Sharing from our archives of the ‘late’ John Rowing – who wrote for the Four Shires magazine about his experiences for many years.
We are told in the Bible that we should ‘Muzzel not the ox that treadeth the corn’. In this day and age one can be excused for not understanding this very useful bit of information. Why, one may ask, would an ox be walking on corn in the first place? A method of thrashing out corn that has been used, and still is, in many a Third World Country for as long as man has grown the stuff, is by running a few oxen round a pile of straw that still contains corn in the ear. After a while the pile becomes a mass of broken stems and with luck much of the grain will have been trodden out. The pile is then pitched about in the wind causing the lighter bits of straw to be blown away and the heavier grain dropping to the floor.
It was not so many years ago that thrashing with hand flails was used to similar effect. In my younger days I was told by some of the old gaffers who had carried out this operation great care was needed if you were not to belt yourself over the head with the flexible end of the implement. Oxen are well known for their ability to squit loose and runny dung when stressed which, of course, would contaminate the grain they were trampling on, but eating grain and straw stiffens things up and the result is not so disastrous and can be dealt with. All this came to mind recently, as I sat in the cab of a very large combine harvester. Because of the size of the beast and many others like it, much of this year’s tricky harvest, while not of good quality has been saved. This is just as well for I believe cereal producers have suffered poor crop returns world wide due to adverse weather conditions.
Sitting in cool and dust free comfort I was ‘gob smacked’. The thing not only cuts and thrashes crops of cereals but also has a console in the cab whose dials will inform the driver how many tons of grain to the acre was being harvested and amongst other useful information given is the crop’s moisture content. It can also be driven on automatic pilot that at first seemed to me to be an expensive luxury, but upon reflection must play a great part in keeping the world price of cereals down.
The wheat and maize, the latter called corn in America, harvest starts early in the Southern States and continues as the drying heat of summer moves north to the Canadian Border and beyond. Combine drivers and their back up crews then start a marathon race cutting their way through the country keeping ahead of the approaching “Fall” as soon as the crop is dry enough.
I have seen what I regarded as large areas of wheat in East Africa but they would pale into insignificance when compared to the those of North America, Russia or Australia to name but three of the world’s great granaries where the blocks, one can hardly call them fields, can be several miles long and wide, hence the automatic pilot without which the stress on the driver steering the thing would reduce its speed considerably thus increasing the cost of harvesting. The world’s crop yields and costs dictate the price of wheat and therefore the cost of our bread. These days no man is an island unto himself for no matter how good or bad our harvest is we will in all probability be paid the world price for the grain that will become our bread.
The harvest season in North America naturally starts in the south and gangs of combines, their drivers and crews will start cutting as soon as the crop is dry enough to store. Putting it through a drier is an expense only used when difficulty is experienced in a wet season.
However, for many a small scale farmer in the Third World, life is dependant entirely upon the crops they and their families can grow, for few have access to alternative food sources, and famine relief does not normally appear until the situation is desperate. Many such people do not have even the simplest form of machinery. The soil in which they have planted their seed may well have been tilled by large hand held hoes. Thousands of acres of maize, the staple diet of many in Africa are not only planted but reaped, shelled, (or threshed) but also ground into meal, or flour without any mechanical help. It was not all that long ago when much of rural America was in the hands of pioneers who faced the same problems.
In some ways maize must be one of the least difficult cereals to harvest by hand. The cob is stripped from the stem and thrown onto a nearby pile – but then the hard work started. In America it was made a little more pleasant by the introduction of ‘Husking Bees’. Groups of people would sit around the pile and a competition would ensue as to who would ‘husk’ the most in a given space of time. I once suggested to some of my own people that they might like to try it. This was before combine harvesters reached our part of the world, but they were unimpressed. A lady, whose mother was one of the early pioneers in the State of Kansas, told me that the men folk would keep an eye on the young girls at these and similar gatherings for their skill at such tasks were often deemed more desirable than good looks. (I have, I must confess, heard more than one English farmer mention that such and such a lass was a good strong girl and would make any one a fine wife).
It is still the case with many of the smaller farmers in the world that the pile of ‘dehusked’ cobs will be shelled by hand. This is done by holding the cob in one hand then resting one end on a firm surface and striking down in a stabbing motion with another cob or piece of wood held in the other, this will strip the seed if dry from the core. Even on larger projects until the combine harvester became available thousands of acres of maize were reaped by hand in Africa at least. Gangs of workers would go through a block stripping the cob from its stem and putting the ‘dehusked’ cob in a ‘gunny-bag’ or sack to be picked up and transported to the sheller or a store where it would be dealt with at a more convenient time. Vigilance had to be exercised by those in authority to make sure that very few if any cobs were left in the trash of dried stems and husks to be picked up at a later date by some enterprising worker. On the property where I first started growing maize in the late 1940s the land was ploughed by oxen, 16 to a team. (The ‘drafting’ or cutting out from the main herd of several hundred steers that had spent all their lives in the bush and the training of them were some of the highlights of the year giving an entertainment value equal to any Western American rodeo). We did, however, run to one of the rather temperamental ‘Jumbo’ two stroke engines which drove an equally temperamental sheller. Each cob was fed in by hand and as we grew a few hundred acres of the stuff threshing the crop like those cereals grown in the U.K. before the advent of the combine, kept a lot of men in work throughout the year. I was once told by a farmer I knew when I was a young boy that he was told that he had been told that the first time a threshing machine was brought onto the family farm it was broken up by a gang of angry farm hands feeling that their future was at risk.
It is just as well that theses days there is little if any such reaction to any new piece if equipment that reduces the use of manpower.