Feel free to give us feedback on the site here

Will Europe’s scythe industry evade the Reaper’s deadly swing?

– by Peter Vido — Winter 2010

To shed some light on this perplexing subject is not an easy task, and one I undertake only in the absence of someone else who would give it a serious try. In doing so it is rather difficult to be honest and yet not step on anyone’s toes. Suffice it to say that Ihave attempted considerable diplomacy throughout.

Looking at my favoured tool within the context of the larger picture, there are several somewhat separate but interrelated factors at play within the global scythe industry which have long caused me concern. Each of them alone has been plenty destructive, but together they threaten to fill in what already is a half-dug grave for the unceremonious burial of a centuries-old tradition.

(For a side note of historical interest, scroll to notes at end of document.)

It is difficult to address them singly because, metaphorically speaking, they have long danced to each others’ tunes and are rather inextricably connected. Whatever survival-oriented creativity has been put forth by the industry’s few major players during the previous century — and even more so the last 30-40 years — has sometimes worked as an efficient short-term strategy, yet still remained within the devil’s circle, usually squeezing the vicious loop ever more

(Most of the written sources, all of them in German, from which I gleaned the pertinent information would not use terms like “devil’s” or “vicious” to describe the socio-ecologically negative side effects of the Industrial Revolution. Their task was to record history and, in most cases, sing odes to the scythe industry’s undeniably significant contribution to the economic development of Austria and/or Germany. While a tinge of nostalgia pervades all but the strictly technical thesis, the kind of analytical bird’s eye view that, for instance, Ivan Illich or Mahatma Gandhi may have presented on the topic, is completely absent… The decidedly regretful perspectives on the last 60 years worth of developments, however, were shared with me by many seasoned men and women, mostly retired from a life-long career within the scythe industry. Of these at least one I think of as a “bird” — the manager for 40 years of a large scythe enterprise during Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia. I would have liked to send this essay to him for a review — but now he is gone to a place where globalization will not lead to disillusion…)

A brief overview of recent history.

What presently remains of the scythe industry in the “Western World” is but little scraps of what was so crucial to all of its agriculture not so long ago, and is still important to a small portion of it.

North America, the relatively new and resource-full land of milk and honey, with its post-WWII agricultural maxim “get big or get out”, was the first of the industrialized nations to deem the scythe as a superfluous remnant of outmoded ways. The last of its makers shut down in 1958, during a period when millions of scythe blades were still produced and used in Europe, as well as in the Near East.

The 1960s — when the Soviet Union converted a former weapons factory in the Urals into a huge scythe-making facility which subsequently supplied the whole communist bloc with speedily-made but functional blades — brought on a crisis seriously thinning the ranks of Austria’s and Germany’s leftover makers. (Russia, you must understand, once provided the very best market for the Austrian scythe industry. For instance, during the period just before WWI as many as 7 to 8 million blades were exported there per year. Historically, whenever for reasons of economic crisis or political conflicts the demand from Russia subsided, the Austrian scythesmiths were losing jobs.)

In variously caused periodic waves of economic downturns and competition with ever-faster and easily available motorized implements, as well as the influx into Western Europe of cheap scythe blades (first from Turkey, later from China) the trend continued. Germany ceased production by 1989 and during the early nineties France and Spain also joined the list of ex-scythe-producing countries. Insatiable, the “sword of progress” continued on its merciless path. The creation of the European Union, with its insidious agenda to replace as many of the small independent farmers as possible with food producing mega-enterprises, has been adding more sticks to the pyre. Just within the last decade three of the remaining eight factories in continental Europe (in Hungary, Slovenia and the Sonnleithner of Austria) closed their doors — this in spite of the fact that already during those years the global demand for scythes has been on the notable increase again!

Not that the remaining makers of the better-quality products have now been jumping for joy; the “slack” is mostly taken up by the scythe industries of the “East” (with Russia included) and the survival challenge continues. The present combined output of Europe (not all of which I consider “better”) is considerably less than that, for instance, of one relatively new facility in the Near East where a workforce with little scythesmithing tradition turns out blades at prices the European industry can’t touch. In addition, a scythe factory was recently built in Iran — the country which has, since the sixties, been Austria’s single best customer. This presents a serious threat of the kind that once may have been handled at a national level by economic diplomats of the respective countries. Tariffs could be imposed if deemed necessary in order to protect the existence of one of those country’s industry.

