Several years ago in Jordan I saw a man winnowing grain as people did in ancient times. He was tossing the grain in the air so that wind could blow the chaff away while the grain itself fell into a wide, round basket he was holding and from it fell down to a small pile of grain on the ground.
It happened along a dusty road in Moab, on Jordan’s highland above the Red Sea. I was a tourist, so it seemed inappropriate for me, a foreigner, to stop and perhaps annoy him, but seeing this anachronistic scene certainly intrigued me.
He looked like an illustration from a Bible or a painting by Millet on a museum wall, but it had not been staged for a demonstration or a photograph.
Winnowing similar to his slow, laborious process does continue in some faraway corners of the world, and rice is still winnowed by hand in India. Or plants can simply be thrashed against the ground to thresh them, and not so long ago farms in our own part of the world were using burros to trample harvested crops on the ground or on a barn floor to release the grain – a process that some consumers would decry as being much too dirty for human food.
But centuries ago, China had a winnowing machine, even with a rotary fan, as one can see on Wikipedia. A man carried a yoke of baskets containing grain to the winnowing apparatus, while another man operated it. The article says that the Chinese innovation with various changes traveled to Europe by the 1700s.
A Scottish clergyman, who must have had spare time after finishing the writing of his sermons, assembled a reaper, a huge improvement over scythes. And in 1835, soon after that first reaper, a combine harvester was patented in the 1830s by Hiram Moore in this country. It could do the entire job of reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one fell swoop, and a reaper-binder came next.
I sometimes think of that Jordanian winnower when I see combines cutting, threshing, and winnowing fields of barley and wheat in long rows in the San Luis Valley, and trucks carrying the harvest to elevators before going to a brewery. Some of the combines over in the fields of the Nation’s Bread Basket are behemoths that travel down roads in fleets that are operated by lords perched high up in air-conditioned cabs.
Other mysterious pieces of equipment that I see in farmyards and fields are used for harvesting potatoes. They are busy in this season, going through fields and digging up potatoes that get turned into rows, so that another machine can pick up the potatoes and drop them into the trucks. Next stop, a warehouse or cellar.
Nowadays, there seem to be different machines ingeniously designed to harvest nearly anything – grains, potatoes, corn, root crops like carrots and sugar beets, bean coffee, peanuts, grapes, tomatoes, and maybe even some chili peppers too. They seem to be so anonymous that products they harvest are called commodities instead of food.
Although many crops still require human field workers, labor-saving equipment has drastically altered agricultural work forces. Winnowers and threshers were the first of the machines to reduce the need for labor on fields owned by cattle barons in England. Trade unions had been forming in industries there by 1800 to oppose repressive conditions in factories, and by 1830 farm workers were protesting the loss of jobs because they were no longer needed in such large numbers in the fields.
Perhaps this history explains why some folks still find so much joy and satisfaction in having a backyard garden in which to grow a few radishes and string beans, even if some of them are wormy.