The business of the harvest

I went to see that little country celebration, ‘Harvesting the Old Way’, again this year in the corn fields just north of Chichester. It brings back memories.

As a child, with my brothers and sister, I helped Father on his Norfolk farm for most of the eight-week school holiday. We had to set up the sheaves of wheat, barley or oats six at a time into stooks.

These had to remain upright, sometimes for weeks, until it was time to load them onto the horse-drawn trailer and be taken to the stack where they could remain under a thatched roof until as late as February, before being thrashed in the Ransomes drum when the corn would be sacked up and sold. What a business. Six months of worry for the farmers all over Britain. When it rained and the wind blew, the stooks would topple and had to be set upright once again: many hundreds of them. Our arms became sore with those dreaded barley harns – the name for the awns, or small rasping saws, that grow at the tips of the grains.

Today, the farmer sits in an air-conditioned sitting room and listens to a pop concert as the electronically-controlled monster gobbles hundreds of acres and makes a mountain of clean grain in its tanks in a matter of minutes. The straw is rolled into bales the next day and transported to cattle farmers, perhaps in Wales, the day after. Within four days the fields are cultivated, ready for the next crop.

The yearly celebration near Chichester is a tribute to times past, like the Revival at Goodwood or Morris Dancing or Civil War re-enactments.

Last week, the century-old corn binder, like the one Father had, was hauled by a tractor. Last year, two horses made heavy weather of the job. It is a complicated piece of machinery with wooden sails, which collects the corn onto a reciprocating blade that slices the stalks and a canvas belt that rattles the corn up to the packing device. The final piece of engineering complexity is the metal fingers, which wrap twine around the sheaf and tie a knot before more fingers throw it clear of the next cut. The Ramsomes threshing drums were also active last week, humming away as a long belt from the traction engine spun their sieves, shakers, riddles and fans and blew filthy dusty chaff out and straw into piles and golden grain into sacks.

I recall one stack Father thrashed in a snow storm in February one year that disgorged thousands of mice, rats and six weasels, which had all lived there in comfort since September. We children killed most of the rodents with sticks as they tried to flee. It was a world as far removed from today’s youth as is the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight from those days when Spitfires flew in anger and even buzzed us in the fields and Beaufighters came in at dawn with props feathered and holes in their wings.

One of those crashed on our farm all amongst the sugar beet and I have one of its parts still as a keepsake. But nobody would want to go back to the good old days would they? Yet it was wonderful to have experienced them first-hand.