Unfortunately, free market capitalism of the WTO kind does not operate in such a manner… and so it is that presently, somewhere en route between Western Europe and Istanbul, two semi-trailers may pass by each other on their regular journeys. One of them is headed west loaded with 50,000 cheap scythe blades to be sold to the rich people, and the other is traveling east carrying 50,000 (relatively) expensive blades to be sold to the poor people. I am NOT making this up. Perhaps (and yes, here I go merely imagining) both drivers even stop at the same restaurant along the way, maybe even nod to each other…neither of them understanding how absurd their respective trips really are.

The absurdity lies in the fact that the cheap blades are functional enough for the poor people (who at least know how to fit them to their regional snaths and sharpen them adequately), while the relatively wealthy nations could still easily afford the higher-quality blades. Their citizens, in fact, will accomplish very little with the cheap blades’ poorly-prepared edges, many of which are sold with the long popular ready-to-use” labels — something that a large segment of the contemporary buyers in an European superstore does not realize is a big lie. Add to it the fact that these blades are usually paired with snaths I consider a piece of …. (let’s spare a swear word), many of the western eco-minded citizens — trained as they have been to shop for “bargains” — are given a poor chance to experience what I’ve referred to as the “mower’s bliss”…

This, of course, is just one example of the craziness within international commerce, and, in the span of the last few decades, the utter waste of global resources to needlessly (even if profitably for the select few) transport stuff back and forth have become the rules rather than exceptions. If these trends continued there wouldn’t be a snowball’s chance in hell that the Austrian scythe industry is still kicking when today’s toddlers are old enough to seriously swing the scythe. Fortunately, the monster referred to as Globalization is now at an advanced stage of self-destruction. That is the positive news of late. But because it will create a major economic tsunami as it goes down, the time ahead is going to be tough for the industry, as well as the rest of us…

What’s next on the plate?

Our civilization is now obviously at a major fork in the road — with one (the popularly cheer-leaded) branch along a path principally similar to one we have treaded thus far, the other calling for a fundamentally different paradigm. In either case unprecedented challenges with unknown outcomes are in store. The already challenged existence of the European scythe industry (as the title of this essay alludes to) is by no means assured. Depending on its response to the forthcoming changes, it will either blossom or wither completely. The kind of limbo as in recent decades is probably not an option for much longer.

As the present financial crisis further unfolds, it will matter very little that the quality of the Eastern products is not on par with Austria’s; the needy peasants are going to buy whatever they can afford — and they are likely to have even less cash available than they do today. The cargos of Austrian blades headed for Tehran (the hub of Near Eastern scythe trade) will have then become a thing of the past. That, however, does not necessarily mean that the influx of cheap blades into Europe will also cease…

As a consequence, one of several scenarios could take place. The Austrian scythe industry as we have known it might also become a thing of the past. The possibility of this hinges on the fact that the scythe-blade-generated bread and butter of the Schröckenfux company — representing about 80% of Austria’s output — comes (besides Iran) from Turkey, Mexico and Greece rather than the well-off nations. When most of the already economically-depressed countries will no longer be able to spend extra money for a brand name, the scythe branch of Schröckenfux may just roll over and die. Theoretically, it could cut its present production to a quarter or even much less, and look for more customers with enough money to buy what today is still some of the best. (Their management’s creativity, in my view, is nothing to write home about, although perhaps given certain circumstances some old dogs could be taught new tricks…)

However, other factors may enter the life-or-death balance scale. One of them (with regard to scythe blades specifically) is that the management has also neglected what every unschooled peasant knew was a crucial consideration to his ongoing existence — “when the old workhorses are no longer fit to pull the plow, where will I obtain replacements?”.

