I’ll talk about the technical aspects of the wheat harvest and processing in other posts and an upcoming episode of Foodmageddon, so stay tuned. But for now, here are a few impressionistic thoughts regarding this process.
Wheat (Triticum aestivum) is one of the oldest domesticated grains, having been domesticated over 10,000 years ago (and generally here). Only in the last hundred years have we separated ourselves from the physical act of cutting, drying, threshing, and winnowing one of the three primary domesticated grains (the others being corn and rice). Today, the combine harvester will mow down a twenty-five-foot swath of dwarf wheat, rattle the wheat berries off their stems, and spit the remaining straw out in a neat windrow behind them. This machine, traveling at four miles per hour, harvests a tenth of an acre in thirty seconds — a task that takes me eight hours to cut and bind, plus another twenty hours to thresh and winnow.
The Wheat of Today
I harvested modern dwarf wheat. This plant would have astonished my Swedish ancestors who came to this country a century ago. Back then, wheat was chest high, with a dozen wheat berries per plant. Depending on the type of wheat, it might have had a tough husk that required extra processing to remove.
Then in the 1960s, Norman Borlaug got his hands on some dwarf wheat from Japan. Using money from the Rockefeller Foundation and traditional wheat strains in Mexico, Borlaug bred a stubby variety with double the grain per head. If it was as tall as its ancestors, the weight of the heads would snap the stems, causing the tops to “lodge” in the soil and die. Some of the muscularity of this variety was due to breeding but much was the result of the heavy application of nitrogen fertilizer. This breakthrough was heralded as the Green Revolution and claims to have saved thousands of lives from famine and starvation — never mind that we produce more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet today and yet people still suffer from lack of access to enough calories.
The scythe is an efficient tool on many levels. It takes the sickle — a tool that has been in use for as long as wheat has been harvested — makes it larger, more ergonomic, and more efficient.
Every swing of the scythe begins with a smooth draw back and to the side, loading energy in the reaper’s body like a spring. As the scythe swings back around, instead of coarsely chopping the wheat perpendicular across the cutting edge, the scythe slips behind each stem, effortlessly sliding its paper-thin cutting edge across and through the tough cells. With a single, smooth swing of the scythe, five feet strip of wheat is severed and collected against the snath (wooden handle). At the end of the arc, the energy has dissipated, and a simple tip of the scythe drops the wheat into a neat pile, heads on one end and cut stems on the other.
At least, that’s the goal. Using a scythe in this way takes practice. I learned that when nine folks came out to help bring in the harvest. Just the basics of scything take hours to learn, let alone the extra acuity needed to neatly drop an oriented pile of wheat stems. I had never taught scything before, but found myself articulating tips that I had developed in my own experience.
Don’t try to cut the wheat — just move the scythe smoothly and the grass will fall.
If you “try,” you tend to lean forward (hurting your back) and cut too-thick a swath, picking up too much wheat and slowing your progress across the swing, which forces you to add more power and disrupt the smooth arc. Muscular scything can’t be kept up all day.
Think with the tip of the blade.
Coming directly out of Japanese sword work, this idea works when you’ve scythed enough that the tool becomes an extension of your hands and body. At that point, focusing on the last six inches of the blade guides the smooth motion from the hips, core, and shoulders through the elbows, hands, and scythe.
Learn with many shallow cuts rather than a few deep ones — it’s always easier to deepen cuts later with better form.
The most common difficulty of early reapers was to bite off too much with each swing. The more that is cut with each swing, the more correct your form has to be and the more power it takes. So when starting out, it’s best to take just a few inches of stems with each swing, giving you more forgiveness in form and requiring less power.
What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper?Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
In the discworld of Terry Pratchett, death is a skeleton with a scythe. He becomes disillusioned with his work and quits, becoming a hired hand on a farm during the wheat harvest. If you’re interested in a bit of light humor, it’s worth a read. The quotation, though, brings me back to thinking about the care and skill needed to harvest wheat. We have largely lost the direct link to centuries of knowledge. We have a few historic videos of the wheat harvest before machines and descriptions in farming manuals from the 1800s, but that is a poor substitute for the direct teaching of someone who has scythed acre after acre of wheat in order to survive the winter.