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Mowing with Scythes

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.

The Scythe

Mowing with Scythes

(figure 1) Comparison of American and European scythe – note different shape of blade and snath.

Types

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.

Mowing with Scythes

(figure 2) The basic parts of a snath.

Mowing with Scythes

(figure 3) The components of the European scythe.

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.

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Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Winter Production of Fresh Vegetables

Winter Production of Fresh Vegetables

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Any claim about winter production of fresh vegetables, with minimal or no heating or heat storage systems, seems highly improbable. The weather is too cold and the days are too short. Low winter temperatures, however, are not an insurmountable barrier. Nor is winter day-length the barrier it may appear to be. In fact most of the continental US has far more winter sunshine than parts of the world where, due to milder temperatures, fresh winter vegetable production has a long tradition.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Syrup From Oregons Big-Leaf Maple

Syrup From Oregon’s Big Leaf Maple

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There is a great potential in establishment of a seasonal “sugarbush” industry for small farmers of the northwestern states, particularly western Oregon and Washington. Five syrup producing species of maples are found mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. The Box Elder and the Big-leaf Maple are the only syrup producing maples of the Pacific Northwest. Properly made syrup from these two western maples is indistinguishable from the syrup of maples of the midwestern and northeastern states.

Swallow

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Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Mullein Indigenous Friend to All

Mullein: Indigenous Friend to All

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Mullein is a hardy native, soft and sturdy requiring no extra effort to thrive on your part. Whether you care to make your own medicines or not, consider mullein’s value to bees, bumblebees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, who are needing nectar and nourishment that is toxin free and safe to consume. In this case, all you have to do is… nothing. What could be simpler?

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

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from issue:

The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Soil, Vegetation, and Acidity

From Dusty Shelves: Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide teaches us about soil acidity.

Starting Seeds

From Dusty Shelves: A WWII era article from Farming For Security

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Prairie Grass: A Jewel Among Kernels

by:
from issue:

Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

Planting Calendar and Other Diagrams

From Dusty Shelves: A 1943 calendar for seeding your vegetable garden.

Marketable Cover Crops

Marketable Cover Crops

by:
from issue:

Our cover crops have to provide the benefits of smothering weeds, improving soil structure, and replenishing organic matter. They also have to produce some income. For these purposes, we use turnips, mustard and lettuce within our plant successions. I broadcast these seeds thickly on areas where cover crops are necessary and let them do their work.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden

by:
from issue:

Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps.

Wild Potatoes and Calcium

Wild potatoes bring increased calcium for better tubers.Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato — and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

Journal Guide