Where have all the masters gone…

This is a subject which I have addressed for a decade (see for instance this essay) — not in order to merely complain or express my personal nostalgia, but in the hope that increasing the general awareness may somehow help to at least slow the downhill slide. It hasn’t…

How it once was:
The traditional training of a scythesmith used to begin at 9-10 years of age. The boys (whose fathers were usually also employed at the same factory) absorbed the “spirit” of the trade initially by a kind of osmosis while sweeping floors, carrying charcoal or water, and observing. Through a gradual process of attempting progressively more complicated steps of the production, the boys eventually became full-fledged working men. Even then, because certain natural talent is a necessary ingredient of the skill, many of them did not ever make it to the rank of the “Essmeister” — the most important of the various specialists in the scythesmithing trade. (After another specialist called the “Zainer” or alternately “Hammerschmied” first forged a tapered sword-like “zain”, the Essmeister hammered it widthwise into the approximate shape of a scythe blade. This was always considered the step which either makes or breaks the subtle quality of a blade to be, and why the daily wage of an Essmeister was well above all the rest.) Such a system of apprenticeship was still in place in the 1950s, but is no more.

How it is now:
One of the issues of serious concern is that the old European scythe factories do not have apprentice programs designed to adequately replace the skills disappearing with their aging workers. The management claims that there is no incentive to do so — meaning that the cost of such training can no longer be fiscally justified. In a way, nobody ought to blame them. The estimates I have repeatedly heard regarding the necessary training of a somewhat acceptable modern “Essmeister” is about three years, which admittedly is a sizable investment (without a guarantee of success). Every manager also points out that the general working morale of today’s young generation is an additional challenge — with regard to any position in a scythe factory’s production line.

Regardless of economic calculations, the reality is such that as the old smiths gradually retire, the quality of work will inevitably decrease (it already has, of course) until one day the factories might have to actually close down for lack of qualified hands. Theoretically, at least some of them may be OK for little longer. But old men sometimes get sick, retire, or die prematurely. I know of an instance where the last good middle-aged Essmeister committed suicide and the enterprise he had worked for promptly closed their doors.

Other options

As an alternative, the companies that have more or less stuck to the traditional process could switch to some fundamentally different method of blade making, one which would eliminate the need for the most difficult-to-replace specialists in the production line. This is precisely what the Soviets did five decades ago, when their invention of rolling the blank both lengthwise and widthwise, replaced at once two of the traditionally “irreplaceable” smiths. The enterprise in Poland skips these two men by a cookie cutter-like method, avoiding thereby also the trouble of the Russian-style of steel rolling.

The two relatively small companies in Scandinavia have taken the route even further (the one in Norway some years ago and in Finland more recently) — their blades are now “stamped”, not authentically forged — with the powerful press displacing a dozen men in one swoop.

And, in a way, most of the rest of the scythemakers have also moved in that general direction. For instance, from about the mid-1980s onward most Austrian blades have been made from what is now referred to as the “stamped zain” as opposed to the traditionally “forged zain”. In this case the formerly required specialist has been effectively substituted by a roller in a large steel mill, and the scythe factory begins the making of a blade at what previously was step three of the process. (The casual scythe users didn’t notice the changes, because in all of the instances mentioned above the newer versions do not look that much different from the previous blades. Well, this is progress — fueled in no small measure by our collective urge to seek the “best deal in town”. The “best”, nowadays, is all too often equated with a low price, and the reason why the cheap imported scythes have gradually displaced the quality line in most stores throughout the EU.)

The examples above certainly do not portray the extent of possible improvisations. Like it or not, other alternative methods of “scythesmithing” will probably have to be incorporated into the infrastructure of the present “traditionalists” — if for no other reason than to make up for the neglect in systematic pre-training discussed above. The economy of production, of course, has long been the number one cause for any changes, and that is likely to remain. A fundamental switch of methods, however, always requires an investment of capital, often justifiable in the long run only. Again I must ask: “Will they do it, or choose to die instead?”

It is a difficult question, but I doubt that the present owners of the three quality-line factories will consider it seriously. For the most part they’ve lost faith in the ongoing importance of what once was their specialty, and invested significantly in other ventures — while leaving the scythe to fend for itself, so to speak. Nobody I know within the industries’ circles ventures a firm guess as to how long they might hold on. The estimates are grim and I would not bank on the two Austrian nor the one enterprise in Italy (still as traditional as any) to be forging scythes ten years from now.

