The Combine and the Scythe

I've purchased two pieces of harvesting equipment this season that couldn't be farther apart in the history of gathering grain. I bought a late 1960s International 503 combine from a neighbor, and a scythe with a design that is 100s of years old. It's funny, but the combine is a modern piece of equipment yet it's over 40 years old, and my scythe is an old-world implement but the one I have is brand new.

I bought the combine after messing with the farm's combine, a Gleaner G, for a while and putting a few hundred dollars into it (even before getting it started, which hasn't happened yet). My father-in-law told me about this International and I had to decide whether I should continue to sink money into the Gleaner to get it started and very likely discover other issues with it once it ran, or to drop a few hundred dollars for the International (it was being offered for $500) which already starts, and fix the things I already know need fixing. I ended up buying the International for $350. I had to overhaul the carburetor and I'll need to replace one belt, fix a leaky hydraulic cylinder, and replace some reel bats. I figure I'm way ahead of the game than I would be with the Gleaner. I may still tinker with the Gleaner - I've already replaced a tire, patched a bullet hole in the gas tank, and overhauled the carburetor - but I can relax and do it at my leisure (of which, of course, I have an abundance).

International 503 combine.

That's the story of the combine. And now the story of the scythe. As on any farm, there are quite a few overgrown patches of grass and weeds and in particular, a large population of bull thistle and milk weed on the canal bank. I took the farm's large American scythe (an important distinction which I will explain in a bit) and tried to whack at the thistle, but quickly realized I would be there all day and sore and crippled by the end of it. I ended up cutting them down with the loud and obnoxious weed whacker with a brush blade attached. Knowing there are plenty of overgrown areas on the farm that I'll need to deal with, but not looking forward to the noise and vibration of the weed whacker, I did some research on scythes and discovered there are two types: the American and the European. Now, I prefer many things European over their American counterparts (namely coffee and bread), but I'm by no means Eurocentric and don't think ALL things European are better (with my nose in the air), but when it comes to scythes, there's no comparison. The American scythe is a large, cumbersome thing with a heavy snath (shaft) and a blade that's been stamped in a drop-forge press and ground sharp on a high-speed grinding wheel. The European version is lightweight with a blade that's been hammered to a fine cutting edge. To sharpen it, you hammer the steel out thin and hone the edge with a whetstone.

European scythe.

The American scythe is better in one regard: it looks far more wicked and cool than the European scythe.

American scythe.

I have two blades for my scythe: a ditch blade and a grass blade. The ditch blade is shorter and wider, so it can cut through thick weeds and even some very small saplings. The grass blade is longer to cut slender grass, hay, and grain. I have four 1/4 acre plots of ancient and heritage grains. Though the International is small by comparison to modern combines (20-foot header vs. 35-foot header), it's way too big for a little 1/4-acre plot. I do have access to plot combine (like ones used at experiment stations), but it's not running properly and I haven't had the time to mess with it. So I'm considering harvesting at least one of my plots with my scythe, hand-binding stalks into bundles and stacking into shocks.

First, though, I had to build a grain cradle. A grain cradle is a device that attaches to the blade and snath of the scythe the keeps the grain facing the same direction when the scythe is swept across the field. Without it, the grain falls into a pile with the heads facing all different directions. The cradle catches the grain as it cuts it, and drops it in a pile all with the heads facing the same way, so when it's bound, one doesn't have to individually orient each stalk of grain.

Grain cradle.

Traditionally, harvesting was done with a lot of help and was one of many community-oriented events. I'm not sure I can pull that off around here (yet), but after this year, you can be sure I'll be working on getting more people involved in the drudgery on Prairie Heritage Farm.

As I travel through this first year of farming, I find myself constantly looking forward (what do I want to try to grow next? how will I market and sell it? can we make a living? how will I incorporate more animals? what size utility tractor do I need to cultivate row crops and pull a small drill? how will I afford it?), while reaching into the past to discover so many wonderful ideas and techniques that have been shoved behind us in our mad dash into the more "efficient" and "better" future.

What's been interesting, though, is I've developed a deeper understanding for why we headed the direction we did. I'm also better understanding our relationship to time and how that affects what we do or don't do on the farm. Both are topics for another post on another day.

