In Nepal, the grain has been harvested by sickle for centuries. Today, in easy accessible regions of Terrai, a few combines are finding their way in to speed up the harvest. However, combines are out of reach for majority of small farmers and thus most of the fields are still harvested with sickles. In recent years, due to the increased migration of young villagers to the urban centres and the high number of men working in foreign countries as unskilled labour to support their families in Nepal, farmers are experiencing a considerable shortage of labour at harvest time. Therefore, increasing the productivity of the harvest is a very pressing issue.
In the hill regions of Nepal, due to the difficult access and terraced plots, all harvesting is done by sickles. Recently, a new alternative has emerged on the market — a Mini Rice/Wheat Reaper. This motorized harvester is portable and represents mechanization and progress in the farming practices. Naturally, there is certain attraction to modernization. Yet, is this an appropriate technology for this region?
A worthwhile alternative to consider is a scythe, an implement, that has given a great service for centuries in Europe, North America and the Middle East. In North America, the scythe was gradually replaced in 19th century by the horse-drawn reapers (which later evolved into the combines). However, thousands of small family farms in the less developed regions across Europe, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere, are still using the scythe on regular basis. The scythe surely earns the appropriate technology status in many regions of the world. If the Energy Return On Energy Invested is taken thoroughly into the equation, the scythe is a more efficient tool than the sickle or, for that matter, the motorized harvester. Yes, the scythe does requires a certain level of skill. I see this as a bonus in the world where skills are vanishing at a considerable rate. Skills are essential for a healthy local economy and a healthy community. Skills lead to self-reliance and resilience and that is exactly what might be required to assist us with future challenges. Perhaps we should consider an endangered skills list!
Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "Its a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions of people have ceased to use their hands. If the craze for machinery continues, it is highly likely that a time will come when we shall be so incapacitated and weak that we shall begin to curse ourselves for having forgotten the use of the living machines given to us by God."
Some changes in development happen not necessarily because they are the best choices, but simply because they are endorsed by profit-motivated interest groups. And so, while we debate wether it is proper to introduce a new technology (the scythe) 'from outside', or if we should not interfere at all, or if Nepali women mind or don't mind squatting, or wether anthropologists would approve — manufacturers of wheat reapers do not hesitate and promote their product with a full force, with no need for fundraising or ecological and cultural impact studies.
Let's compare the Scythe versus the Motorized Harvester:
*** The cutting speed information for a motorized harvester: 1 acre per hour is a promotional claim (here).
Simon Fairlie of UK watches scythe versus weed-wacker competitions every year and they come pretty close. Simon says: If the guy in the video is doing one swing every 2.5 seconds, and his cutting blade is one foot in diameter, then he would have to be cutting a swath 30 foot wide to achieve 1 acre per hour…
The cutting speed with the scythe also depends on several variables like user's skill, length of the scythe blade, efficiency of the grain cradle, and sharpness of the blade. However, at the harvest time it is not only about the speed; the desired result matters as well.
Scythe versus Grain Reaper at the Convention of Agricultural Scientists in Nepal 2012.
Please help to decide