Partial synopsis

While over the years of my scythe-related explorations I have accumulated numerous preferences with regard to specific products or their maker’s present approach (technical or otherwise), it may be fitting here to reiterate what I have already by 2000 expressed in writing, as well as in person to the leaders of each of then still-working factories: I would like to see all scythe makers still at their forges decades from now, including the Russians and those in the Near East. Yes, even the Chinese (however much grief — due to price wars — they have already caused the rest of the global scythe scene), simply because I believe that Earth’s citizens will eventually need them all.

That said, I think there is no need to lose sleep over the fate of most of the factories in the East (other than some misdirected American or Israeli missile will turn the new Iranian facility to dust — which in today’s climate of Muslim/Christian/Jewish/oil-interest tension is a constant possibility. Four of them sit practically atop of some of the best remaining oil reserves, and if the chief of the Near-Eastern enterprises manages to stay on the good side of Putin & Co, they need not worry about steel supplies. There is also no shortage of willing labour there, plus the “poor” people are generally accustomed to improvising in ways we Westerners have long forgotten.

So, as I see it, not only do they have good prospects for survival, they will rise to prominence among the tool-making industries in general — simply because agriculture as an endeavour will experience the same. Not, mind you, the prominence of giant corporations which are now masquerading as food providers. No, they are dying. In their place, small-scale agriculture will experience a renaissance — everywhere.

But where does that leave Europe — the presumed cradle of this 2000-year-old tool? Will it still be receiving truckloads of blades from China or the Near East fifty years from now? Or will it somehow take care of its own scythe needs and if so, how?

These are presently unanswerable questions.


 

What then must we do?

 

Most of the suggestions below will not be news to some of the people I’ve interacted with on the subject of the “Scythe Renaissance” for a decade. Much of it, in fact, I had incorporated into the week-long agenda of the First International Scythe Symposium (2004) in Austria. Organizationally we did not manage to really “bring it home” then….nor have I done much better since.

Although some advances in the right direction have been made, they amount to a few drops in the bucket — a bucket which (as presented in the foregoing sections) is continually leaking. I perceive these leaks to be destabilizing the former vitality of the European scythe industry at a much faster rate than the positive developments have off-set. This is a pity justifying, in my view, a river of tears. No maker of good agricultural hand tools should now be in this predicament, not especially those whose skill and infrastructure would be so difficult to replace.

Given all the genuine sustainability-oriented aspirations — never mind the rhetoric — for what seems like two lifetimes (or let’s just say since the publication, in 1972, of Limits to Growth), a significant trend towards low energy input tools in small scale food growing ought to have started long ago. It hasn’t; rototillers and string trimmers continue to reign as essentials in even many organic growers’ gardens, orchards and small fields. The green camp has evidently been waiting until a still more obvious crisis strikes. Well, good luck… because I do not expect that what has lately been referred to “business as usual” will continue unimpeded much longer, and as the Chinese proverb expresses it — “Is it not too late to start digging a well when one is already thirsty?”

The ideas presented here are based on the premise that most of the “success models” adhered to by industry, commerce and consumers alike, have no long-range future. There is a growing mountain of documents based on honest (meaning not corporate interests’- skewed) research in disciplines of science, ecology and economy that substantiate what some of my conservative friends still refer to as merely my “belief”. This essay’s purpose is not to convince confirmed skeptics of anything, but right now on our kitchen table happens to lay a piece by Jerry Mander — one of my long-time favorite authors on the theme — from which I share a snippet with the more open-minded:

“The prevailing institutions continue to believe in the primacy and efficacy of economic growth as the key indicator of systemic well-being, even in the light of ever-diminishing resources. It will not be necessary, according to this dogma, to come to grips with the reality that ever-expanding economic growth is actually an absurdity in a finite system, preposterous on its face, and will soon be over even if activists do nothing to oppose it.”

Devoid of concrete statistical figures, it is by no means an earth-shattering statement. But coming from the co-founder and former director of The International Forum on Globalization it might at least inspire some reflecting on the matters of our collective future. Perhaps Jerry as well as the many thousands from a diversity of backgrounds who would wholeheartedly endorse it are all wrong, and the positivists who, for the most part, advocate loving smiles will save the world from a disaster after all. We shall see…

Be that as it may, I am now suggesting what the Pentagon might dub as security-oriented preemptive action — but, because there are no terrorists per se deliberately monkey-wrenching the scythe circles, let’s just loosely call it something like “a small revolution born of the hand mower’s healthy prudence”. Assuming we do care about what sort of scythes the next generations will have to use, a “new agenda” (in line with David Korten’s concept) must be conceived, and then acted upon.

