Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Long Harvest (blog 3)

Blast From the Past  ( 3 )   The Long Harvest

How the harvesting has change over the last seventy years, with the advent of bigger and better combines, you would wonder how it all got done years ago, but then it was shear numbers of men and man power that was important then.

The earliest memories I have of threshing and the sale of wheat, which in the 1940's was about £18.00 a ton, was when the steamer came manoeuvring into the stack yard, with his threshing box, baler and a trusser. The trusser tied the straw into batons, so the straw could be used to thatch next years ricks or stacks.
A few years on and they drove the threshing machine with a Field Marshal single cylinder diesel tractor. It was done this way up until mid 1950's when the first combine began to appear all of which were of the bagging variety.
Still a lot of work collecting the sacks that had been dumped on the field, and it needed someone on the combine who tie the bags tightly as some burst open on impact sliding from the bagging platform high on top of the machine.

I Remember the Threshing Machine,

During the winter short of straw, call in the threshing machine,
Ricks of corn all stacked and thatched, oats peas and beans,
Mixed corn to feed the cows, and straw to bed them up,
Ozzy Alcock on his steamer, he brings his whole setup.

See the steam and smoke a puffin, o'er bank before he's seen,
Calls at the pool by Seighford Hall, for water he is keen,
Polish up with oily rag, and oil can in his other hand,
Keep busy while the tank fills up, next farm he's in demand.

His teeth have keen grip on his pipe, swinging steamer into gate,
Some of the train he leaves on the road, peg pulled out by his mate,
One at a time Box, Baler and binder, positioned to get belt into line,
Steam engine is last to shuffle in place, start in the morning by nine.

Ozzy and his mate are here by six, they travel about on their bikes,
Light fire in the old steamer, match from his pocket he strikes,
Oil all the dozens of bearings, check the belts are all tight,
Time for breakfast and a brew of tea, and fill up his pipe to light.

At quarter to nine he opens his regulator, steam to the piston apply,
All the spindles and shafts and pulleys and belts all begin to fly,
Lot of dust rises from threshing box, and sets to a steady hum,
Men from the neighbouring farms who help, they know its time to come.

It takes a whole day to thresh a bay, just a bit more for a rick,
Onto the next farm up the village, he makes his way quite quick,
This is repeated around the farms, about three times each year,
Dirty and dusty job it was, not looking forward for him to reappear.

Owd Fred

The Old Combine 1988-1997
It was always frustrating at corn harvest, to see the corn dry and ripe through a fine spell of weather, and then when the contractor eventually arrives, the weather breaks. My neighbour Reg at Green Farm had what then was a huge old combine, with a sixteen foot cut. He could pull into a twelve acre field at two pm. when the sun had got to its height, and by five it was completed. With a contractor, he starts when the due is off at ten am. At this time the grain could be too moist for storage and certainly too wet to sell, then expects to keep going until after dark. The opportunity came when Reg retired in the late 1980's, all his farm chattels were up for auction including the old Laverda combine.

This combine had started life in 1974 on a farm at Milford, and also was one of the first of its make to appear in this country from Italy. It was the first one sold by Burgess'es, and the sales man said of it that it was built like a tank, and every moodel after that was built down from that (in other words a bit lighter metal here and less bolts there to cheapen its manufacture). When the farm at Milford sold up Reg bought it and it came to Seighford, it was kept under a tin shelter at the end of the hay barn. Every summer you would hear the distinctive roar of its engine burst into life, as it reversed out to begin yet another harvest. There were not many six cylinder engines about then particularly in our village, and this one ran as sweet as a nut.
It was the first time I had ever driven a combine, and its previous owner Reg came to get us started when the first winter barley was ripe. As with most old vehicles the alarm systems that warn you of impending blockages or slip clutches slipping did not work. The mice or the gremlins had pulled the wires off their connections, so the messages did not get through to the driving platform. (No such luxury as a cab on this one).
One such device was in the weed seed box on the side of the machine, where a cross auger was depositing the said seed for disposal. To be fair I was warned to empty it regularly, or hang a sack on it to give extra capacity. But no it got forgotten, the weed seed built up until the bag and the box was full, the pressure built up the cross auger was compressing so tight that it was emerging like cow cubes, or expeller flakes. It had happened before, the flight of the auger were by now tapered like a cork screw, and had been very hot at different times. When tight enough the auger stopped and a slip clutch warning should blow the horn (A flap in the box was meant to warn of it being full before it got to this stage, but no wires.)