Swathing Lentils

I swathed the lentils last week. Lentils are poor weed competitors and mine didn't come up as thick as I'd planted them, so there was a wide diversity of weeds to fill the gaps. Nobody can say my field was a monocrop, that's for sure. Even though the lentils are dry, there was so much green material in the field, I had to swath it all so it could dry out. Once it's all dried out, I'll go back in and pick up the windrows with a combine that has a pick-up header attachment. Actually, my very helpful neighbor (who I borrowed the swather from), will likely pick up my lentils with his combine since the combines I have available aren't ready yet - more on that in a blog post coming soon.

The roller on the back packs the windrow down just a bit so it doesn't blow away.


The finished field. So nice and tidy.

Hey now, humm-a-na humm-a-na, SOLD!

That tractor went for $32,000.

I went to a farm auction a couple of weeks ago in Shelby. It was the first I'd ever been to. I had my eye on a Versatile swather and a Gleaner M combine. A neighbor farmer thought the Gleaner might for for $500. That's incredible when you consider a relatively new combine might cost a farmer upwards of $300,000 these days.

From the beginning, I could see that auctions are a whole subculture (or maybe simply a culture) all their own. It was mostly old men, I'm guessing farmers. There were even people there that brought folding chairs who set them up in front of the auctioneer while he yammered off a piece of equipment, folding them up when he finished, and setting them up in front of the next item to be auctioned off. My friend and fellow organic farmer Russ was there. He's been to quite a few auctions in his time, so I hung out with him and asked him lots of questions.

All the little things were auctioned off first, then in the afternoon they got to the machinery and when it came time for the swather, my heart jumped and I got really nervous. The auctioneer started the bidding at $200 and I almost rose my hand, but decided to wait and see what would happen.

This is usually the way an item would get sold: the auctioneer would say, "Let's start this at $200." Then he'd go into his high-speed rambling with the next bid squeezed in between some rapid speech. Some old farmer would wave his arm or shout, then another would do the same, and they'd be off. After that the auctioneer would simply look back and forth between the two who would be nodding ever so slightly, the price climbing by $5 or $10 on the smaller items and $25 or $100 on the bigger ones. Eventually, one guy would shake his head no and the other guy would get the item. Occasionally a third or fourth person would jump in, especially if someone dropped out, but mostly each item would quickly shake out to two people.

As most of the other items went, so went the swather. A couple old men started going back and forth on my swather and it wasn't long before it was more than I wanted to spend. It went for $750 which is probably a screaming deal since it also came with a conditioner and a grain header (which was pretty beat up), but I chickened out and I'm probably better off for it.

The Gleaner M I was eyeing went for a song: $300. The header was all torn apart, but everything else looked pretty good. One thing that I wondered while I was considering some of these pieces of machinery was, how do you get these things home? What if I ended up with the swather? What about the combine? I don't know. Bid on a big flatbed semi, I guess.

It was a full day that I walked away empty-handed from, but what a scene. I wish I'd at least made the opening bid on my swather, but if I'm in this farming game long enough, I'll have plenty of opportunity to get into a nodding match with some old farmer.

Of Mice and Men and Weed Seeds

My new friend - notice the blood rushing to its head.

The mouse saga continues, but good news, as I see it. First a little backup. I attended a farm tour in Big Sandy and a handful of Montana State U. profs were talking about their research. Though not part of his research, one mentioned hearing of a study of small mammals and the weed seed banks in farm fields. Apparently, small mammals (such as mice) are wonderful allies in the elimination of weed seeds. One field in the study saw an 80% decrease in the weed seed bank due to small mammals.

What this requires, of course, is good mouse habitat of diverse grasses on the field edges or in unproductive fields. Though it appears I'm already providing good habitat for mice, it's obviously not in the right places. The researcher cautioned spilling crop seed, otherwise the small mammal will eat that and be satiated.

The first thing I did when I got back to the Farm was pull all the traps from the greenhouse and the turkey brooder and set a live trap in their place. It didn't take long before I had my first mouse which I took to the far southeast corner of my lentil/emmer field where I let it go and told it to get to work.

Lydia inspects the trap and wishes she could check out the inside.
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