The wondrous fine days of last week have come just right for the harvesters. Although tractors with rack-reapers are not so picturesque as with horses, there remains a flavour of the sacred earth at harvest-time. The more especially in large fields with men and girls scattered at various jobs. And I have seen a young fellow, stripped to the waist, and as brown as a South Sea islander, with a girl beside him, her hair neatly plaited in pigtails, both holding on to a jolting bar, as they returned to the farm after work. The quality remains, in spite of the combustion engine. In many fields the straw is being trussed, and not wastefully burnt. Various uses are being found for it besides the bedding down of animals; in right conditions cabbages can be grown, also seed potatoes bedded and grown, with great saving of labour. If for no better use, it can be made into compost. The hot days have brought swarms of flying ants, fat, juicy, young queens, that birds relish. Starlings, that naturally have quick, gliding flight, learn to hover, not very well, but sufficiently slowly to snatch at the flying ants in mid-air. The starlings fly at a low level over fields and gardens, and, higher up, seagulls circle to taste the formic acid flavour.
Most of us are of the age to remember that scene some fifty years ago with fond memories. Life was generally unhurried, with those long hot happy holidays in August – and the catch-phrases of the time. They did well to get the harvest in on time.
What can be described as a revolution in the processes of harvesting and storing grain crops since then was prompted by the introduction of a high-input system in the 1950s. This was based on the combine harvester, and it has remained the standard method of harvesting grain crops up to the present day. The ‘combine’ is a machine which reaps, threshes and partly winnows the crop in one pass – it combines three harvesting processes in one machine. The system also requires grain driers to be built on or near the farm which reduce the moisture content of the grain so that it can be kept in bulk storage facilities until required. The grain driers are only needed for the few weeks of the harvest
With the old air drying system the harvested crop was bound into sheaves, stacked upright in stooks or shocks and then air and sun dried in the harvest field. When the grain had dried sufficiently, the sheaves were carted and either stored under cover or built into a thatched rick. This method of storing crops offered flexibility in the timing of threshing, milling and marketing the products – the sheaves were threshed on the farm during the following autumn and winter as and when the grain was required for sale, milling or other purposes.
If you want efficiency in terms of cheap food you need the combine working in large expansive fields, but this is at the expense of the small farmer, the wildlife and the landscape – less hedges and no fallow fields. The agronomists have produced over the decades new dwarf strains which have increased yields dramatically, and crop rotations have been eliminated. Ashridge farmers have no doubt benefited from the extra income generated by these changes, in turn allowing landowners like the National Trust to set higher rentals.
We joined the Common Market in 1973 and the Common Agricultural Policy ( C A P) has sustained the farmer with guaranteed prices of production ever since, but what will BREXIT in 2019 produce – that is another story.
Thanks to the Guardian for a part contribution.