The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

What’s Old is New Again

May 30th, 2013 · 10 Comments · Posted in farming, Sustainability

Old tool still yields great results

Old tool still yields great results

Here’s a problem. We’ve moved to a farm that’s predominantly pastures. It’s spring. The grass will grow whether you want it to or not. But you’ve decided you are not going to purchase a lawn mower or other gas-powered grass cutting implement.

What to do with all that grass?

That was the dilemma I faced when it came time to start our new compost pile. One of the best fuels for compost is freshly cut grass. Back in D.C., I used to beg bags of grass clippings off the neighborhood landscape crews. Up here, it’s just me. My initial solution was a trip to the hardware store to purchase a hand tool from my youth, the “grass cutter.”

If you were born before 1980, before everyone owned a two-stroke “weed whacker,” you may recall the tool I had in mind. It was built like a golf club but had a blade on the end of it. It made quick work of tall weeds.

Well, I arrived home with my new “grass cutter” to find it was deficient in one critical respect: it didn’t cut grass.

As so often happens on our new farm adventure, the failed grass cutter was the beginning of an entirely new journey, this time into the realm of ancient farm implements.

On the internet, I located a neat little company in Maine that specializes in custom-manufactured scythes. You know, the tool the Grim Reaper so famously travels with. The scythe may predate all other agricultural tools. It’s probably as old as agriculture itself, for this is the tool once used to harvest wheat.

Old as agriculture itself: the scythe

Old as agriculture itself: the scythe

The scythe is one of those fascinating tools you hardly see any more. Like an old sailing vessel, it has parts with unique and highly specific names like “snath” and “tang” and “beard.” The method of using a scythe also is highly particularized. There are scythe enthusiasts and a scythe literature you could easily overlook if you weren’t paying attention.

The Scythe Supply in Perry, Maine, was started by one of those enthusiasts who unfortunately died in a car crash before he saw his vision take off. At Scythe Supply, they take your vital measurements–height, distance from hip joint to ground, cubit (from you elbow to the tip of your middle finger) and build a scythe from ash, maple and oak to fit your body.

As you can see from the photograph, there are two handles–one at the end of the “snath,” or shaft, the other extended from the snath via a wooden “stem.”

You soon learn that operating a scythe is not like swinging a golf club. In fact, “hacking” is severely frowned upon in the world of scything. Instead, you approach tall grass fairly erect with arms extended and swing in a circular motion from the hips, keeping the blade close to the ground at all times. The muscles employed are those around the waste area. You may very well come away from your first scything foray with a distinct pain in the buttocks.

The scythe comes with a wet stone and metal carrying case that holds water. After 15 minutes or so cutting with the scythe, you give the blade a quick scoring with the stone to restore sharpness.

The blade itself–24 inches long in my case–consists of a hand-pounded combination of steel and iron. It is razor sharp. Once the edge has significantly worn, it is “peened,” or pounded, back into shape. The kit from Scythe Supply comes with a “peening” device that yields a very similar result to pounding metal over an anvil–in other words, squeezing the metal back to a sharp edge.

Lately I’ve been using the scythe to remove vegetation growing around our new electric perimeter fence. The motorists passing by on the road find this quite amusing. “Isn’t there an easier way to do that?” they inquire.

In fact, the scythe is incredibly effective. It slices through tall grass and weeds like the proverbial hot knife through butter. I would say it works much faster than your typical ear-splitting, CO2-spewing, two-stroke weed whacker.

Employing the scythe, in contrast, is downright meditative. The sounds you hear  are your own breathing, and grass falling to the ground.

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  • Bob Fitzgerald

    All well and good (I’m glad the practice of scything is alive and thriving) but why are the four-legged grass cutters not in use?

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks for inquiring, Bob. The four-legged mowers are definitely in use, but they can’t be everywhere. They especially can’t be expected to trim on either side of the electrified fence. They are doing a great job mowing the pastures.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    Good for you learning to use the scythe. It’s one piece of equipment that too many people overlook on their farms. In many if not most situations a scythe will beat a string trimmer without trouble.