Simplified, here are some observations to consider while brainstorming a strategy:

 

  • The scythe industry itself has already demonstrated inability to really think and act outside the “box” (see Note 3), and therefore needs help.

 

  • Many common folk the world over (scythe users or users-to be) also need help, because in a variety of ways they have received too little of it, or of a wrong kind, in the recent decades.
  • The two camps can effectively assist each other; in fact neither of them alone will probably accomplish much of substance with regard to the goals I have in mind.

This, for instance, could be the general outline of the new agenda’s tasks:

1. Communicate the EROEI of the scythe to organizations that are genuinely concerned with issues of energy use in general and within the realm of agriculture and landscape care even more specifically. (If you are unfamiliar with the concept of EROEI and its pertinence in today’s world please read Note 1.)
2. Produce good multi-language instructional material and create an extensive hands-on educational network.
3. Put an end to the East/West scythe “war” and streamline the scythe distribution channels (for definition of how the terms “East”, “West” and “streamline” are used here, see Note 2.)
4. Increase the EROEI of the European scythe-producing enterprises.

To put that on paper is the easy part. The actual implementation is an ambitious goal; in fact, those few who understand how the system now operates might even say, an impossible one. Perhaps they would be partially correct. But to not even try would be a case of failure by conscious consent. After all, history is full of examples where committed people working together did accomplish the “impossible”.

Challenging the impossible

For the past 15 years I’ve attempted, in bits and pieces, to do what in principle I now advocate.

Admittedly, short on many skills, I’ve accomplished very little. (Note 4) There are, however, countless people around the world who do excel at generating awareness on important issues and/or moving others to action. (Anyone with a Bill McKibben-like vision, enthusiasm and organizing capabilities out there looking for a low-pay but meaningful job?) Individuals with these talents (preferably those who are not only “concerned” about the future of small scale agriculture but are already acting to effect positive changes) need to be brought together and briefed on the role that the scythe can play in the aimed-for revitalization. They do not necessarily need to learn how to use one well (though it would be an added plus), but ought to have an overview of the challenges… as well as the potential of this project.

The two points of compass to consider:

1. While the ground for sowing seeds of ecological resilience in general is becoming more fertile by the day, the West presently does not need the scythe. Consequently, even most of the leading minds of the environmental movement have not yet grasped that, in certain niches, this tool could be applied advantageously in lieu of machines long before all the easily-procured oil runs out. Eventually they will “get it”. Although much could be done to speed up the process, it may (until additional circumstances tip the scales) be a time-consuming undertaking, with possibly low EROEI.

(I can imagine some readers now protesting: “Wait, wait, what the heck are you talking about? I live in a developed country and I sure know the value — even the necessity of this tool already!” Well, yes, there areexceptions but they are still relatively minor, thus I do not want to get sidetracked by them right now. Furthermore, I think that many more people will come to similar realizations in the near future… and then we’ll need to debate and disagree much less than might be the case today.)

2. Each unit of activist energy is likely to accomplish more of substance in large regions of the East, because the NEED for the scythe there is already huge. Again, much of that reality has not been communicated broadly. This is sad, because in many situations of the East’s peoples’ existence, having versus not having an efficient forage-harvesting tool is a matter of getting by “acceptably” versus a survival struggle. A hefty document could be put together detailing first hand accounts (from foreign-aid workers as well as the natives of the exploited regions) to support that statement. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an initial (2006) letter by a Swedish-born program officer for an international aid organization, with whom we had subsequently corresponded at some length on this topic:

“I am trying to find a way to introduce scythes as everyday tools where I live and work, among the people I work with, i.e. among small scale farmers in southern Africa. I need information on whether it has been tried before, by whom, where and when, if I can find someone who could produce a instruction video, and perhaps most importantly where I could buy fair quality scythes cheaply by the thousands.
… I will try to market scythes to the best of my ability, as a replacement for the ridiculous tools, called “slashers”, that are being used by so many millions in my world. These slashers are utterly ineffective, directly harmful to the user, extremely energy consuming monstrosities, and for someone like me, who grew up with scythes….it is obvious that this need not be.”

