Farmer Rob is Howell Farm’s scything guru. This morning, in a hay field, he shared some of his technique with a few of the farm’s interns and volunteers. Based on what I’ve seen, success in scything isn’t about power. Instead, it’s about good mechanics, like a well-tuned baseball swing. Rob says that, according to rural legend, a good scyther of yesteryear would have been able to cut about one acre in a day. Rob’s never been able to achieve this feat himself, but he believes it to be humanly possible.
The scything lesson began with a discussion of the tools and theory of proper blade sharpening. For example: “A whetstone also wants to be wet.”
Once the scythe blades were glimmering in the sun, the interns practiced on the short lawn before moving on to the hay field. “The grass is going to tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Farmer Rob advised. A common mistake of the beginner scyther is to lift the blade off the ground and then chop down. Farmer Rob said to think of the scythe as a snake that slithers.
One of the interns is left-handed, which created some extra challenges for her.
“Are you left-handed?” Farmer Rob asked. “That’s not allowed in 1900.”
Fortunately, in this modern era, they do now make left-handed scythes. Farmer Rob recommends scythesupply.com.
Little know fact: The shaft of a scythe is called a “snath.”
Farmer Rob believes that the scythe likely achieved its most advanced technological form in the Alps, were its design continued to be improved into the 20th century. The steep slopes of the Alps often made more modern equipment impractical.
Farmer Rob professes to have a strong aversion to gasoline-powered rotary trimmers.
“I hate those things,” he says. “You can’t hear when your stir up a hornet’s nest. I think the only reason they took over is because scythes have such a steep learning curve."