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7 Sep 2010

Reflections From Alongside The Threshing Machine

Last weekend I was at Embercombe, about 20 minutes drive from Totnes, for the West Country Storytelling Festival.  Embercombe is a fascinating evolving project, describing itself as “a charity and social enterprise established to champion a way of living that celebrates the opportunities inherent in this challenging time and that inspires people to energetically contribute towards the emergence of a socially just, environmentally sustainable and spiritually fulfilling human presence on earth”.  It is also a stunning place, a mix of woodlands and fields.  Food production is becoming a key part of its work, and it now has a wonderful vegetable garden, orchards, field scale veg and, of particular interest to me, some small scale cereals production.  The day I was there, they were threshing (or attempting to thresh) some of what they had grown, and I thought I would share some of the conversations that took place by the threshing machine.  So, this year, the land team at Embercombe experimented with growing cereals, planting blocks of oats, rye, wheat and spelt.  The previous year they had grown a traditional variety of wheat, which was a long-strawed type, but in the wet and windy summer we had much of it fell over (‘lodged’).  This year’s wheat variety was a shorter stemmed one, and, like all the other grains grown, grew well.  The field was rotavated with a tractor, and then the seeds were hand-broadcast.  A few months later, they were harvested by hand, using scythes, and stacked up, waiting for the thresher.

The threshing machine that came is one of only a handful of such machines left in operation.  Powered from a tractor, it is a beautiful piece of equipment, lovingly maintained by enthusiasts, and fascinating to observe in operation.  The harvested crop is fed into the top of the machine, which separates the grain from the chaff, and both of those from the straw.  Only the wheat and the spelt were going through the thresher, the oats and the rye were going to be dealt with differently.

Oats are tricky old things.  When we buy porridge oats we think of them as an unprocessed, natural product, but actually to get from what you harvest in the field to something you can make porridge from takes a few different processes, dehusking, steaming, rolling… as friends in West Cork found out when they had harvested the West Cork CSA oats they had organised.  Without access to machines that can get the husk off them, oats are really only usable as animal feed.  At Embercombe, however, they are planning to try an imaginative alternative, rather than feeding their prcious crop to the chickens, they are going to experiment with making oat milk from them (currently bought from wholefood shops in tetrapacks…).  I’ll be fascinated to hear how that goes….

I don’t remember the plans for the rye, but what was focusing minds when I was there was the difference between wheat and spelt.  The wheat was going through the machine fine, coming out as clean grains, but the thresher was unable to take the husks off the spelt (see left for the picture, the top hand is the wheat, the bottom hand is the spelt).  The guys working the machine adjusted the settings, tried various things, but every time the spelt emerged with its husks on.

Spelt is a fascinating crop.  In this part of the UK, and as we head on down into Cornwall, less wheat is grown, as the soils become less and less suitable for the high gluten varieties that large bakeries favour.  Spelt, however, grows well down here, and is a grain that can be eaten by people with an intolerance for gluten.  Not much use though if no-one can get the husks off!

There is something fascinating to me about experiments such as those being conducted at Embercombe.  The now seminal Hirsch Report argued that it would take at least 10 years, ideally 20, ahead of peak oil in order to be ready for it, to have successfully managed a ‘crash course’ of breaking our oil addiction.  In terms of local food, it seems to me that the process of dismantling the infrastructure that local food production needs has been underway for some time.  As I often say in talks, it was easy to turn Totnes’s last working flour mill (see right) into a Tourist Information Office, much harder to turn a Tourist Information Office back into a working mill again.

The conversations taking place as different grains spilled from the thresher were about rediscovering something just about still within reach, but only just.  Even if you get the husks off, how do you store grain so it doesn’t go musty, how do you keep the rats away from it, how do you mill it… a whole chain of knowledge, sophisticated knowledge acquired over thousands of years, rendered obsolete by cheap energy and the “biggering and biggering” of agriculture.  One of the nuggets I gleaned was that if you harvest wheat and just pile the crop in a heap, and it gets rained on, it is ruined.  If you ‘stook’ it, make it into bundles which stand up, you can leave them out in the rain and they are fine.  At Embercombe they couldn’t find anyone who knew how to do that…

We often use the term ‘The Great Reskilling’.  As I stood by the thresher at Embercombe, I realised that as well as the passing on of skills, we also need “The Great Practicing”, trying things out.  We can learn a certain amount from books and from courses, but the best way to learn, the way that has you thinking around problems and solving them on the hoof, is by having a go.  Even the small patches of grain that had been grown had been hugely instructive.  It also gives you a sense of the infrastructure you need to create, the infrastructure that a local food economy needs.  As Aldo Leopold put it, “who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?  To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”.  I found it very inspiring, in the sunshine, listening to whirring and clacking of the thresher, to watch some dedicated people who have picked up some of those seemingly useless parts and are trying to work out how to make them work again.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


7 Sep 12:16pm

thanks for sharing this – I agree re: the Great Practicing!

