WHEAT: A Miscellany of Memories

I am writing from the Highlands of Scotland, where, unlike oats and barley, owing to the environment, climate, and local farming practice, I did not attempt to grow wheat at the Highland Folk Museum. The last time I had anything to do with wheat as a crop was back in 1996; recorded in my piece “Wheat: A 1990s Photographic Essay”, based on my time at the Weald & Downland open Air Museum, Singleton, West Sussex, England. Therefore, this contribution towards ‘Wheat: A Year on the Field’ comprises a miscellaneous collection of memories.

‘Wheaten Bread’, November 4th, 2021

Born in Drogheda, County Louth, I am Irish and although having farming in both my paternal and maternal families, my earliest memory of wheat goes to one product, the flour. As a boy in the 1950s to early 1960s, I thoroughly enjoyed the Irish wheaten bread that my grandmother used to bake in her cast iron range fuelled by either coal or peat briquettes. I recall our walks to the flour mill by the River Boyne to buy wheat meal. This skilfully mixed by my grandmother, Nellie McGowan, with buttermilk from a nearby farm and other ingredients, was equally skilfully baked in the range’s oven when the temperature was deemed to be correct by, as I recall, the reaction of a little flour sprinkled onto the oven’s baking sheet. Little tasted as good as the wheaten bread straight from the range; spread with good Irish “country butter”! Now, although not baked in a range, my wife’s version of the same wheaten bread is also good.

We left Ireland when I was eight and came to England. From the age of eleven my best friend was the son of a Cambridgeshire fenland farmer. Their main crops were wheat, barley, potatoes, and sugar beet. As we grew older, I had the opportunity to help, including at harvest time. This was mostly in the later 1960s and early 1970s. The wheat was harvested with a Massey-Ferguson 525 combine with a 12-feet wide cut which unlike today had no air-conditioned cab to protect the driver from the dust and heat. My job, on occasion, was to drive a Massey-Ferguson 165 tractor with a three-ton capacity trailer behind; into which the combine disgorged its load of wheat grain from the tank as I drove parallel alongside. After the crop was cut, we would bale some of the straw into small, manually managed bales. These would be immediately stacked in the field in small heaps of eight bales each to give them some temporary weather protection. From then, using a bale handler on the three-point linkage of a 1959 Massey-Ferguson 65 tractor we would move the bales to the farmyard for hand building into larger stacks.

In common with the time and arable area, not all the straw on the farm was required, and it would be burned off. This may sound terrible today but there was pleasure in seeing a field of straw burn well. The field’s margin would be ploughed a few yards round to create a fire jumping barrier then depending on which way the wind was blowing the straw would be set fire to. It was amazing to see how fast the fire could travel across the field! This did not always work out, for on another farm on which I worked in 1971, the fire came around me and I recall dropping the fork I was using and having to run for it. With burning off the straw in the black peat fens, there was an extra issue. The peat cracked when it was dry and quite often the fire would go down into the soil’s fissures without you knowing. The only way you could tell a fire would be to get up early and the morning dew would cause the hot spots to steam. Then you had to dig out the fire. The fire would burn down, in my experience about two feet (on some farms much deeper), to the clay subsoil and then burn along under the surface creating a cavern with an un-telling surface crust. Consequently, the pit you had to dig out to extinguish the fire would often be much bigger than it seemed. One of my fenland horsemen mentors told me how he his team of horses fell into such a pit and for years after the horses would not go near that part of the field. I also recall when a fire engine crossing a field to extinguish a pit also fell into another unseen one!

Going back a stage to before harvest, another activity was “rogueing” or in other words, walking out into the wheat crop to pull out patches of wild oats that grew much taller than the wheat and whose seed, if combined would drop the quality of the crop. Apart from your hands, your equipment was a sack into which to stuff the unwanted plants for later disposal. Latterly the sacks were 112 Lb plastic ones that once held nitrogen fertiliser from companies such as ‘Fisons.’ These days, like other ‘weeds’ wild oats are chemically controlled.

For my next memory, I will refer to a large Cambridgeshire mixed arable and dairy cattle farm, about 800 acres, that I worked on as a student in the years 1970 and 1971. Wheat, as barley (and hay), were major crops where the straw was baled into small bales. I worked with an old horseman called Harry and our job from the start of the hay season was to build the bale stacks. The stack footprint size varied but usually we built to eleven bales high before “roofing off”. The hay stacks we would build to eleven bales high and then, once straw baling started, we roofed off with the wheat straw to afford greater protection to the hay. Roofing meant the first layer was built to the edge of the main stack below, then every subsequent layer was brought half a bale in until you ended up with a ridge one bale wide along the length of the stack. The barley and wheat stacks, we just built and roofed off. Some of the stacks we built were huge; comprising more than one stack built against the other before roofing off. The tallest stack I built, including the roof, was twenty-one bales high. It was a hard job being ready to build by 8am and going through to early evening at the height of harvest. The longest week I worked at stacking was 72 hours.

