Of Howell Farm's two fields in wheat this year, the smaller field is ready. The larger field still has some growing to do.
Farmer Jeremy remarks that the quality of the crop in the smaller field is excellent. Jeremy seeded the field a little heavier than usual in the fall, and this seems to have done the trick to crowd of the weeds. Some years thistle is all over the place; this year there's hardly a thistle to be seen.
The wheat harvest relies on a piece of 1800s technology, the reaper binder, which cuts the wheat and ties it up into sheaves using twine. Humans then pick up the sheaves and build upright mounds using 8 to 10 of the sheaves, including 2 sheaves on top to help keep out the rain. These mounds, called shocks, let the wheat dry outside for a few days until it's ready to be threshed.
When Howell Farm first started using a reaper binder, Jeremy recalls how the binder would mis-tie every 4 or 5 sheaves, and the sheaf would have to be tied manually--a big hassle. Then, after a trip to Lancaster to visit the Amish, the farm started using the same higher quality twine the Amish had been using. Problem solved.
The invention of the reaper binder in the mid-1800s was a huge step forward for agricultural technology. For about 10,000 years beforehand, wheat harvests had been very similar and very tedious: the wheat was cut and collected by hand using a short-handled sickle. It wasn't until the 1830s that Cyrus McCormick invented a horse-draw machine that cut wheat stalks close to the ground, and then it took another 45 years or so for the tying part of the equation to be invented and perfected.
According to an article by farm historian Larry Kidder:
"About 1905 an Illinois farmer commended that when he first began farming, 'It took ten men to cut and bind my grain. Now our hired girl gets on the seat of a self-binder and does the whole business.'"