wooden hurdles: the flock would have been penned tightly over a small area and moved onto a new patch the following day. The Oxford Down breed was developed especially to cope with living in these close-knit conditions and to do well on the thin chalky soils of the Chilterns. However, due to the huge amount of manpower which was required in the historical practice to move tens of hurdles every day, we have used rather more modern electric fencing to open up the next strip of the tasty, ungrazed crop to the flock each day.
Folding Oxford Down sheep on young rye in June.
By Lyndsey Rule
HLF Site and Farm Trainee at Chiltern Open Air Museum