An example of a partially used but poor, loosely built and bale roofed straw bale stack

Building small bales outside into a stack that would not fall down was an art that is often forgotten about, maybe because it is considered modern and not as nostalgic or romantic as stacking sheaves. The first task was to create a bed of old straw, probably left over from the previous year, on which to build the stack. For the foundation layer of the stack, the bales were set on their side with the straw stem ends mainly to the ground and the two twine bonds around the upright sides. This was considered a better way to lay the bales to lessen the ingress of rising damp from the ground. For the successive layers of the stack, the bales were laid the usual way with the main, twine bound faces flat. The critical building aspect, apart from building the walls straight and the corners square, was to build so that successive layers, like bricks, bonded and interlocked to create stability. Therefore, always building from the stack edge inwards, for one layer all the edge bales would be set lengthways along the stack face, with the following inner bales being tightly set lengthways but into the stack. For the next layer, the stack edge bales would be set tightly but facing lengthways into the stack, locking the bales below. The aim was always to building tightly, ensuring overlapping and locking the previous layer. The stack corners particularly had to be carefully built, always ensuring like bricks that they locked in all directions. Working towards the stack’s middle was not so bad once the edge stability was assured. One final infilling technique of a layer, if the hole left looked to be too tight was to sit opposing bales on the hole’s long edges, then fold them together like a hinge before forcing them in, including by jumping on them. Another trick, if the stack was too large to pass a bale to your building mate within easy throwing distance, was to place a bale midway so that you could throw and bounce a bale of it to get it to where it was needed. On the bales too, many times were the men who baled the crop cursed if the had set the baler too tight making the bales too heavy to easily handle.

For ease of building, enabling the bale handling, I used a “bale hook” that I held like a spiked hand in my right hand. It was forged from ½ inch round iron rod to which I added a padded handle of sheep’s fleece and leather as a comfortable grip. Fifty years on I still have my hook.

The system used to bring the wheat straw or other crop bales to the stackyard was known as a “running set”. Harry and I never moved from wherever the stack was being built. Other farm workers would travel back and forwards from the relevant field; each with a four wheeled trailer that held 80 bales and pulled by one of the farm’s several Fordson Super Major tractors. Usually there were three tractors running: one unloading at the stack for us to build; the second on his way back to the field and the third about loaded in the field to come back. The work was relentless. Once the stack got a few bales high we then had a petrol engine powered “Lister” elevator onto which the worker unloading his trailer could throw the bales to send them up to us.

During the 1980s I first moved to the north of Scotland where I had nothing to do with wheat. Although employed as an agricultural museum curator without a site, every weekend for several years I helped a friend who had about fifty “hill cow” cattle, two hundred sheep, about twenty riding ponies and who grew barley. It was not until 1990 when I moved as Curator to the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum (now the Weald & Downland Living Museum), Singleton, West Sussex, England that I had anything to do with wheat. For the years I was at the Museum, until the end of 1996, we grew several acres of long straw wheat that was grown more for the straw for thatching than for the grain. This is covered in my separate “A Year On The Field” article entitled “Wheat: A 1990s Photographic Essay.”

Further Odd Thoughts!

“Dibbling” All my life I have been fascinated by the “old ways”. One of them was “dibbling” to plant seeds such as “corn” or beans. Note that “corn” in the old British way means such as “wheat”, “barley”, and “oats”. A “Dibbling Iron” is such as that illustrated which I bought when I saw it in about 1980. To describe it’s use, I quote from ‘Old Farm Implements’ by Philip Wright (1961, A. & C. Black, London, pages 4;5): “The use of the dibber on freshly ploughed clover land was most successful. Sometimes the little implement was called a dibber, but usually this term described the man doing the job. There was a recognized method – a man held an iron in each hand and walked backwards making holes about four inches apart each way and an inch deep. Into these holes the “droppers” placed two wheat grains and in this manner big fields were planted. The “droppers” were often a man’s wife and family. …A “bush-harrow” was drawn over the dibbled acres – usually an old gate or hurdle laced with bushes. One dibbler with two or three droppers could set an acre in two days. …When first practised, this method was said to save at least two bushels per acre in seed compared to broadcasting. The grain thus planted germinated more evenly and was easier to hoe in rows. Old men told me too how remarkably straight the rows were and how skilful the dibblers became.”

Hand-forged iron “Dibber” or “Dibbling Iron”, probably 1800s, that I bought in Cambridgeshire circa 1980. It measures 34 inches or 86cm long

Regarding the seeds of grain going into the dibbled holes I recall the verse I learned many years ago that doubles the two wheat grains planted above:

“Four seeds in a hole,

One for the Rook,

One for the Crow,

One to Rot,

And one to Grow!”

On the hoeing of wheat, when I was in my twenties, I remember one of my mentors, an old Fenland farmer, telling me how he recalled people hoeing wheat down between the rows.