One thing any gardener and certainly most farmers know (ones who are not just stuck in their air conditioned combines surfing the web with their satellite uplinks) – growing food takes an enormous skill set and vast patience and a sense of humor because Mother Nature is not the least bit interested in the agricultural efforts of a few pesky monkeys.

Beth Tilston
7 Sep 1:20pm

This is really interesting. A couple of years ago I did a hundred mile diet for a year. Fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy were fairly easy to get but grains were a nightmare. They’re a really overlooked part of the web of local food – especially given that they provide most of us with our bulk carbs which we’d struggle to get from elsewhere. Because of the scale needed to grow grains, few people seem to do it on a small-ish scale, but it really needs people to experiment with it to see what will work.

Small scale grain production fits well into a smallholding rotation pattern but there are plenty of questions that need answering: Should we grow long or short stemmed wheat. Short stems have been developed for the combine harvester to cut with ease but essentially mean that a good proportion of the plant (i.e. the stalk) is being wasted. I know that there are a few people growing wheat specifically for thatching (at least I heard of someone when I was wwoofing in Devon last week)but who knows what they’re doing with the actual wheat. Cutting the wheat (sans fossil fuels) is another matter. I’m pretty into scything and there have been plenty of discussions about wheat cradles that will fit onto Austrian scythes (which thanks to their lightness, ease of use, and Mr Simon Fairlie are what a lot of scythers are using these days) but no one has currently found one that works properly. Get a reaper binder and horses! I spent last week making hay with horses, I’m quite big on them at the moment…

I’m sure there’s plenty of info available on stooking – old farming manuals for example, but it would be amazing to find people who remember actually doing it. We need some Romanians. Romania, it seems, is where it’s at in terms of small scale farming practice…

Brad K.
7 Sep 2:03pm

The threshing machine is one symbol of an earlier technology. And cutting the stalks with hand-scythes is another.

In my childhood I recall being around a “McCormick Reaper” – an implement with a sickle cutting edge, a rolling rake-drum above to assure the stalks fall straight, with a canvas and lath “belt” maybe five feet wide, that carried the cut stalks, aligned, to the side into a tidy windrow, which was laid onto the tops of stalks in the previously cut swath.

When the cut stalks are rained on, or slow drying, they must be turned to continue curing without mold or mildew, and a windrow makes this simpler to accomplish.

Having your field prepared in windrows also simplifies gathering the crop from the field, whether by tractor driven, or horse-drawn, engine powered, baler, or picking up the stalks to transport to barn for storage or thresher for separating grain from stalk. I believe one step in the progression included stationary balers as well; I have one book on “Farm Implements You Can Build” that shows a wooden frame for hand-assembling bales of cut straw and hay.

One item of farm use that has fascinated me is the fork. A manure fork is different from a hay fork. The very large, widely space tines of the fork used to pick up stalks in the field and load onto a wagon for transport from the field is distinctive, and useless for nearly anything else – and relatively rare to find.

I noticed the orange safety fence around the drive belt for the thresher. That bring to mind an important aspect of “earlier times” agriculture – safety, and the great risk of injury and death from the implements and processes of farming. Even today, farming presents more risk than nearly any occupation, save fire fighter. Everyone should be aware that the risk of injury and mistake is always greater for those learning new skills and occupations.

And when learning new, physically demanding tasks, the risks increase with tiredness and with exhaustion.

Increasing the number of people engaged in producing food locally will increase the number of people injured an killed in agriculture. I have no wish to deter anyone. Some of the hurdles faced include: “Wear close-fitting clothes around moving machinery; the machines tend to reach out and grab things nearby.” “Keep your hands and other body parts away from moving parts; they sometimes break, and move wildly in unexpected directions.” “Keep sharp edges sharp; dull blades tend to move in wrong directions, to break, and to damage things.” “Stay alert for unexpected motions and changing sounds; these may be the early signs of something plugging, blocking, or breaking – and quick responses may reduce or avoid repairs or injury.” “Keep a weather eye on children, visitors, and anyone else not skillfully employed and engaged; people unfamiliar with ‘safe’ operation are at greater risk of injury.” “Using a pitchfork tends to sharpen the tines; treat every implement as if it were a weapon, with respect, caution, and care.”

Practice, indeed. And mentors and guides and teachers, too.

I wonder, in your demonstration – what use was made of the hulls and stalks? Sometimes the “discards” are valuable in their own way – as bedding for animal (straw tick mattress?) or building (straw bale house?). The hulls might be useful for compost, or . . ? Some of us are more allergic to the various dusts produced than others, too.

