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Farmwork

At the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village demonstrations show how farming was done before the mechanization of agriculture. In Galicia and Bukovyna little more than a light plough, wooden steel-spiked harrow, hoe and shovel had been used to till and cultivate the land. Grain was sown by hand, cut with a scythe and threshed with flails in small quantities. There were no seeders, mowers, binders and threshing machines.

During the early years in Canada, when the settlers still relied on oxen, farming methods did not differ appreciably from those in the Old Country, although better quality ploughs and harrows had been purchased. The fields were ploughed with a walking plough. The farmer walked behind the plough firmly gripping the handle bars as the oxen or horses pulled it along. By 1914 most settlers were replacing their walking ploughs with riding ploughs - single bladed sulky ploughs and double bladed gang ploughs that had a seat for the farmer and were pulled by horses or tractors.

Flail – Flails were handcrafted from poplar or willow sticks laced together with leather ties. Grain was separated from the chaff by holding the longer stick and striking the grain with the shorter end. Flails like this can be seen at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. Once it had been ploughed the field had to be disked or harrowed. Harrowing broke up clods, destroyed weeks and smoothed an pulverized the soil surface thereby enabling the soil to retain moisture. Prior to 1910 seeding was done by hand on most farms. The farmer walked about the field broadcasting handfuls of grain which he took out of a bag tied to his waist. Then the field was quickly harrowed again to cover the kernels and prevent birds from picking them up. By 1914 many farmers owned seeders.

The busiest time of the year was at harvest-time. Harvesting involved cutting and gathering the crops, stoking and storing them, and eventually threshing the grain. At first most settlers harvested and threshed their crops by hand. They used a scythe to do the cutting. Sometimes the scythe was fitted with a fork-like wooden device [cradle] which kept the cut grain from falling on the ground. When enough grain was cut for a sheaf it was removed from the [cradle] and tied with a length of twisted straw. Women usually tied the sheaves and stacked them in stooks so that the might dry. By 1910 scythes were being laid aside as Ukrainian farmers began to purchase binders. The binder not only cut the grain but it also tied it into sheaves. The most widely used binders had an eight foot cut and were said to reduce the number of labour hours required to produce a bushel of wheat from three hours to ten minutes and vastly improved the quality of the product.

Threshing crew, Wainwright area, August 1908, note the water wagon on the right. Because there were very few threshing outfits in the early days, settlers had to wait their turn, sometimes until late in the winter. Wheat needed for immediate consumption was threshed in the traditional fashion with a flail. A sheaf was untied and spread out on a floor surface and then beaten with the flail until all the grain had been knocked loose from its husk. The threshed grain was then winnowed by being thrown against the wind or by using a sieve. In both cases the chaff would be separated from the grain. Steam threshing machines appeared in east central Alberta shortly after 1900. The owner(s) would usually thresh grain for his neighbours. In the Lanuke district it cost $10 to have 100 bushels of grain threshed in 1909. As many as 12 to 20 men were required to operate the outfit, including a formally qualified steam engine operator who was in charge of the operation. A number of Ukrainian settlers usually pooled their resources to purchase a threshing outfit. After threshing their crop they would do custom work for the neighbours.

Mrs. Hungerbuhler and children feeding chickens near Vulcan, Alberta, ca. 1910. Farm work did not stop once the crop had been harvested. During the fall and winter land was cleared, shoes were mended and harnesses repaired. Every morning the livestock had to be let out of the barn, fed and watered. Trees were cut down, trimmed and shaped into building logs. A plentiful supply of firewood had to be kept on hand at all times.

Winnowing Screen – Winnowing screens are displayed in granaries at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. Historically, they were used during harvest time to separate the grain from the chaff. The division of labour between men and women was not as strictly observed as it ad been in Ukraine. In the Old Country ploughing, harrowing and seeding had always been men's work. In Canada, especially during the early years when men were way working as seasonal labourers, it was not unusual to see women ploughing, harrowing and seeding, albeit only an acre or two. During the harvest women had traditionally performed the backbreaking task of stooking. In Canada, according to Swystun, they spent more time in the field than they had in Galicia and Bukovyna, where the landholdings were smaller and the harvests correspondingly less bountiful. Threshing with the flail and winnowing were men's work; grain grinding with a quern (zhorna) was women's work. Women also looked after the vegetable garden, milked the cows and fed the pigs and cattle. Men fed and looked after the horses. Making and washing clothes were also women's work. The former task soon disappeared in Canada where men and schoolchildren wee under pressure to conform to North American dress codes while the heavy emphasis on developing a homestead and producing cash crops relegated the craft of weaving to a leisure occupation.

The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a living history site, so visitors can see what life was like in east-central Alberta prior to 1930. Here a costumed guide is baking bread in a distinctive outdoor clay baking oven called a pitch. Young concluded that the most "distinctive feature of labour on the Ukrainian farm [was] the woman's share in it" and that "the average Ukrainian woman often contributed more to the work of the farm than does the average hired man." The following passage from Young summarizes a woman's workday in the summer:

She gets up between four and five in the morning and goes to bed at eleven at night. When she gets up she does the shores outside, feeds the cattle and milks the cows. She then prepares breakfast and washes the dishes, after which she follow the family to the field where she may hoe or drive a gang-plow, stook, etc. She comes in shortly before dinner, prepares it and cleans up, a matter of one and one half or two hours, then returns to the field until eight o'clock when she milks, after which she gets supper. This is a man's share in any other community.

Women's labour went far to explain the undeniable progress made by Ukrainian peasant immigrants in east central Alberta.

Excerpted from Orest T. Martynowych The Ukrainian Bloc Settlement in East Central Alberta, 1890-1930: A History. Alberta Culture & Multiculturalism Occasional Paper No. 10, March 1985, (1990). Reprinted with permission from Alberta Community Development, Cultural Facilities and Historical Resources Division

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