As you will see elsewhere in the magazine I have recently self published an historic novel set in Barton Bendish about a woman by the name of Mary Caney who was born in 1790 to an agricultural labourer. I can’t help but compare what farming in the area must have been like during her life time to what it is now. When she was born there were no machines working the land. Horses or oxen provided the power and, besides hand tools, the plough, harrow and carts were pretty much the only implements in use. The nineteenth century saw the invention of seed drills, a primitive horse-wheel operated threshing machine and horse drawn reapers. Later in the century steam engines took over some of the work done by horses. There were no tractors, no mowers and no combine harvesters. Not only have huge strides been made in the growing and harvesting of crops since those days but also the quality of them.
In Mary’s younger days cereal crops would have grown much taller than those of today which made them particularly susceptible to being flattened by heavy rain. They were sparse, yields were poor and they were cut by men wielding sickles or scythes before being tied into small bundles known as sheaves. These were stood up (stooked) in groups of ten and left to finish drying for a few days before being taken to the farmyard on wagons and built into stacks. When a stack was complete it would be thatched with straw to keep it dry. Later in the year these would be taken apart and the ears of corn beat out from the husks by men using flails. Since the last war cereals have been bred to be higher yielding and with much shorter straw as less is required for bedding or fodder. Today wheat grows little more than knee high with barley and oats being not much taller. Rye is now often used for bio fuel and, as bulk is required, has not been reduced much in size.
It is not only crops that have seen a breeding revolution but livestock also. In Mary’s day cattle would have been dual purpose regional breeds, kept for both milk and meat production. Poultry too, of which there are many local breeds, would have been bred to provide both meat and eggs. Many breeds of sheep have evolved over the centuries to suit the conditions of the areas in which they grazed although in Mary’s day they would have been kept mostly for their wool.
It is really only in the last few decades that plant and livestock breeding has concentrated on developing strains suited to specific purposes and this has been brought about by three different methods. The desired traits have been attained through selective breeding, by cross breeding and in the case of livestock by the importation of breeds, mostly from the Continent, leading to great improvements in every aspect of farming.