Lately I’ve been planning/fantasizing about owning a small hobby farm. A place with some acreage to have a big garden, raise some chickens, a goat or two, and maybe some bees. A place for my daughter to connect with nature. All this got me thinking about growing grain – wheat in particular. How hard could it be, right? I mean, it’s the nutritional backbone of a huge portion of the world’s population. Turns out it’s pretty easy to grow (sow). Where it really gets tricky is harvesting and processing it. In the modern age it’s even simpler; plow the field, lay down petroleum-based fertilizer, lay down seed, irrigate and then harvest with a huge combine. Combine? What the hell kind of name is that? Well, a pretty logical one. A combine is a machine which combines the reaping and threshing stages of harvesting.
You do this by pummeling it, by hand, with a tool called a flail, which is essentially a giant set of nun-chucks.
Take that, grain!
In the olden days (a century ago), the process of harvesting wheat was different. Once wheat was ready to harvest, it was cut by hand (reaped) by laborers with large sickles or scythes. It was then bundled together and set in the field to cure, or dry. Once it was ready, it was time to separate the grain from the stalk through a labor-intensive process called threshing. Threshing totally sucks. You basically beat the hell out of the grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. You do this by pummeling it, by hand, with a tool called a flail, which is essentially a giant set of nun-chucks. Some folks had their cloven animals just walk all over the grain until it separated. However it was done, it was really labor-intensive and you can see why machines were invented to do this task.
Threshing totally sucks.
The invention of the tractor revolutionized agriculture. Not only could it plow the land, but you could hook any number of implements up to it, including a mechanical thresher. What once took countless man hours was reduced to a simple process of feeding the wheat stalks through the thresher to separate the grain. Threshers came in all sorts of sizes and capacities, including small models that could be the backbone of a small farm or homestead. Enter the combine.
After WWII, agricultural machinery grew in complexity and capability, along with the birth of “modern” agricultural techniques. As a result, the cost of machinery grew as well, as did the cost of entry. Today in the U.S., if you or I wanted to grow just a single acre of wheat and then harvest it, we’d be hard pressed to be able to accomplish the task. No one makes an affordable small-scale thresher anymore because there’s no money to be made there. Some people have resorted to converting wood chippers to do the task. Other’s make their own based on trial and error. And then there’s those that just go to town with an old shoe.
You’d think if we could put a man on the moon that we could create a low-cost way to harvest wheat, the backbone of the Western diet. I guess I’ll just need to grow corn instead, which is infinitely easier to harvest. Problem is I’m lukewarm to cornbread.