Mowing with Scythes
by Sjoerd W. Duiker, Soil Management Specialist, of Penn State University, University Park, PA
Scythes were used extensively in Europe and North America until the early 20th century, after which they went out of favor as farm mechanization took off. However, the scythe is gaining new interest among small farmers in the West who want to mow grass on an acre or two, and could be a useful tool for farmers in the Tropics who do not have the resources to buy expensive mowing equipment. This becomes more important with the increasing demand for dairy and meat products in developing countries. Over the past 3 years I have visited the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre in Nyeri, Kenya with several Penn State undergraduate students. The students evaluate the agroecology of the area and identify potential small-scale enterprises that the youth can develop on a 40-acre site in a semi-arid area approximately 1 hour driving north from Nyeri, called Lamuria. The average rainfall in this area is 23 inches falling in two rainy seasons, but there is huge year-to year variability. So we thought to plant crops without irrigation would be very risky. However, we saw there was plenty of natural grass growing in the area. This grass could be harvested, baled and sold in town where the dairy goats and cows tend to be held. In a year with good rainfall (such as 2010 and 2011) there will be a lot of grass, but in a dry year (such as 2009) there would be less. However, there will not be the investment in land preparation, seed, weeding and so forth, and there will always be some grass to harvest. Additionally, the soil will be protected from erosion by the permanent grass vegetation. Some of you may be wondering why the cows are not held where the grass is grown which would mean lower transportation cost. The reason is that the small dairies need to be close to the customers who buy the milk raw. It is very common to see one or two dairy cows (usually crossbred Holstein and local race) on farms. The cows are kept in stalls and fed green fodder during the rainy season. Manure is collected and used to improve soil. In the absence of cooling the milk needs to be sold immediately in this tropical highland climate – that is the reason the cows are concentrated around the towns. In the dry season there is a need for fodder. The price of hay was very good – one 15 kg (33 lbs) bale cost about KSH 200 in the rainy season, or US $3. Many people in Kenya don’t even make that much in a day, so there seemed good potential to explore hay production for these youth.
The question became how to harvest and bale the hay – we asked around and found out there are some farmers in the area with tractors and haybalers, but these tools are unaffordable for our youth (and most people in Kenya, for that matter). Most people cut grass with machetes or slashes (a machete with a bent end). This seemed a very inefficient way to make hay. We therefore thought scythes would be a good way to improve on the slash but still be relatively affordable. This is how I started in the scythe mowing business. I got my scythe from a small business in Maine (Scythesupply). They also sell a great book called “The Scythe Book” by David Tressemer that contains all the information you need on scythe mowing. There are also several incredible videos on YouTube (search under scytheman8) which helped me a lot. Then I had the chance to visit some experts in peening in my home country, the Netherlands, who taught me a few more tricks of the trade. Unfortunately, I was not able to find anybody in Happy Valley (near State College, Pennsylvania) who had experience mowing acres of grass with the scythe. Even among the Amish the scythe is hardly used anymore except to trim brush – they tend to use sickle bar mowers pulled by horses or mules. So my knowledge about scythes, scythe mowing and scythe sharpening comes mostly from training materials and my own experience mowing grass in Pennsylvania and Kenya. I also found a manual haybaler design developed by Tillers International. This haybaler can be made entirely from locally available materials in Kenya and is operated by hand. I will not discuss this haybaler in this article, however. Instead I will focus on scythes here – types, parts, assembly, sharpening (peening and whetting), and mowing technique.
There are two types of scythes: the American and the European (or Austrian) scythe (Figure 1). Confusion is caused because both types are made in Austria. The American scythe has a thicker, narrower, straight blade made of hard steel. To allow the straight blade to closely follow the soil surface, the American scythe has an intricately curved snath (handle). The European scythe, on the other hand, has a blade that is much thinner, curved, and made of a slightly softer steel than the American scythe. Because the shape of the blade allows it to follow the soil surface, the snath of the European scythe is straight or almost straight. The American scythe is what you would normally buy in a farm supply store in the U.S. The European scythe is common in Europe. Although preferences may vary, the European scythe is more suited for extensive use. It weighs a lot less than the American scythe. An American scythe purchased in a local farm store in Pennsylvania weighed almost 6 lbs (2.70 kg), while a European scythe weighed less than 4 lbs (1.75 kg). It is clear that, when making perhaps 10 thousand cuts to mow one acre, there is a big difference in the effort needed. Second, the blade of the European scythe follows the ground smoothly because of its shape without the need for a complicated snath. Third, the blade of the European scythe can be made paper-thin by peening (hammering using a hammer and anvil or a special peening jig), and is sharpened in the field with a whetting stone. In contrast, the American scythe needs to be sharpened with a grinder or other sharpening device, which can usually not be carried to the field.
The Parts of a Scythe
A scythe has a blade and a snath (Figure 2). The blade parts are the point (or toe), edge, back, heel, beard, knob, and neck (Figure 3). The heel, knob and neck together form the tang. The American style blade does not have a beard but instead the neck is immediately connected to the blade. Blades come in different lengths, varying from 12” (30 cm) to 50” (125 cm) long. The short blades are fit to work in tight corners and around obstacles, while the longer blades are useful for wide open fields or lawns. Bush blades are made heavier than grass blades to accommodate the increased stress exerted by brush and stems of one- or two-year old trees. Ditch blades are intermediate between bush and grass blades. The snath of the American scythe is bent, while the European scythe has a straight snath, or sometimes a slight upbent end. The grips of the American scythe are adjustable. The lower grip of the European scythe may be adjustable but the top grip is fixed once attached. Both grips may also be fixed on the European scythe, in which case they have to be mounted at the right place on the snath to accommodate the dimensions of the mower.