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Summer on the COAM Farm – harvesting rye

harvesting rye

“Harvest Home”

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.

Medieval labourers reaping crop

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.

mowing rye crop 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 at COAM

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 rye sheath at COAM

 Binding a rye sheaf, August 2016. (Photo by Daniel Romani).

Stooking

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.

building a field stack

Assisting with building a field stack in the field above the Iron Age House. September 2016

the finished field stack

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 onto the trailer

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!

threshing machine

 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!)

Written by HLF Site and Farm Trainee Lyndsey Rule

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