Imagine this: a field of beautifully golden wheat, it’s perfectly ripe and sways gently in the warm, humid, summer breeze. Harvest weekend has finally arrived!
Where I live, on a farm in Sussex, the harvest is a big deal for everyone, men, women and children alike. Everyone has to muck in and pull their weight.
Long ago scythes and sickles were the only means of harvesting, but recently they have been forgotten because of modern technology such as combine harvesters. Not only do combine harvesters do the job in a very short amount of time, they also save a vast quantity of human sweat.
Andy, our chief baker here on the farm, is incredibly knowledgeable about all sorts of grains, baking and the whole process from grain to loaf. People say that he is one of the most learned people about wheat. He specialises in something called heritage wheat.
Heritage wheat is very old wheat. Wheat that you might say is not used by any farmers anymore, except growers of this heritage grain. It’s Andy’s passion to reintroduce these old varieties back into use. You may wonder how he gets hold of the grains, well, that’s simple enough. There are two different ways. Number one is a seed bank, there are usually one each country. For every type of grain that is ever cultivated, they save about 180g. People can get it from the bank in tiny quantities. Number two is more romantic, but probably less used. It’s where you visit an old mill and with special permission, take up the floorboards and gather the ancient grains that have fallen through over hundreds of years. The absolute maximum age that you can still grow wheat at is around 40 years old.
The main reason why types of wheat get wiped out, is because of illnesses. Most types last 8-9 years before an illness that can take them over forms.
Once you have the grains, maybe fifty or so of them, you sow them. Then when you harvest them, you find that each head has say fifteen grains in it. Again you sow all of these seeds and the numbers keep multiplying. Soon you have a whole field of heritage wheat.
Anyhow, because we were harvesting heritage wheat, it seemed only proper that we did it traditionally. Plus we were all wanting to do it with scythes and sickles.
Before the harvest Andy worked extremely hard, sowing, reaping, sowing again, reaping once again, he’d been nurturing this wheat for 7 long years. We just came to help with the cherry on the cake.
All weekend long us workers harvested, sometimes having breaks to sit in the shade and sip cool icy water or run down to the river and have a refreshing swim. Our wide-brimmed straw hats bobbed among the long yellow stems, as we waded through, collecting the heads of the Orange Devon Blue Rough Chaff, which is dark and furry and leaving the tall, light, velvetty Old Ken Hoary. Us kids would run up to the taps and fill jug after jug of cold water, then pour it into cups with a splash of ginger cordial for the other workers. We’d cut sheaths of a certain type of wheat and tie it with tape, writing its name, whether Welsh Hen Gymro or Chidham Red. We separated the weed from the wheat, all the while munching on crunchy grains. Each tastes a little different, Old Kent Hoary is slightly spicy, ODBRC is more sweet.
At noon we all walked down to the manor house for a delicious and totally traditional lunch of pickles, cheese and , of course, bread! We all talked pleasantly and discussed the afternoon’s work. The puddings were all made by me, they included flapjacks and rhubarb & plum crumble. In the evening there was music, meat, a campfire and beer.
The grand finale of the harvest weekend was when we loaded all of the sheaths onto the tractor trailer and followed it up to the bakery were we unloaded and had a team photo taken on the trailer. Then we all rode back to the field to do it again!
Overall I loved doing the harvest, getting a feel of how it used to be for people in the books I read, like Laura out of Little House on the Prairie, and learning so much. This weekend has been part of my homeschool life education.