The grain elevators stopped and there started a build up on the shakers, then no straw movement within the combine. All this time the one hundred and twenty horses power , were turning the header and the drum, and almost every belt on the combine was slipping and smoking.
Sitting at the front amid the dust and noise with the wind in your face, it was only when you turned at the end and discovered that there was something burning or you wander where all the last swath of straw is. Then with a horrible thump the straw was regurgitated back into the drum, which stalled it big engine locking the drum solid, this left a massive blockage was then to be cleared, as the smoking belts had plenty of time to cool.
The body was full of straw the sieves were blocked with grain, the grain elevators were chock full as well, all this from one small oversight of not emptying the weed seed box. That type of blockage was never repeated, as the weed seed box was then always left open for the weeds to return to the field, as it does on most other combines.

It took two whole days to clear out and get running again then the third day was wet, but that's how it goes in farming, if everything ran perfect how boring life would be.
Another similar blockage occurred from a small cross auger in the grain box, this is driven by a small bike chain in a chain case, in turn driven by the elevating auger from the bottom of the combine. When the chain came off that too had a "chain" reaction, but by then you get to know when all is not well, and stop by instinct and minimised the extent of the blockage. It boiled down to a very expensive bevel gear box about the size of a big Mug putting the sprocket out of line for the chain. To over come this chain and the bevel gear were pitched into the scrap ruck. A hole was ground with the angle grinder, through the side or the delivering auger, and a flap of metal welded at the top of its flights to push the grain into the grain box direct.
We then found it important to keep the lid on the grain box as it sprayed the grain with much speed and efficiency, a modification that the manufacturers had not thought of.

When filling with fuel, it is not easy to get all of it into the fuel tank, and with the help of a gust of wind, some invariably misses. As the air intake is within eighteen inches of the fuel filler cap this sometimes gets a spray of fuel. With all air intakes, the larger particles of dust are screened on the outside with a wire gauze, and when this gets damaged an old sack doubles as a useful screen tied on with the inevitable piece of string. Now when the sack screen gets a soaking of diesel fuel, however inadvertently there will be trouble. (Although not apparent at the time)
As the work day wares on, by mid afternoon, when there is maximum dust and maximum heat, the dust builds up on the sack, and with being wet with diesel the dust turned to paste and starts to seal the air intake. A large powerful engine cannot stand being starved of air for long, the revs take a sudden dip, and a column of very thick black smoke emits from the exhaust. This is caused by the suction on the air intake, with no air, and starts to pull oil from the sump up past the pistons and then burnt and emitted as very dense smoke. There was enough smoke to stop the M6 motorway if the wind was going that direction.

Before I realised what the cause was, it rectified itself when the engine revs were reduced, then tried a few minuets later and the same happened again. On closer inspection it became very apparent, that the air intake was sealed and smothering it. A clean dry sack was all that it took to alleviate a very worrying half hour.

During the 1990's it became illegal to burn straw on the field, it had a very distinctive smell when burning, and the odour carried for miles down wind. So it was with great interest when reaching the highest point on the Cumbers field, to see where this illegal smell of smoke was coming. From that vantage point you could see nearly all the parish, and certainly see the origins of an illegal fire. The slow but deliberate three point turn that you do at the end of every bout, was a bit slower than usual for extra observation time, and no smoke was detected on any horizons.
Then it suddenly became clear that the burning straw (or in this case smouldering straw) was under the engine cover of my old combine. The dust and bits of straw had built up and fell onto the exhaust manifold, here it was being vigorously fanned by its own radiator cooling fan running full belt. On top of the combine we always carried a five gallon drum of water for just such an emergency, and with only seconds to spare live embers were being blown out of the engine compartment. The emergency was soon over within minuets, and damped down, and the offending dust cleared from the different ledges. The combining continued as if nothing had happened, but pleased that the water was to hand.

The gear box is essential, and when all the teeth of first gear get ground off, and second gear too fast then something has to be done. Fortunately a second hand gearbox was sitting in Burgess yard and two days later it was going again.
In the years I had her, ten I think, bits would ware out and if they were not essential they would be decommissioned (thrown onto the scrap heap). This can only go on for so long, and a law of diminishing returns come into play. If an essential part has to be replaced to carry on, and when this part is more expensive than the whole combine is worth, then it's near the end.

On the last outing by the Ashes wood it caught fire, it was internal and the water we carried could not reach the seat of the fire. By the time the fire brigade came it was too late, and when they had gone it was sad to see the old hulk, blackened, the paint and the tyres burnt off, listing and dripping from the belated soaking it had just had. It lay where it had burned for almost two years before the scrap men could get to it, it was either too wet on the ground or the crops were in the way, and all ploughed ground to cross four field from the road.
The remainder of that year's crop was combined by contractor.

Quotation ------ Knowledge is like a garden, if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested (African Proverb)

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