- Bradwell Mill
- Local History
PREPARING THE LAND
Farming is a continuous process that traditionally starts with the planting of the seeds and ends with the harvest of the crops. In England, generally speaking, crops are sown or planted in Autumn (October) or Spring (February or March) for harvest in July, August or September.
The traditional way of preparing the land for sowing seeds or planting crops is to plough the soil. Ploughing is important because it breaks up the soil to provide drainage, make it easier for the seed to germinate (start to grow), brings nutrients to the surface of the soil and buries weeds and waste below the surface.
The earliest ploughs were little more than sharpened wooden beams designed to break up the soil. By the 19th century, ploughs had become more advanced but were still predominantly made of wood and were pulled by horses or oxen.
The industrial revolution led to widespread use of cast iron and the Museum has a number of examples of 19th century ploughs. Many of these were made by Roberts of Deanshanger. Ploughs came in a wide range of shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific type of soil or to prepare the ground for a particular crop.
Although horses were the main source of power on the farm until the second half of the 20th century, some ploughing was mechanised through the use of steam power. Working in pairs, large steam engines pulled a plough back and forth across a field using a system of steel ropes and pulleys. A system devised by William Smith of Woolstone (now part of Milton Keynes) pulled the plough around the field using ropes and pulleys, with the advantage that only one engine was required.
The horse and plough was a familiar sight in England until well after the second world war but by the end of the 1950s the horse had been almost completely replaced by the tractor. Ploughing with a horse was time consuming and expensive because most ploughs had two blades at most. Modern tractors are very powerful and the latest ploughs have many blades so that a field can be prepared very quickly.
Other implements used to prepare the soil include harrows that break up the soil, rake the soil, remove stones or vegetation.
SOWING THE SEED
Once the soil is prepared, the next job is to sow the seed. For thousands of years the seed was sown by hand either one at a time or by scattering. This was a time consuming and labour intensive task. Seed was often sown unevenly across the land, which made for inefficient use of the land.
Developments in the 17th and 18th centuries saw the introduction of special machines that enabled large amounts of seed to be sown mechanically. Horse drawn or manually operated, these implements delivered seed into the soil in neat, evenly spaced rows or 'drills'. The seed drill is basically a wheeled box with spouts suspended below to deliver seed into the soil. A mechanism inside the box ensures a steady flow of seed is sent down the spout into a narrow trench in the soil cut by small wheels or blades suspended under the box.
The modern seed drill works on the same principles developed over 300 years ago. It is however, much bigger to allow large areas to be sown very quickly.
REAPING THE HARVEST
The collection of grain or seed crops (such as wheat, barley or oats) has been gradually mechanised over the past 150 years. Basically the stalks and grain must be cut and separated before storage of either is possible. In the 19th and early 20th centuries crops were cut with horse drawn mowers known as reapers. Later, these machines were replaced by reaper binders which also tied the crop into bundles or sheaves for easier handling and storage.
The sheaves were then put through a threshing machine that separated the grain from the straw (the dried stalk of the plant). In the second part of the 20th century machines known as combined harvesters cut and separated the grain and straw as they drove round the field.
Grain is used direct as a food for people and animals or milled (ground or crushed) to produce flour. The straw is also useful, either as bedding or food for animals or as a raw material where it is used to thatch roofs of houses and other buildings, for paper making and other processes or as a fuel for burning.
Root crops (such as potatoes, turnips and swedes) are harvested by digging, shaking off the excess soil and then chopping off any stalks or stems. Special machines drawn by horses or tractors can be used. Many crops (especially fruits) are still picked by hand, although subsequent processing and preparation is often now mechanised.