Many attempts at introducing scythes to Africa (and similarly new territories) have aborted at an early stage — chiefly because no competent technical assistance accompanied the small initial shipments. The author of the letter above is a far more perceptive individual than most of those who (either as profit-oriented entrepreneurs, or naïve aid workers lacking tool-use experience) attempted the introduction. With some serious, well organized effort the present situation can certainly be remedied.

But regardless whether we manage to do so well, soon or not at all, I think that agriculture in these regions will inevitably evolve in a fundamentally different direction than we in the West have progressed thus far. The call for what has been referred to as “intermediate” and “appropriate” technologies will consequently grow by leaps and bounds. If, by demonstrating the usefulness of its application, the scythe is given but half a chance, it is sure to feature highly on the future list of desired tools. However, even before any notable change of heart regarding development takes place, a serious observer merely needs to “connect the dots”. It will then become apparent that the potential demand for the scythe in the various parts of the world not yet “developed” is so large that all existing enterprises would probably have to work round the clock at their present full capacity to meet it. (see Note 5) This is why I suggest that the new agenda’s most imminent task be the work in the Eastern fields. It may seem counter-intuitive should the primary concern be to save the ass of the Western makers, but is likely to yield more fruit faster. Please understand that
a) in some respects, the East and the West are presently paddling the same boat and
b) speed is of essence.

At the same time, I do not necessarily see this as a direct market for the European scythe industry. Rather, (with two exceptions; see Note 6) these are the regions to be supplied mostly by the factories of the East. But herein lies the core of the cooperative strategy intended to end the commercial East/West scythe war. The Eastern scythe makers presently find it more convenient to sell a portion of their products in the wealthy West, and they are not going to relinquish this lucrative market without compensation. If, however, the Western scythe activists would help them find adequate replacements in the East (where, due to price equity, their products rightly belong) a trade could, I believe, be negotiated: They agree to quit competing with Europe’s scythe industry on the Western market and the Western scythe makers agree to stop selling blades to the East. Both sides could refer the new potential buyers to the companies from their respective economically-defined territories. (Presently there are many more blades flowing from East to West than the other way, which is why additional new markets for the Eastern makers must be found.)

First of all, a comprehensive plan is needed to implement such unconventional arrangements. Admittedly, alone the notion of it begs some basic questions (which the informed skeptics might be quick to answer with a “no”):

Can some version of “International Cartel of Scythemakers” be even contemplated — one that would focus on competing with the oil-dependant machines, and exclude the cutting of each other’s throat? Hmm… Can the directors of the present enterprises get together and agree on some concrete and expedient action? Can they do better than did the world leaders during the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen? (I sure hope so, because given the urgency of the matter, what was accomplished there wasn’t much…)

The major challenge here is to put several acts into motion simultaneously, in order to quickly gather evidence that the project has potential. Otherwise I would be surprised if the ever-independent Chinese were willing to join the rest of the scythemakers, until some actual proof that it would be to their benefit is already on the table. This could be the case with some of the others, of course, but it alone needs not prevent the process from getting started.

Who can do what; some guidelines for the Western activists

The first step may be to contact a few visionary directors of foreign-aid organizations in the West, getting them together (in the hayfield preferably, but a round table will do) and presenting the case convincingly, with good power-point/video back up. Special hands-on courses must next be organized for the aid workers involved in the field of appropriate technology.

In addition, the “middlemen” (the wholesale level distributors and the direct retailers) must be informed of the agenda, and preferably get on board as well. They are actually an important link in breaking up the East/West war, possibly an essential one. Can the general manager of Baumax (or other large chain-stores all over the EU) be convinced to cooperate? Not, of course, out of some ecological or philanthropic aspirations; it must be presented as an economically viable proposition. Impossible? Hmm…. see Note 7.

With that accomplished, the West would be left to fend for itself, on its own grounds and without the “interference” of the cheap Eastern blades. Still, to enable all of the present smiths to remain at the forges andhalt the present entropy, the demand for quality blades in the wealthy countries must increase dramatically. (In fact, I doubt that Schrockenfux would stop shipping to the East until its blades can all be sold in Europe, or elsewhere in the West.)

