Odds and clods busted down to size

by Andy Bryenton

Unlike with other agricultural implements such as the plough, we know who invented the harrow in ancient times. As the growth of grains other than rice was popularised in the northern Chinese empire in around 500AD, new tools were needed to create a good seedbed, and break up the earth without causing the formation of hardpan.

Enter Jia Sixie, an ambitious official in the equivalent to our modern department of agriculture, Jia wrote about a plan to use a specialist tool to break up the clods of earth disrupted by ploughing, creating a finer tilth layer, preventing the growth of weeds and the spread of insect pests. The first such advancement in Europe was brought to England by William the Conqueror with his French knights in 1066. So important was the harrow to improved farming (which, of course, fed and paid for more knights) that it’s depicted in the Bayeux tapestry, alongside the battle of Hastings itself.

Following this came the spring-tine harrow, developed by the Germans in the 1600s. Its creator, by the surname of Ecker, was granted a title and coat of arms for his innovation, which took the concept of a horse-drawn harrow further than the mesh of wooden staves and metal claws, or chains with spikes that had come before. Still, the aim was to follow after the plough, breaking up large lumps of heavy earth into a pea-sized, less dense consistency to make a perfect seedbed. These bigger, heavier harrows also covered up seed after sowing and could be used to roughly disrupt weed growth, giving seed a better chance.

Mighty disc harrows, larger again, were used in the plains of the early United States to break-in previously unfarmed land. However, it’s thought that their overuse in soils unsuitable for western-style farming may have contributed to the dust bowl disaster so vividly written about in The Grapes of Wrath.

With the advent of the tractor and hydraulic power, the modern harrow was born, incorporating several sets of independently turning tines. Since the 1960s, the use of this kind of harrow has exploded. It comes with the benefit of not turning over the layers of soil but keeping them stratiated, thus keeping dormant weed and pest seeds from competing with precision-sown crops.