Saturday, August 26, 2006

Barley Seasons

In Indiana, before farming became invisible, you could reckon the season by corn even if you did not live on a farm. As soon as the snows had melted off the ground in spring, the television ads began for Treflan or some other -lan, a pre-emergent herbicide. As the days warmed imperceptibly to city dwellers, the television weather included daily soil temperature for those anticipating the day when the seed could be welcomed into the earth.

Once mittens and scarves had been safely tucked into the closet, the tractors were in the field, but this was largley invisible except for the occasional traffic jam when cars were stuck behind slow moving tractors. For a city person, other than the occasional disaster with flooding or heavy frost, the corn crop was invisible until the first ears began to show up in the farmer's markets or roadside stands. Back when the world moved slowly enough to read Burma Shave signs by the side of the road and highways were black topped lanes through the country side, you could watch the corn growing. "Knee high by the Fourth of July" had long since lost any real agricultural
significance, but it was all city folks knew about corn until the dried ears and corn stalks began to show up in roadside stands along with apple cider and pumpkins.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I noticed by their absence the ads for herbicides and soil temperature reports. When I moved back to Indiana, I always seemed to find myself some time during the year driving past a cornfield. As if embarassed by its corn, Indiana tried promoting itself with the slogan, "There is more than corn in Indiana," to which a standard riposte was, "Yeah. Soy beans." Oddly, even when I was a vegetarian I never discovered the poetry in a field of soy beans.

Now I am two worlds away from my life where corn and soy beans ruled. The first world difference is the obvious one--the physical distance from Indiana to the land on the edge of the North Atllantic and North Sea. I had to go to a health food store and pay nearly $10 for corn meal because here it is maize flour and is exotic and imported. I was aching for a box of Jiffy corn bread mix. Sometimes the things you miss the most are the most banal. Nostlagia is like that.

Less apparent than the geographical world change but more pervasive a change is that I now live in that nearly invisible world where soil temperature and rain and weeds are an immediate concern. Curiously, even though agriculture is the main industry here in Caithness, farming here is becoming invisible. One of the goals of this blog is to share some discoveries of this world with those of you who may not ever have the chance to measure out a year in corn or in barley, so I am sharing this year of barley with you.

The season begins with the rich brown earth. The Upper Lambing Field was grass last year so to hold the barley, it had to be ploughed and rolled and drill seeded. Some seeds are scattered; some are drilled in. I have not yet figured out which and when and why. I have just barely cracked the code of agricultural conversations, so I will move quickly on to the stages of barley that I can describe.

The barley pokes through the ground with a stunningly green shoot. I have seen grass, corn, and rice in that first breath of life above ground and each is beautiful and unique, as is barley, in its greenness. Amy dubbed it barley green. I like it, so I'll use it here.

In the fullness of the season, the barley "shoots"--the ear emerges. The next stage is
"beginning to turn" when the barley is going from green to ripe. Finally, when the grain gets hard enough that you can't put your thumb nail through it, then it is ready for harvesting.

Harvesting is done with a combine. With the glass front, it looks to me like the man-machine hybrids of Japanese animated stories. I include here a photo of our Dominator 98. It can combine an entire field in a day, but it is a long day with trailers standing by to haul away the grain as soon as the combine is full. Several people need to be scurrying to make sure the combine is kept as productive as possible. Today the combine malfunctioned and a mechanic came all the way from Wick to get it sorted because it was a race not only with the fields but also with the rain, which here is never very far away.

The combine makes great crew cut swathes across the field. The grain gets pulled up through the middle into the trailer behind, and the stalks are used as straw for bedding for the cattle and the cattle equivalent of celery--tasty but not rich in nutrition.

Each of the heaps of stalks is about two feet deep and nearly three feet across. The next step with the straw is to roll it up into those giant rolls that sit in the field loosely wrapped in a plastic snood.

The grain, if it is wet, gets sprayed with urea and is piled in a corner of the barn. If the grain is dry enough, it is put directly into the storage tower. We have two towers and last year the cattle ate all the grain and we had to buy more, which was expensive.

Between our farm and another two with whom we share the combine, there are 14 fields to be harvested. When all the grain is safely in--as well as the turnips (also for the cattle) and any other crops, it is known as harvest home: a celebration and a collective exhalation as the vagaries of one season are stored up against the unknowns of the next season.


Post a Comment

<< Home