The Veteran in a New Field - Winslow Homer
The Veteran in a New Field
Artist: Winslow Homer (American)
Date: 1865
Medium: Oil on canvas
Credit: Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot

What’s wrong with this picture?

Have you ever tried swinging a big scythe like this one? It ain’t easy believe me.

I grew up on a small farm that had a barn built by the original landowners from wood that they cut out of the surrounding forests. I’m not sure what year it was built in, but it was already old when I was a kid. Back in the dark dusty granary with hay chaff gently floating in sun beams shining through the gaps in the wall boards there were two of these implements hanging on the wall. We had a tractor and machinery to cut the fields so it always fascinated me that people could use such a crude device to cut down an entire field.

When I was a teenager I decided to get one out, sharpen it up, and give it a try. Hokey Smokes! It was brutal. After about 30 minutes of messing around I put it back on the wall in the barn and never touched it again. I can’t imagine looking out across a field of golden wheat and swinging one of these things all day long. Then getting up and doing it again the next day.

Now besides the obvious hard work involved there is something else about this painting that bothers me. Look at the height of the wheat. It’s up to this guy’s eyeballs. The wheat I see in fields along the highway in no where near that tall – maybe 18 inches at best. What gives?

Here’s another painting of some people harvesting with scythes. They had to cut a pathway down the field to be able to walk. Again the plants are way too tall.

The Harvesters - Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Harvesters
Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish)
Date: 1565
Medium: Oil on wood
Credit: Rogers Fund, 1919

Is this an artistic license kind of a thing? Really tall crops look cooler that short stubby ones?

Nope. Turns out that many crops, particularly wheat, were in fact much taller years ago than they are today.

The shorter “dwarf” wheat varieties are a relatively modern invention from the “green revolution” of the 1950s and 60s. Scientists wanted to develop grain varieties that had larger heavier heads for greater yields. That required shorter sturdier stalks that wouldn’t fall over from the weight especially in windy conditions. The shorter more uniform stalks also made machine harvesting much more efficient.

Of course with industrialization comes the possibility of losing some of the flavor and nutrition of the original grains. So these days there are farms and mills that specialize in producing so called heirloom grains. Some even go so far as harvesting their grains with hand scythes. Yikes!


Comments on "What’s wrong with this picture?"

  1. Hi Mark,

    That’s fascinating about the change in wheat height….

    I tried out cutting with a scythe too when I was a teen. You’re right – that’s hard work of a kind most people in North America are unused to. You’d build up some muscles for sure.


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