You might look into the costs and availability of a coal or wood-fired steam engine or tractor, with horsepower rated to drive the thresher.

During the days of the thresher, I recall that it was fairly labor intensive, with one or two people to operate the thresher and tractor powering it, one or two managing the wagons used to haul grain away, however many were needed to gather stalks from the field and transport to the thresher, and several to load in the stalks, pile the straw, etc. Granted, much could be done a bit at a time with fewer people. In the days of the thresher, the machine was immensely expensive, and people relatively cheap.

During this era of cheap energy, we are face with opposing economics – people are expensive, with taxes, minimum wages, transport burdens, and conflicting social and cultural burdens. Instead of worrying about getting as many fields threshed for as many farmers as possible during periods of good weather, today’s economics are focused on getting as many machines to each farmer as possible (increases debt and money acceleration, employs more equipment and part makers, distributors, retailers, service people, and fuel and lubricant vendors).

Have you considered alternative lubricants? All modern equipment requires petroleum grease – and often tube-packaged cartridges – for continued operation. I don’t recall what was used between goose-grease and petroleum grease. I do recall some tools and equipment equipped with (petroleum) oil lubrication points, with dust caps and intended to be filled with spouted oil cans. One of my concerns is that coming oil shortages could include spot shortages in lubricants. Since I don’t know who will end up prioritizing resources, and political “imperatives” seldom embrace the rational, I expect lubricants to be likely overlooked at times and in various places.

I wonder – is anyone considering trying out that “threshing floor” idea from the Book of Ruth?

Tom A
7 Sep 3:56pm

Those old threshing machines certainly can seem lovely but I’m inclined to be far more impressed by a modern combine harvester. Modern grain drying and storing facilities are also very impressive and reliable.

It’s also worth noting that UK agriculture only accounts for 1.9% of UK energy usage. (see here…)

Given the fundamental importance of this sector, I’d be inclined to think that even if the UK was forced to operate on 10% of current fossil fuel usage, systems will be put in place to guarantee agriculture its 1.9%…

For me it’s ‘grow fruit and veg at home – leave the grains and cereals to the big boys’!

Dave Dann
7 Sep 8:43pm

Stooking is stiil practised commercially here in North Devon for the thatching wheat. I think they use a reaper binder first. The stooking itself is generally done in a team, since you need to rest the binds against each other. The field I was in near South Molton last month had been stacked by 3 teams of 4 Polish people (of course), so the stooks are 4 binds. I think agility, stamina and good teamwork are important. Good to see field scale experiments being done. Anyone seen any ricks being thatched? Here’s a picture of Mr Hammond in 1986. I bought his cidermaking kit when his muscles gave up and he was taken into care.

8 Sep 1:25am

Hello all
Small scale threshng and de hulling of grains is a major problem we are grappling with on our farm.
A crop of oats and buckweat grown last summer had to go as green manure and stock feed for want of processing. Forget hand threshing way too hard for a few hands with not too much to show for an hour of hard work.
The books on small scale grain raising including Gene Logsdon have no links that go through to solutions.
A setof graduated grain sieves are useful but not an answer. Running them through a mill on wide setting results in a lot of fracturing and if you work at it and put through a few times and then sieve 3 times you get a fine gruel which is edible.
Rolling oats with some hulls will not then sieve and can be hand picked out but is a pain.
There are some de hullers and threshers availabel manufactures in Denmark or Daressalam for the Africn market for about 3000 euros but iam not sure on performance.
The Romance is wonderfull and keeps us going but we need to get past this fast as we cannot go back to large skilled work force on the land from here floundering for solutions.(something about stepping into the same river)
We arelikley to starve.
Anybody for a discussion group?
David Crabb
Muriwai valley Organic Farm
332 Komokoriki hill rd
RD1 Warkwoth
New Zealand

Brad K.
8 Sep 4:22am

Tom A.,

I think part of the concern is that modern methods rely entirely on fossil fuels – the types of energy tied to global change, and specifically volatile in price and availability here at the end of the era of cheap energy.

Consider that the Big Boys are being challenged to produce wholesome food. Recent reports of Round-Up ™ residue – glyphospate – turning up in tissues of people that eat crops genetically modified to tolerate the weed killer. Modern agriculture is at the mercy of commercial seed suppliers, and Monsanto, et al, have been busy putting non-GMO seed producers out of business, at least here in the US. The hope I have is that smaller local producers can survive on open-pollinated seed that they can keep back after harvest each year (you cannot do that with hybrid seed – it won’t grow true to type, and you can’t plant GMO seed harvest because it is against the law – violates copyrights and patents). The Big Boys cannot farm without commercial fertilizer and commercial weed killers. I wonder if those products were considered in your modest 1.9% of UK’s total energy usage. I wonder if energy making implements and parts, and transporting them from dock, warehouse, or maker, to the retailer or service place is counted, too. But I quibble. Sorry.