“High Cut Ploughing” My highest regard when it comes to ploughing has been for my old friends and mentors who practised the art of “High Cut Ploughing”, also known as “Crested Ploughing” or, in Scotland, “Oat Seed Furrow.” This skill was developed before the advent of the seed grain drill and particularly was advanced with “modern” ploughs such as Ransomes of Ipswich, Suffolk, ‘Newcastle’ models like the ‘RND’ and ‘RNF’ from circa 1860. The principle was that the slowly turned over furrows off long mouldboards did not break but created straight crested lines across the field onto which the grain seeds, such as wheat, were broadcast. Typically, the furrows ploughed, which stand as high as their width, are between 5¾ and 7½ inches wide. My pal and mentor Mike Flood from Norfolk always set his plough for 6 inches. As the broadcast grain hit the furrows it ran down either side of the crest to the bottom of the furrow where it lay in straight lines to germinate after the furrows were then harrowed down. The practice began to die out after the introduction of short mould board “chill” ploughs at the end of the 1800s that created “broken work” and was more suited to grain drills. However, the practice of “High Cut Ploughing” continued, and to today with few remaining practitioners, as the pinnacle of horse ploughing matches.

Ransomes of Ipswich, Suffolk, England “RND” plough

“High Cut” or “Crested” ploughing during a rare First World War ploughing match in Devon, England. The central ploughman is a soldier

Jim Elliot (ex-Beamish Museum) mentor for Martin Kerswell as he ploughs “Oat Seed Furrow” or Scottish style High Cut at the 2015 Scottish Ploughing Championships using a Ransomes “RNF” plough. The furrows are packed tight by a “press”

Mike Flood ploughing “High Cut” with a Ransomes “RNE” without a furrow press

“Harvesting”: Several of the old men who I had the honour of knowing used to talk about the crop being “ripe” for harvesting whether by sickle, scythe, reaper or binder. The crop would be cut with a slight element of green in the stalk; in other words, the crop was not wholly dead, and it would mature in the “shock” (See following). The reason was that the stalk retained not only some of the goodness, applicable to oats and barley if the straw was to be used as feed. However, for wheat, cut slightly green it retained its innate natural strength by the fibres retaining some of their flexibility. For wheat especially, if this was to be used for thatching straw, that natural strength was critical for as well as increasing the longevity of the straw as it would be less brittle and more resistant to decay. A good comparison is with healthy trees that, for example, a traditional wheelwright might fell yet leave for a year to season before contemplating cutting up. Felled green the tree’s wood maintains its natural strength but a dead tree is dead.

“Stooking” or “Shocking”: After sheaves of, for example, wheat have been created either by hand-tying or bound by a reaper-binder, this is the practice of standing up a crop’s sheaves into an “A” shaped “Stook” or “Shock”. The way I was taught was to form each stook from usually either eight or ten sheaves, i.e., four or five on each side with the heads of the sheaf against each other. However, this was not random for the stooks were built in straight rows. Firstly, the alignment was with each other and towards the prevailing wind so that the air passed through the created “A” shape to aid drying and maturing. Secondly, the rows of stooks were built sensibly apart so that a cart or trailer cold be drawn between them to allow for loading and carting off the field.

“Keep your middle up Boy!” The one thing about stacking sheaves that sticks with me was my old friends saying about building was that you should never let the middle of the stack become sloping down into a hollow. If this occurred it meant that your sheaves were sloping down into the stack and then, if this were to occur, any ingress of moisture (rain) would run into the stack increasing the chances of mould and rot. Instead, you had to keep building the centre of your stack up, so as you built in from the stack’s edge the sheaves always sloped down from the centre towards the outside. It was the same thing with thatching a stack. The pegs that held the thatch on would always be pushed in and up so that they ran down towards the stacks outside.

The Best Stacks and Stackers. Although I did work on building wheat sheaf stacks, I never had the honour of building with some of my old mentors who were true prize-winning craftsmen. Next to competition ploughing, competition stack building was a major event. One of my old friends was the great horseman and stack builder Arthur ‘Bill’ Maycock of Chatteris, Cambridgeshire. The picture following shows some of Bill’s round “cob” stacks that he built in 1957.

Round “cob” stacks built by ‘Bill’ Maycock of Chatteris, Cambridgeshire in 1957

The Largest Stack. Owing to the combine harvester I was too young to commonly see crops cut by binder and stacked. However, in the early 1980s I did see the following unthatched wheat sheaf stack in the Cambridgeshire fenlands. At the time I was accompanied by my great mentor Andrew Green (1902 – 1993), farmer and horseman from Benwick, Cambridgeshire.

Andrew Green below a Fenland wheat sheaf stack in the early 1980s

“Tail Corn” (The last, mixed quality grain out of the threshing machine) In conclusion, what I have written here, and elsewhere, would not be except for the encouragement of the true masters who I had the honour to know. Or as they say in the Fenlands, the “Old Boys” who were patient enough to put up with a me, a “Little Ol’ Boy!”

Bob Powell