All Summer we watched it. In the Spring when the first hardy little shoots peeped up and were promptly attacked by unseasonably cold May weather, it didn’t looked promising but eventually the field would turn from beige carpet colour to green. The barley was on its way.
Then at some stage around about this time of year, my father would wander out into the field of swaying golden stalks, his hands trailing the heavy ears of grain. He was like a man in an advertisement for an insurance company or Russel Crowe during the barley-field bit in Gladiator.
Except, my father was not there to have his vengeance in this life or the next. He was there to check if the crop was ripe. An ear was selected at random, rubbed between hands, the husks blown away, a few grains chewed. Then like the man from Del Monte, he would make his pronouncement. “That barley is fit to cut”
I would try the same test. I knew that if the grain as soft as a Flog, the crop was not ready and if it broke a tooth it definitely was. I was useless on the in-between levels of ripeness. It didn’t matter. Decades of testing an entire field by sampling a couple of grains with precision molars had taught my father a thing or two about ripe.
Once the order was given, Dan The Combine would be rung. Dan was not an android or a Transformer. He was just another example of a man named after his profession. Like Jack The Combine before him or Jack Inseminator (the AI man) elsewhere on the farm.
The arrival of a combine on a farm is a cathartic moment in any summer. The very land itself seems excited. And for a small child, the first glimpse of the huge yellow New Holland Clayson was memorably impressive. You heard an unfamiliar roar and then it appeared through the trees as it loomed up the road. Its driver, a smiling man with a tanned head and receding hair perched high on it, exposed to the elements like a competitor in Wacky Races. An uncompromising machine, it changed the game. Every gate that needed to be taken off was left strewn against the ditch. The combine had arrived. Sh*t just got real.
All over its imposing frame, parts of the harvester seemed to exude a sort of thrilling danger. From the front with its giant maw of a reel and the cutter bar that had the side-to-side blades like shark’s teeth, right through to the ‘back’ (to use the technical term), out of which the straw was poured. Somewhere in the hidden interior a sort of devilish sorcery happened. The grain was separated from the stalk by things called Straw Walkers (a wonderful name for a bogeyman that I will use later in life to threaten misbehaving children with kidnap). All told, the big yellow noisy colossus could have been a double page spread in a worrying mother’s Bumper Edition of Worry Monthly.
Combines also changed your perception of scale. Tractors that had roared around the field now seemed to scuttle as if you were watching a horse run after an elephant. Our little red Massey Ferguson didn’t even stir out, such was its inferiority complex.
Amidst this awesome Soviet military parade of machinery, there wasn’t much of a role for a small boy in short trousers apart from passing on a few messages: “Let you go up and take Dan that bottlaheineken there, he’ll be parched with the dust”
I would go up to the field, shyly waving to halt the sorcery for a second to deliver the beer. This necessitated climbing the ladder up to where Dan sat. A vehicle with a LADDER! In your FACE Wanderley Wagon! I can still remember the smell of dust, grain, giant tyre and angry machine oil.
Dan would finish the beer and hand back the bottle. THAT’s what should be in a Heineken ad: A thirsty man cutting grain and drinking a beer – instead of a man angry with a waiter about taking his pint and ending up on a train to Russia. Believe me, there would be no protests from this quarter if that spanner was thrown in jail by Putin’s goons.
Not every harvest was halcyon. There were plenty of years of worry, plenty of weather forecasts full of shower symbols, plenty of mental arithmetic of how long it would take a field to dry.
The sight of combine framed against a darkening sky, dwarfed by the size of the cloud that had just arrived from the Atlantic and was dying for a p*ss, was a stark illustration of the fragility of an Irish harvest.
But every year, somehow it was saved. The grain was brought in and it was a rite of passage, the first year I helped to auger it in. (The auger is a noisy twenty-foot long drill-bit used to transfer grain in a spiralling sort of motion from a trailer to a granary. You need to spread the barley around the floor of the granary or else it would back up into the drill and block it. And obviously that wouldn’t augur well.)
Once the grain was in, attention turned to Part 2 of the Harvest. I’m not a computer games buff but if X-Box decides to bring out “Bales Of Destiny: We’ll Stook The Rest Of Them And Go In For The Dinner”, I would be first in the queue. It was a proud moment looking at a shed full of bales as your shoulders ached your fingers were cut from the twine and your shins scratched by straw.
It’s been a while since I tested a field of barley for ripeness, handed beer to a man driving a twenty-ton machine or built a load of bales on a trailer but as I look back on it, the more convinced I am I’d like to be a farmer when I grow up. (Except this year, it’s too wet)