The thresher, being stationary in use, might be driven by a steam engine or steam tractor, as was done in earlier years. Perhaps even a wood-burning steam engine.

I fear much of the allure of letting the Big Boys do the farming, is that it lets everyone else wash their hands of any concerns. It is someone else’s job, let them sweat the details. Even if we rely on the Big Boys, we need to keep abreast of what goes on, about risks to planting or harvest, etc. The Big Boys often operate on very slim margins most years. While a good year might be very good, indeed, many years in between might be slim pickings after costs are settled. Let grain, energy, implements or parts get volatile in cost or availability, and many of the Big Boys could find themselves out of business in a surprisingly short time. Which puts a surprisingly large portion of available food at risk.

Replacing farmers is tough – not everyone is able to farm, let alone make ends meet while doing it.

I also think your estimate of importance should take into account that government will have a say in apportioning scarce resources, and defense and bureaucracy *will* get what they consider they are due, first.

8 Sep 10:20am

The purist Permaculture answer to this would, I suppose, be to gradually phase out (energy and labour intensive) grain production in favour of growing productive trees as part of a diverse climax community…

I’ve read in a number of places (I seem to recall in Plants for a Future by Ken Fern, and maybe in Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual) that the food yield of a mature stand of nut trees (sweet chestnuts, for example) equals or exceeds that of a wheat field. But I’ve never known whether this is really true or under what conditions. It would be important to find out, if one was planning to base a permanent agriculture on them.

Dave Dann
8 Sep 7:57pm

I think we can forget about the combine can’t we? The engineering and logistical resources to get it into the field are NOT going to be there are they?
(My sis works on a prairie farm in Essex – £2000 labour charges for a blown gearbox on a crawler tractor! Some of the combines are so big that they have become write-offs through hitting abandoned cars on the middle of fields!)
The sweet chestnut chestnut turns up everywhere these days but never from people who actually grow them – this site quotes 40 minutes to peel 2 kg of raw chestnuts. Fancy that! .
I think people should face facts that our grandparents and great-grandparents had the skills that we need.
(BTW Well done! to Embercombe for doing this – I’d imagined they would just be permaculture hippies doing oregano herb-spirals down there).

8 Sep 8:18pm

Although there is nothing like practising for learning I still hope they publish their findings in detail to help others.

What we also need are people willing to teach on site. I too am interested in small scale cereal production but no idea where to start.

8 Sep 8:36pm

Dorset steam fair has huge demonstrations of stationary agricultural power including threshing, cable ploughing, sawmilling, rock crushing etc. and it is run every year. Cable ploughing has potential both to reduce soil compaction and conversion to ploughing by electric power IMHO. They also have big heavy-horse demos at Dorset with ploughing, wagons and hay making. Vintage fairs run throughout the country but Dorset is the biggest and best. Some are just car shows.

Often threshing machines were built into barns. They were run by horse gin, waterwheel or latterly small oil engines. I have dreams for a stationary water wheel powered threshing machine. My parents place has the thresher and I have the mill.

Large numbers of working horses would need a quarter of land for oats. Oxen can work hard on a lower protein diet than horses. Oxen are the diesel tractors of the future, horses the petrol GTis.

Lubricants can be made from veg oil, as much hydraulic oil is today.

9 Sep 1:14pm

@Dave Dunn:

Thanks for pointing me to a very interesting resource. But why are you so dismissive of the sweet chestnut when that source itself states that historically they have formed the basis of the diet for uncounted mountain-dwelling people?

The same site says that peeling the chestnuts is only labour intensive if they are boiled rather than roasted. But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to give any figures for yield.

In the village where we live in northern Spain, the chestnut together with hazelnuts, walnuts and perhaps even acorns from the holm oak, must have been the main staple foods before the arrival of maize from the new world, which soon supplanted them. Until the 1950s or so most people hadn’t tasted wheat bread even though wheat is grown 100km to the south, in Castile.

So why would anyone would want to go back to eating nuts over maize, or indeed maize over wheat?

I’m not saying they would necessarily; I’m just interested in investigating whether it would be possible to do so. At least in mountainous areas like the one where we live, many areas are suitable for growing trees but not for maize, let alone wheat. Walnuts are high in protein, which is not abundant in maize (though it is in wheat). There are many other types of nut-bearing tree available now – such as Araucaria or gingko – that may be more suitable for certain climates and soil types. Many of the fertile river bottom lands formerly used for maize cultivation are or may be destroyed – by urbanisation or, in the future, by sea level rise. And, importantly for permaculturists, the growing of productive trees is less labour-intensive (not many people want to return to peasant-style hardship) and potentially more ecologically sustainable than maize or wheat.

