Reflections on the use of older technologies for harvesting in inclement weather

Many of us who are hard at work with the harvest will easily recall difficult harvests when the rain never stopped or the weather was catchy and it was difficult to get the harvest secured. One such year was 1954. One farmer called the harvest in that year the “slow motion harvest”. During such times farmers sometimes brought out their older harvesting technologies to try to secure their crops. In the days of the binder, fields could be opened up with the scythe. That implement would also be used to cut badly laid patches of grain. In the days of the combine harvester binders could be hauled out of the backs of sheds and other places and brought back to use.

Accounts of the use of these older technologies in inclement harvests was sometimes reported in the newspaper press. The Edinburgh evening news of 25 September 1954 printed an account that tells of the difficult harvest of 1954 and the use of older farming technologies to get the crop cut:

“A farmer reports on … the slow motion harvest (and praises his old machines)

Considering that (at the time of writing) there has been only one day during the whole of a fortnight which has been dry from dawn to dusk, it seems remarkable that so much harvesting has been done. Only once have we been able to get going with the combine after breakfast and keep on with it until darkness came down. Otherwise it has been a case of snatching an hour here, a couple there.

Even so, I have so managed to thresh over 900 sacks of barley, which is over half of the crop. All the wheat has been cut with binders, although it is still to lead in. My oat crop is still to handle. I have only 20 acres of it this year, and it has been battered down by wind and rain to such an extent that it is quite possible to walk across it after a heavy night’s rain without getting the uppers of one’s shoes wet at all.

Never so late

That, in brief, is a summary of the position on the farm in September’s final week.

Last year at this time we were forking the last sheaves on to the carts. Never have we been so late as we are this year, and I have never known a field that is still to cut, as my oats are, in this part of the country at this season of the year.

Even so, we are far from being despondent. Farm folk, I really think, must be among the most resilient in the world. At times our spirits seem to go down so low that it seems that they are past reviving. It happens when it rains day after day with the remorselessness of recent weeks. It happens even more so, if, after the sun has come out and things have dried up, machinery breaks down, or if something goes wrong and stops one from forging ahead.

One of our major difficulties this year has been the sodden state of the ground. Never have I seen such a mess as carts, trailers, binders during the last three weeks. The combine on one evening sank to its axle, and we spent more time with spades digging it out than we did at its proper job. Fields that are sown down with grass for next year and the one after are in a sorry sight, and some may have to be ploughed up, so badly has the young grass been treated.

As I say, after standing by for days on end, waiting for conditions to get right, it is pretty bad for the morale if machines will not go once the sun goes deign to shine. Even so, one cannot blame the machines.

Indeed, if any credit has been earned in full, I must pay it to my three old binders. They are each about to celebrate their fiftieth birthday. One feels that at their time of life they should be due for gentle handling. But the very reverse has befallen them. I honestly doubt is horses could have pulled them over the soft and sodden ground this year.

Oats worry

In any case, the horses themselves are now too old to cope with conditions on this kind. So the tractors were put on in front instead and have those old stagers done a wonderful job! They have cut their way through a crop of wheat which was lying flat and spreadeagled in all directions. So well, indeed, were they going during their last day’s work that my grieve was inspired into making the comment that they would even cut down trees if we asked them to!

The oats leave us with our only problem. They are very ripe, and, as I say, very flat. To cut them they will need to be bone dry, or else the straw will choke the knife. The few bits that are still standing are beginning to shake; that is, the ripe heads are falling off on to the ground, and of course, once they do that they are a dead loss. Luckily, however, the field is sheltered by the only group of trees that are on the farm, so that things are not as bad as they might be.

Work in the dark

This crop is, I think, a job for the combine. The binders would cut it all right, given a really hot, sunny day. But with the corn as ripe as it is, a tremendous lot would fall off as the sheaves fall on to the ground, and then, think of all the bumping about those same sheaves get before they finally come to rest in the stack. The combine, on the other hand, can salvage, I would say, 98 per cent if the worst possible crop-always providing that it is given a dry day for tackling it.

So when that day comes, we shall move in with the combine and we will keep it going until rain or dew compels us to desist, Darkness will not bother us, for the combine carries lights now, and we have once or twice done some valuable work between six and ten o’clock at night.

Thus, show and tedious though it may be before very long some us should be able to report that the most difficult harvest of the century has been gathered in.”