    I have several scythes, all with curved snaths. My favorite is one I bought at the farm supply store. The snath is aluminum tubing. It’s light weight and the metal doesn’t shrink like wood will. All my others have wooden snaths and are old enough that, unless it’s winter and the things have been sitting out in the rain, you have to soak the end of the snath to swell the wood so the blade doesn’t wobble.

    The aluminum snath also has some spring to it. Handy when I hit something that doesn’t give, like a bull cane in the blackberry brambles.

    I use mine almost every day. I cut fresh forage for the livestock, I use it to cut grass for hay (I’ve made around 1/4 ton of hay so far this year), and I also use it for cutting light brush and the tender growth on the blackberry brambles for the goats.

    That scythe will also keep you fit as a fiddle. One thing about using a scythe all the time – no diets. Not for me at any rate. I usually start dropping weight like crazy when grass and brush cutting season starts. 😉

  • Ed Bruske

    Great stuff, Joanne. I’d love to hear more about how you make and store your own hay using the scythe. I’ve got plenty of long grass around here.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    I love making hay. It always smells so good. Essentially you want 4-7 days dry weather. If you have hot weather or warm weather with wind it’ll take about 4 days for the grasses to dry. If it’s cooler then up to 7. You’ll want the grasses to dry to the point that they’re light weight, and will fluff when you rake them into windrows, but not so dry that they become brittle.

    Once your hay’s dry, it’ll be ready to rake into windrows. I like to use a regular garden rake or you can use a leaf rake. I find that the garden rake with it’s sturdy tines makes quicker work of raking up the hay (or turning it if it gets rained on). Once it’s in windrows you can store it in the field or in a loose stack in your barn.

    When I put up my own hay, I do so in a loose stack in my barn. I can’t store much that way, but I also don’t have to worry about mold or a hay fire. You can also put up the hay in a stack in the field. Basically you cut brush for the base (you don’t want the hay sitting on the ground directly) and pile the hay on the brush, raking the sides so the rain sheds water (think of a thatch roof) and you need to put a cover over the top so the rain doesn’t go down the center and mold the stack from the inside out. For smaller quantities, you can put up small stacks called hay cocks. They’re just scaled down versions of a big stack. There’s lots of info on hay stacks and hay cocks on the net. That’s where I learned.

  • Ed Bruske

    Joanne, I just watched a huge machine mow down the grass in a neighbors fields. For several hours, it sounded like a giant saw mill had landed in our back yard, or perhaps a 747 revving its engines prior to take-off. How much simpler–and quieter–the method you described. Thanks for all that info. At the moment, we are waiting to hear from a local farmer whether he will be able to make hay for us. But there are also many odd corners and lanes that could be put to use this way.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    Yup. If I had a really big field I’d go with a tractor and equipment in a heart beat. But for the edges, you can’t beat a scythe. The last time my dad went back to Italy to visit the relatives it was summer and, where over here lots of times a person will go around the perimeter of a field and keep it mowed with a riding lawnmower, over there they go and hay the field with a tractor and then come back with a scythe and cut the perimeter.

    Over here there are so few people who even know what a scythe is, let alone how to use one, that it’s just not practical to harvest the edges. Plus, even with hay at $300/ton, which is what I was paying over the winter, a hay cutter or farm would loose so much money paying someone even minimum wage to do that cutting that there’s no reason to do it. A farmer could do it if he or she didn’t mind working for about a nickle an hour.

  • Ed Bruske

    Since we don’t plan on getting a mower any time soon, Joanne, it would make just as much sense to scythe and hay those edges and odd corners whether we’re getting paid to or not. They have to be cut anyway, so might as well put the grass to good use. It’s starting to look like we may end up with a surplus with hay–as long as our longer farmer follows through and hays the upper pasture, currently not being used.

  • Susie Cambria

    Ed, thanks so much for this post. I shared with my husband, who typically sneers at my shares (I am a policy wonk, after all!). He just ordered a scythe! And is quite excited about it since mowing the “yard” with the push mower we have is awful (for him-I supervise).

    Hope you are well up in the hinterlands. Keep the posts coming! Very exciting 🙂

  • Ed Bruske

    Great to hear from you again, Susie. Good news: even wonks can use a scythe. Just be aware you need to keep it awfully sharp to mow down ordinary grass.