Perhaps this has wandered off topic from when we started talking about threshing machines, but it seems to me that it’s important to talk about all the alternatives for staple food production!

Klaus Harvey
9 Sep 5:37pm

Great post Rob. With Kinsale CSA we’ve just harvested our first crop of heritage oats and you’re right, the process is complicated. We have just about dried them using a drying spear, and next up is winnowing and dehulling which we’ll hopefully get done by Madeline at Brown Envelope Seeds. However, Bantry CSA’s crop last year became expensive horse feed after the dehuller wouldn’t dehull all the oats. Fingers crossed our will fare better. We think we have another farmer with a roller, and a local baker has agreed to let us use his ovens to roast them. It ain’t easy but it sure is fascinating learning about the process and the best way to learn is by just doing it. Our members will not only get locally grown chemical free porridge but a bonus of three nice square bales of golden straw!

Tom A
10 Sep 10:00am

@Brad K,

Yes the 1.9% does include fertilisers etc – please see the linked Wikipedia article. The same figure for US agriculture in 1996 was 2.1% so even in the massively mechanised US it’s not much higher.

Perhaps when I said ‘big boys’ I should have said ‘medium boys’… I didn’t mean to include the worst aspects of over industrialised US style subsidised prairie agriculture. But to be romanticising threshing machines and saying how we’ve ‘lost so many skills’ as Rob and many commenter’s here are saying is an insult to modern agriculture. Go and talk to a medium sized wheat / oat farmer – I think you’ll be impressed by their skills and knowledge.

With regard to the amount of energy used – if we’re seriously talking about trying to feed current populations without any fossil fuels then that’s a different question. Even Rob’s threshing machine needs a tractor to drive it. I’d be interested in figures on how much fuel it uses for each kilo of grain threshed compared to a combine harvester.

You also mix in issues of GE crops and control of the seed stock by large corporations. This is a separate debate. I was talking specifically about the great benefits of producing, processing and storing grains on a fairly large scale. Benefits of food security, reduced energy consumption and reduced labour (leaving us more time to grow our vegetables at home). As grains are stored dry and keep for long periods, the transportation costs are relatively small for the calories and nutrition they deliver.

When agriculture was largely human and horse powered a huge amount of energy went into food production – you have to feed the workers and the horses. Both of these are not very efficient at processing grains. Humans are however very efficient at growing and processing fruit and vegetables – especially as the storage and transport characteristics of these are very different to grains (high water content and high perishability).

This kind of woolly romanticism is exactly the kind of thing that will make the mainstream run a mile from Transition. Take care and focus on the things that really need transitioning and don’t alienate the farmers who are feeding us.

(PS I should point out that I am an Austrian scythe lover and was a member of the above mentioned West Cork Oat CSA – the experiences of both of these have informed my ideas above.)

10 Sep 11:52am

On my very first visit to Ireland I stayed at a small-holding in Antrim where I assisted a small group in the harvest of a couple of acres of oats, wheat and rye. Not only were they doing all the harvest and processing by hand and sickle, but they had dug the entire field by spade and fork to sow.
I helped with the stooking also, I think there was someone showing us how, it didnt seem too difficult.
Threshing was done by hand by bashing a bunch of grain onto a board (I practiced the same technique with rice in Northern India some years later);
It turned out however that the hardest part was milling the grain by hand with a rotating stone mill. Easily an hour or more to mill enough flour for a loaf of bread.

Tom A is right; fruit and veg make sense on a small local scale for some at least; grains make for a fascinating historical process but are far more efficient on a medium-to large scale.

Note that Rob refers to how Embercombe had to switch from long-straw to short-straw varieties;
the short-straw varieties were developed in the much-maligned Green Revolution to be able to hold the bigger yields from improved varieties;

these of course required more synthetic fertilizer (to achieve those bigger yields) but the alternative would be to use a lot more land (organic wheat yields barely 60% of conventional, and also requires more land to produce the manure);
same for horses or steam power- far more land needed for grazing or wood for fuel.

To feed the current population organically we can pretty much say goodbye to any woods or wild spaces left in Britain.

Simon Failie’s new book “Meat” shows how Food Miles can be misleading as a measure- eg surprisingly NZ lamb has a lower carbon footprint than UK lamb because their production methods are so much more efficient, and transport by ship even around the world makes for a very small proportion of total embodied energy.