To find customers for Europe’s present output (preferably more) is the second half of the mission. It might not be that difficult once
a) the circumstances bring about significant awakening and/or
b) enough activists were willing to work diligently — and at least initially for low EROEI. As alluded to earlier, I don’t bank on the “b”. Nevertheless hope that I am wrong and that leagues of dedicated individuals manifest soon. If they do, consider that, for instance, during the mid-1960s in the already very industrialized Germany (population approx. 60 million) 500,000 scythe blades were sold per year. (Today that number may be 50 – 60 thousand. A portion of these, now and then, make their way into neighbouring, or even distant countries by way tourists and seasonal workers. Those 40-50 years ago were all high quality blades; today the vast majorityare “imported”, meaning they are not what “quality” used to imply.)

Yes, there were still many more farmers back then, and fewer machines; but that is precisely the state of affairs we are again headed towardsŠ Even a very partial transposing of those figures on the rest of Europe’s population, I can imagine that (without upgrading their workforce and/or the manufacturing process) the continent’s present scythemakers might actually have difficulty to supply the future need of Europe alone — never mind the rest of the West.

But what has to change first? Am I suggesting a return to the sixties? Not quite. While in some respects I would like to “turn the clock back”, the predominant trend by then — both in agriculture and society at large — was already very growth-oriented. The mentality of endless modernization assumed that the oil wells would never run dry. Today we know better, or at least some people do. And although the folly of perpetual economic growth, as well as our inability to continue the high energy-input lifestyle is still largely denied, the pertinent issues (climate change, resource depletion and overpopulation) are, however slowly, making little headlines in the mainstream media. In any case, whether we deliberately choose it and/or prepare for it, the future points not to the sixties, but to far more conservation-oriented decades. Those decades will embrace the scythe like an old long-forgotten friend — even if the project I propose never materializes.

Until then I see at least three target categories (with the first two of them somewhat overlapping) where a case for the scythe needs to be re-presented, albeit in a “new economy” language:
1. The peak oil/transition town, permaculture and the environmental movements.
2. The new wave of the very small “independent” farmers/homesteaders.
3. The old generation farmers in some regions who still know the scythe’s potential, but who have interim been talked into the notion that if an implement doesn’t have an engine it doesn’t fit into the 21st century.

As discussed in Note 1, we have much to learn about how to decrease our overall energy consumption. At this historically rare period — when in some respects we’ll also be moved to draw on the timeless knowledge and ways of previous generations — the realm of appropriate technology of the human powered kind holds much unrealized potential.

Some positive developments are indeed taking place. The new undercurrent of perception is prompting a minor rise of the antithesis to globalization — the trend of regional self-reliance. It has yet to make international headlines, nevertheless it is already providing a meaningful blueprint. The green thumb crowd is also sprouting more shoots by the day. Leagues of new gardeners are appearing on the scene — 8 million of them alone in U.S.A. in 2009, according to some estimates. (I have no specific data on gardening trends in Europe.) At least a portion of these non-professionals are likely to come to the conclusion that a scythe has timeless application, be it the 21st century or not. In addition, thousands of small conventional farmers, confronted with steeply-rising costs of operating their machines will, at least for a portion of the grass-cutting, again reach for the trusty scythe — tipping the scale to the point that Europe’s scythe industry might again justify its existence on the basis of chiefly domestic market. Presently I see these developments in a kind of a race, i.e. will the renewed need for scythes manifest before the industry crumbles? Either way, it will be a very close call…

What Europe’s scythe makers can already do — to prepare for “business as unusual” (without necessarily waiting until the scythe activists have accomplished at least a significant portion of their task in tilling the field of appropriate receptivity):

1. Join in discussion with other enterprises regarding the re-design of the international distribution, discussed above.
2. Develop a relationship with groups already promoting the scythe.
3. Help with/provide support to activities related to point 1 and 2 of the new agenda’s general tasks.
4. Elevate the present morale of the workforce.
5. Implement apprenticeship program.
6. Streamline blade model diversity.
7. Refocus on quality to the extent reasonably possible.
8. Reduce the distance between its production line and the energy and materials necessary for continued operation (with other words, seek regional sources whenever possible).

