Last year my wife and I decided to include a plot of winter wheat in our little homestead garden outside of Bigfork. We devoted about two thousand square feet to getting an authentic taste of what goes into the bread our family eats. Mild weather last October was perfect for the planting, and a carpet of brilliant green emerged with great promise from beneath the receding snow in spring. With the larger tasks of cultivating and planting done the year before, the spring and summer required only a bit of weeding now and then. This pleasant task allowed for plenty of contemplative time immersed in the ocean of grass as it patiently transformed the abundant sunlight first into bright green leaves, and then to energy packed seeds.
What for us was a novel experiment had been commonplace for much of mankind since wheat’s selection from wild grasses more than ten thousand years ago. Until quite recently, the basic technology for harvesting and processing wheat had changed very little since Neolithic times. Mastery of metalsmithing eventually replaced the ancient stone sickles with blades forged of bronze and then iron, but the task of reaping the grain remained one involving many people using simple tools. Before the late eighteenth century invention of the drum threshing machine by the Scotsman Andrew Meikle, separation of the grain from the head and husk was done by some form of flailing, that is, beating of the harvested stalks on the ground or floor of the barn. Meikle’s machine was followed in 1838 by the American development of the combine harvester, which both mows and threshes in one operation, thus eliminating both scythe and flail. Together these machines eventually transformed grain agriculture from an art practiced by many on small plots, to a process where now a single individual can “farm” thousands of acres with the help of several tons of complex machinery, modern strains of wheat, an arsenal of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, and of course, plenty of cheap fossil fuels.
We rarely question the mechanical foundations on which the productivity of modern agriculture is so absolutely dependent, but it was not always the case. Meikle’s machine, in combination with the changing land use laws in England led to violent resistance that rivaled that of the Luddites. Mechanization’s costs were immediate to the uncounted agricultural workers who were rendered superfluous by them. Throngs of peasants were forced to move to the rapidly industrializing cities where they survived on rations of flour that they no longer had any role in producing. Today, at some distance from the early social upheaval associated with mechanization, we more often measure the costs of industrialized farming in decreased soil fertility, widespread erosion, pollution of freshwater supplies, and health risks from agricultural chemicals. But the systematic elimination of most people from the production of food has fostered a disturbing detachment from what sustains us both as individuals and collectively.
On a cool August morning I forged a new blade for an old world scythe from a handy scrap of tool steel. Barely cool from its recent birth in fire, I secured the fresh blade to an antique steam bent handle gleaned from my grandfather’s nearly forgotten tool collection and began the long anticipated job of mowing the wheat by hand. Even in the hot afternoon sun the rhythm of the cutting motion came with surprising ease, and I delighted in the hissing sound of the razor sharp blade slicing almost without effort through the dry amber stalks. It took only a few hours to cut and load the entire crop onto a waiting hay wagon.
But I soon learned that beating the grain from the straw without threshing machinery was another matter entirely. I was sorely tempted to see if I could enlist some nearby farmer to run our little wagon load through his combine. The romance of growing our own wheat wore pretty thin about halfway through what now loomed as a mountain of wheat stalks on our wagon. We did finish by hand, and the harvest of nearly three bushels was more than I had initially hoped for. But it was obvious that the value of the grain would have to be measured in unconventional terms, for commodity wheat was selling for about eight dollars a bushel.
Although challenging work, the harvesting and threshing of this crop required the very thing that machines are first to eliminate: cooperation. My wife and I spent many more hours working together than we would have otherwise, and we welcomed a neighbor’s help as well. We were introduced to a new lexicon of terms that had gone the way of the traditional reapers: stook and sheave, scythe and snath, flail, glume, awn, and shatter. And both the mowing and threshing demanded a virtual poetry of motion to make the tools work well and the work go fast. I wish I could tell you that the flavor of the fresh baked loaves from this effort is unrivaled: They are delicious, but not yet spectacular. It will take many more years of careful growing to reach that mark. However richness is not measured by the tongue alone, and recollections of the year’s labor accompany each kneading of the dough, and the devouring of every slice.
I am Jeffrey Funk for AERO, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, fostering connections between people: the energy we use, and the food we eat. Please visit us online at AEROmt.org.
This commentary aired on November 10, 2011 on Montana Public Radio.