50 vehicles driving 10-15 miles to the farmers market can add hugely to fossil fuel usage making the “local food” worse than that from a supermarket;

Surely there are far more things in society we can become more efficient with- transport for example- before we have to give up the efficiencies of modern grain production.

As for chestnuts, my favorite also, and I have nuts for the first time on some of my grafted trees after just 5 years. Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust is the man for this, and he has even developed his one small-scale nut-cracking machine. Some sources claim chestnuts can approach the yield of organic wheat, so there may well be potential to increase their use, if harvesting and processing can be done efficiently.

10 Sep 12:29pm

PS nearly all our food crops have been “Genetically Modified” by conventional and traditional plant breeding, including modern “mutagenesis” which uses radiation to artificially create mutations- a technique accepted by current organic standards.

The correct term is “Genetic Engineering” which is merely a more precise and less risky method, which can achieve results much faster.

One thing the above discussing shows is how hard it will be to achieve low-tech grain production with any degree of efficiency; GE provides one way to help with this- it is in line with Organic aims in that it presents a biological rather than a chemical approach which has been shown to reduce use of fossil-fuel based pesticides (ISAAA 2009 “Dawn of a New Era”); future GE varieties could reduce need for fertilizer.

“Traditional” techniques of the 1940s and 50s are not necessarily more efficient in their use of fossil fuels or land or other resources; just as we cannot even get started on small-scale grain production without the newer short-straw grain varieties, so in the future we will need GE crops to succeed.

If you dont like Monsanto, campaign to reduce regulations which have forced independent researchers out of the picture and resulted in the commercial use of GE being only for commodities like cotton, rather than food.

Brad K.
10 Sep 2:12pm

@ Tom A.,

I don’t know that romanticism has much to do with rising interest in energy resilience or localised food security. Focusing solely to address AGW in isolation, I think you overlook one of the key concerns, about temporary or permanent disruptions to a global delivery system from electricty, oil, and coal, to food, implements, and spare parts.

When you consider the present credit debacles that may or may not be winding down in various locations – they are not winding down globally in important sectors. Anything sensitive to disruption – such as a global food chain, industrial agriculture, or today’s modern city – is going to be at risk to external factors. The more global the interconnections, naturally, the more sensitivity to a break somewhere down the line.

Peak oil is happening. Reports that Saudia Arabia needed $18 a barrel to break even a decade ago, and $68 a barrel last year, show that even when production (nearly) matches demand, the end of the era of cheap energy (oil, coal) is at hand. Which is kind of the point about concern about producing as much food as possible given the land available and anticipated threat of disruptions.

I don’t know anyone advocating disrupting modern industrial farms or farming practices. OK, maybe there is some concern about pollution from industrial grade waste from confinement livestock operations an runoff of chemicals and fertilizers from fields into waterways. But the concern about something disrupting, even for a brief time, the vast global network supporting that one farmer working that one large commercial enterprise.

A thresher driven by a wood fired steam engine – or a stationary thresher powered by a water wheel (or even solar, perhaps?) would be subject to fewer global implications, from oil fields turning to battle grounds as demand increases over supply, to “temporary” diversions of fuel from farms to cities or armies – just at harvest or planting time. Or a political choice to ban imports from India or China – including spare parts and replacement implements for modern equipment?

No one expects that replacing modern practices using cheap oil with (human) labor intensive practices will yield nearly as much food per person, or likely per acre without the intensive (energy-rich) heavy fertilizing and chemically extensive weed and pest control practices of the modern farm.

What is being contemplated is the ability to persist at all, should the economic fracturing of the modern methods continue.

10 Sep 2:20pm

Dunno – a wood or coal fired thresher MAY not be such a good idea. Threshing causes much dry plant material to be ground/ shaken into small particulates and become aloft around the machine and could lead to dangerous explosive conditions.

I think the solution people had was a horse or other draft animal on a treadmill that powered a drive train into the machine.

These are now used in olde timey demos at agricultural fairs here in the US.

Brad K.
10 Sep 2:44pm


Set the fire box upwind, and you have a good separation of fire and dust. Farming always has risks – tractor engines run hot enough to be a risk in heavy-dust situations, plus the engine is susceptible to failure if left in very dusty conditions for too long.

Using a breeze to keep people and animals cool, and manage the dust, is part of operating the thresher. I always noticed that the corn sheller guys pointed the shuck and dust vent downwind. You have to be able to see the machine to assure proper and safe operation – which includes managing the dust plume.

I imagine that one of the reasons threshers were put on wheels in the first place, was to get the operation outside – and away from the potential for dust explosions in a confined space.

