The Farming Manual: Rick Building and Thatching


I’m afraid this chapter has little to offer me unless I look at the pattern exposed by the chapter. Let me start at the middle of the chapter

There is a big difference between building with 6-ft. wheat sheaves, and little, short, round barley sheaves.

The world has changed, Mr. Henderson. We no longer value straw. We have, in the modern era, moved to shorter wheat. I have never been lost in a wheat field. So I cannot build the rick you are describing. Even if you watch BBCs Victorian Farm you see short sheaves.

Some years ago I asked an elderly neighbor (when his combine was plugged up with wet wheat) if he could make a sheaf. He laughed, said yes and then said no. He could but he wouldn’t. He began twisting wheat to bind the sheaf and then he stopped saying he would never do that again…that there was no need.

He passed away a few years ago. That knowledge went with him.

Mr. Henderson spends the entire chapter cautioning us against common errors. Lay sheaves with the knots up. Build on a flat spot. The rick should be slightly larger at the top than at the bottom. Pages and pages of things to do and things to avoid so you will have a successful threshing 10 or so days later.

…a Cotswold farmer, with a rick big enough to hold a day’s threshing, will like his oats to ‘Hear the church bells twice’ in the field…

And then they thresh the wheat. There are still threshing machines around. You will see collections of antique equipment at shows in nearby towns. Groups of belt-driven and steam-powered equipment operated and maintained by older gentlemen who may or may not have both of their hands.

The next part of the chapter covers thatching and I feel that this paragraph is key:

About 2 cwt. of straw is required for each square of thatching. A ton should be kept back for every day’s threshing anticipated. Ideally, it should be hand-threshed with a flail, and grown without the aid of artificial fertilizers – although the farmer who can supply that today can sell every handful at a high price for house thatching. Straw that has been combine-harvested, baled or threshed with a fast-moving peg drum, is useless for thatching. In the West of England there are a few special threshing machines designed for the preparation of thatching straw, but require about five men to take the straw off.

This continues for a few pages. Please allow me to summarize. Even in Henderson’s time it was hard to find suitable straw for house thatching. That means I’m never going to thatch my house.

Look, I know. Those are difficult words to read. We love the Earth and want a biodegradable roof…as long as it doesn’t biodegrade today. And we have all seen The Quiet Man and want a cottage in Ireland with a thatched roof and a green door. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But just like a prepper with a Red Dawn fantasy, we have to be more honest about our motivations. You don’t prep because you fear Russian invasion, you prep because unemployment lasts longer if you don’t have to buy food when you are unemployed. Chances are, you don’t want a thatched roof because it is practical either.

But let’s say you are not convinced. Good for you. Can you learn to thatch a roof by reading Henderson’s 6 pages? No. He is looking to improve the worker who is already familiar with the process. Can you learn to thatch by watching Tales from the Green Valley? No. But you can get an overview of the process.

Most of the skill in thatching comes from practice, well-prepared straw, carefully drawn yelms, and good organization of the work – the correct number of yelms in a jack to do one strip of the roof, the ladder in just the right place, and so on.

I seriously doubt that I will ever rip my soil to plant an antique variety of wheat. Further, I seriously doubt I will walk out to my fields with a sharpened scythe to harvest my wheat, then bind it by hand into sheaves, then stack it in ricks, thresh it by hand, pile and wet the straw and thatch a building. I might decide to do that one summer but I have serious doubts.

So the value of this chapter comes from the quote above. Most of the skill on my farm comes from practice, quality materials and good organization. However, Henderson spends page after page giving pointers. In real life that doesn’t work well.

Go ahead. Approach your spouse and list, in one long monologue, all of the things they can do to be a better person today. Let me know how that works out.

Henderson had to do that. It is a book, not a relationship. But in coaching my children or helping my wife I have to reserve comment from time to time. If I dare to open my yap I offer one pointer…not so much that they are confused by my instruction, just enough that they can make a small course adjustment and practice more effectively today.

So that’s the one small adjustment I have gained from this chapter today. I can give thought to organizing our labor. I can ensure that we have what we need to do the job right. And I can help everyone practice more effectively by saying less at once.


One thought on “The Farming Manual: Rick Building and Thatching

  1. When I was in Albania to visit Marie the farmers were still cutting hay with scythe, piling limestone blocks to bake with a slow fire to make lime for the fields. You would have enjoyed it, too.
    You are right, We need to learn to do the job right.

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