The dust, like carbon from the soot, will settle from the air in a matter of minutes to days. A bigger concern to me is the availability of wood or charcoal for firing the fire box, on a sustainable basis. Merely harvesting the wood and transporting to where it is needed will be an industry in itself. If and when things settle down to (nearly) steady state, I imagine that woods grown to produce fuel will be competing noticeably with food production for land use. Today there are many marginal spots that will fill part of the current gap, but as we transition from oil to charcoal or wood, the immense time delay (in modern spans-of-concentration) between planting trees and harvesting useful fuel, are not likely to fill all needs. Particularly if there are political considerations involved; politicos seeking to curry favor seldom think in 30 year cycles. Just like the vulnerability to global disruption to modern practices, localizing will increase vulnerability to time-related disruption of good planning – and may make mistakes tougher to overcome in a useful time frame.

The round-and-round windlass approach works for operating machinery. The mechanism is relatively simple – but I wonder about limitations for operating an thresher sized for extensive farming. I would be concerned that it would place a lot of load on the horses – requiring lots of teams to rotate through, during the day. Which gets into the economy of feeding and caring for large numbers of horses for a year (lifetime) that get used a few times a year.

Horses don’t need as much grain as we often feed today – not if we breed and operate for better thrift – but they do take some grain when working. And if you feed less grain, you need more pasture and other forage. You quickly have to figure out where the utility of the horse overcomes the impact on available crop land and crop produced for use off the farm.

Recent experience with pasture rotation show that immense increases – maybe triple – in the amount of livestock a particular parcel of pasture can support (MatronOfHusbandry is one). But the practice is labor intensive, diverting time and energy from food production.

Economics, those danged economics.

David M
11 Sep 4:55am

Here is a link to the short video that was made about a threshing machine made by one of our Transition Whatcom members, Brian Kerkvliet, from a retrofitted chipper.

By the way, a book that Steve Jones, a grain growing expert from our local University Extension service highly recommended in a talk last year is “The Small Grains” by Mark Alfred Carleton. A book from 1915 that is long out of print, but is fortunately available (and searchable!) at Google Books. Jones recommends this book about growing grains above all others. Here’s the link:

Dave Dann
11 Sep 11:49pm

I’m truly amazed that you think that trying to live from growing chestnuts won’t require a return to ‘peasant-style hardship’. What do you get your calories from now? Do you live off chestnuts, hazelnuts?
Is the whole Transition Movement full of computer nerds shopping at supermarkets and trying to persuade everyone else that 8 billion people can be fed from the hedgerows and nut trees without hard manual labour?

12 Sep 12:06am

Dave: your statement:

“Is the whole Transition Movement full of computer nerds shopping at supermarkets and trying to persuade everyone else that 8 billion people can be fed from the hedgerows and nut trees without hard manual labour?”

belies your ignorance about the Transition movement

Brad K.
12 Sep 1:08am

@ Nika,

I believe Dave’s statement was meant to be sarcastic, showing that he believes his hyperbole to be an exaggeration of what the Transition movement is not.

At least, I read him that way.

I wonder – Robert, Do you work for a tractor manufacturer, or agricultural seed or chemical company? Your economic compass seems pretty well stuck on “Monsanto”, to have been reading the ArchdruidReports, and have followed the comments.

As I stated above, my own feeling is that the current definition of “modern agriculture” is too fragile to persist in the growing global atmosphere of unrest and uncertainty. When the dust settles I expect the next “steady state” will be somewhere between the stone ages and what some affluent regions enjoy today. But my bet is that fewer regions will retain modern agribusiness intact. Also, I bet that more of the world, including within so-called “affluent” nations, will be reduced to something that looks somewhat like the 1970’s “back to nature”, off-grid, hippy small farm, or big truck garden.

That is why I am interested in producing food locally – so-called “food security” as the US and UN are pushing for “poor” countries. Only my interest is improving food security here in Oklahoma, USA. I don’t know about you, but I see the local Wal-Mart selling a lot more food off the grocery shelves than they did three or six months ago. Where is that extra food coming from, as folk stop eating out as often? Where will it be coming from when the continental food demand overcomes national distributor reserve stocks? What happens if something – an earthquake or flood – causes roads or bridges to fail in a region? Or China takes a notion to sell stuff we counted on to Iran, or Malaysia, just because they might get a better price, or because international tensions dictate a change in foreign policy? What happens if Congress grounds our Navy, and Venezuela takes to piracy on the high seas in a big way, to enforce an embargo? Sure, it wouldn’t last long, likely, but what if the delay in food from Australia is six months?

The Just In Time industry model we follow for retail sales, manufacturing, etc. is predicated on stable and dependable communications, transportation, and information flow. In a global network, the strains we are seeing (Russia’s wheat embargoes, China dealing with Iran for nuclear fuel, etc.) make all those dependencies more fragile than they were before Bush left office.

What’s going to happen? I don’t know. I put down some Black Cherry Tomatoes and some bell peppers and watermelon this year, my first garden. Just the taste is enough that I want to do more next year, and maybe weed the garden, too, so that more stuff survives. I am sure the lettuce must have come up, but the bugs got it first, and I saw the beans, for a couple of days. Is my gardening going to feed me and my friends? Not this year. Am I ready to go it alone? Nope. But if things keep winding down as they seem to be (the local pawn shop stopped taking tools and chain saws, and see more people failing to redeem what they pawn, in the last nine weeks), it seems I need a really big head start on helping provide food. Plus, what I learn could help me with information for others, once people start looking for different answers.

Check Frank W. James’ blog, he is a big agribusiness farmer. At the same time the USDA is calling this years crop above average, Frank got 30 bushels to the acre less than average for him – on his best field. Note that the Obama administration fudged grain numbers last year, and instead of retaining a reserve as they are required to do, exported too much overseas, shorting the US for some uses. They seem to be playing with numbers again this year. Is that what you want to depend on, to feed your family? Or is there room for investigating other options, in case they are needed?

27 Sep 1:00am

Well if I was trying to learn about pre-industrial farming methods I would talk to people who never industrialized. The Amish are the 1st to come to mind. not only have they lived with little modern technology they have a pretty good handle on community organization that is required in an post industrial era.

Brad K.
27 Sep 5:55pm


Please be careful with generalizations. Each Amish community operates by its own understanding of the strictures, or ordnung. Most have bishops with the responsibility to monitor the community and assure each member adheres to expectations, as well as provide counseling and assure a uniform application of the rules.

One rule is not to work the field faster than a horse walks. This assures that horses aren’t abused. I also observed an Amish farmer in one community working ground with a large, late model John Deere – at a pace slow enough not to pass a horse at a walking pace, or fast enough to excite the bishops. I know one Amish man who got in trouble with the bishops when they visited his shop – and the cell phone he had hidden in the hay pile outside the door started to ring. Adult Amish don’t drive cars. But some hire non-Amish vehicles and drivers on a regular basis. The Amish don’t use the internet, supposedly. I perform site maintenance for an Amish bed-and-breakfast farm, and have hosted a site for a different Amish, tack business. It seems they can hire an English (their word for non-Amish) broker to arrange for media advertising and coverage, at least in some communities.

That said, I have great respect for the Amish, their history and culture. What you are calling community is inextricably intermingled with their expression of faith. They actively live a life that considers nurturing of the land, and of the family, a significant matter of their worship.

Choosing to nurture the land, as Transition embraces, is not the same as considering nurturing the land part of the formal, communal celebration of faith.

Do the Amish have lessons to teach? Yes. Their ancestors, the Anabaptists in Europe, invented the nurturing techniques that we now consider sustainable farming practices. (And were burned as witches when their neighbors rejected better farming practices and claimed the difference in production was black magic.) The Amish have firmly embraced raising their children in their own culture, so that the children in turn will continue the community and faith unchanged, preserving unto following generations the choices, the faith, and the blessings of their fathers.

I wonder how much of the Amish single-mindedness, the devotion of life and skill and family, and isolation from non-believers, to faith and worship will apply to Transition endeavors. It may be difficult to take many the lessons of Amish communities out of context.

27 Sep 7:31pm


I’m still trying to work out where you got the idea that I’m a computer nerd. Certainly not by actually reading my comments, or indeed visiting my website.

I can’t really work out either where you got the idea that I “think that trying to live from growing chestnuts won’t require a return to ‘peasant-style hardship’”. Plenty of people think peasant-style hardship’s on the cards one way or another… I’d like to find ways to minimize that, appropriate to my bioregion.

I don’t know anyone who lives _mainly_ off chestnuts, walnuts and hazelnuts but I do know people who make up a fair part of their diet with these nuts… and there are loads of chestnuts lying on the paths and roads to be picked up around here right now. I don’t have time to do it because I’m too busy building a house.

Are you merely trying to be a shit-stirrer?

Brad K.
27 Sep 9:56pm


I suspect the objections DaveDunn expresses have more to do with his internal resistance to adopting change, than to your comments. Your comments might have pushed him onto that uncomfortable path from assumed serenity toward the scary, but necessary, unknown – but it is his internal journey he resists, not your reminders of reality.

Of course, DaveDunn could be a troll, or even one that will not see because he has already chosen his direction and goals, and finds distracting reality a mere irritant.

Not that I would have any feelings, or allow any kind of slant in my writing to express whether I find one in error. But . . lol!

Lee Rust
14 Feb 6:52am

To David M. for the link to the “Small Grains” book…Thank you !