Let’s now expound slightly on these suggestions, one at the time:
Point 1 was covered above to some extent. It is not possible in this short paper to address the diverse routes that convivial business-oriented explorations may take — nor am I qualified to speculate on this specific subject. Though, as must be obvious, many of the views expressed in this paper are based on the principles of the cooperative philosophy per se. What may be less obvious to some, is that our collective future is pointing in that direction already.

Regarding Point 2, I suggest that emphasis be put to working with groups — like the recently-founded scythe associations of Austria, Denmark and Germany, rather than individual entrepreneurs. In case of the latter the business concerns frequently dominate the cause, and (as I have learned more than once) it is not easy to access the genuine loyalty to a project. Associations, as ineffective as they can sometimes be, are usually founded on principally service-oriented intent and less likely to betray the long-range goals presented here.

Point 3: (As stated above) plus make serious efforts to involve all ag-aid organizations which are represented in the scythe-maker’s homeland. Then expand internationally to network with more of them. And at least within their own countries, the scythe factories ought to sponsor small-scale agriculture and ecological landscape projects, not soccer teams!

Point 4: Another issue too complex to do justice here, yet one which, in my view, will eventually either make or break the functioning of an enterprise. Note 8

Point 5: This is strictly an internal project — and they each know exactly what to do, as long as the balance sheets could somehow justify it.

Point 6: Producing a diversity of blade patterns reduces production efficiency; always did. In as much as I value biological as well as cultural diversity, a strong case can now be made for the conception of a “universally-applicable” scythe blade. Note 9

Point 7: The scythemakers have always known what blade quality entails; so have many experienced mowers. The somewhat abstract note — “to the extent reasonably possible” is difficult to extrapolate on because the outer conditions will remain in a state of flux. But that could also be positive. For instance, as growing interest in the West alleviates the necessity to compete with the cheap imports, the quality of work and/or materials could perhaps be brought back a notch or two.

Point 8: In view of the future this is an absolutely crucial issue. We live in a rapidly changing world and some significant curves in the road ahead are not recognized, (or certainly not yet addressed by) the mainstream media and likely won’t until we find ourselves in the middle of a very sharp turn with the foot still on the accelerator…

The scythe industry’s directors haven’t yet a clue what is really happening to the infrastructure they so depend on — but they will be affected by the changes nevertheless. For one thing, Europe is utterly dependent on imports of oil and natural gas, with its iron ore supplies no longer what they used to be. The cost of shipping is likely to increase dramatically in the relatively near future, be it for petroleum products, steel or blade distribution. Those enterprises which can still generate their own electricity (some scythe factories can) or source the raw materials from close by, will be ahead of the curve.


 

Conclusions

 

The plan for action outlined above is at best speculative; nevertheless it is based on some hard facts gleaned from a decade of explorations. My hope is that it will at least stimulate a serious re-evaluation of our accustomed manner of thinking about the scythe’s future, both at the production as well as distribution level.
Inasmuch as I appear to be primarily concerned with what may unfold within Europe’s scythe-making circles I do care about the well-being of all scythemakers and have endeavoured to explain, at least partially, how it is all connected.
The project I propose could, if successful, prevent the extinction of the best remaining examples of Europe’s scythesmithing tradition (which, in my view, are now found only in Italy and Austria), without causing harm to the rest of the enterprises — especially if an overall cooperation could be inspired.

It is not exactly clear how much cushion and/or perseverance this industry still has. However, I have an uneasy feeling (and have indeed belaboured this point) that they will not wait very long for more promising trends even if, in theory, they could. None of the enterprises are presently in the hands of some green future-aspiring men. Nor do they represent the kind of tradition-oriented nostalgia, that might inspire holding on at a barely break-even point just for the sake of posterity. So far as I can tell, no scythe producer around the globe really fits this category; it is simply business, and the “new agenda” must take that into consideration.

Easter 2010

‘Side note of historical interest':

Approximately 150 years ago there were nearly 200 scythe making enterprises in Austria alone. Some were quite small, employing perhaps less than a dozen men, with the average having on staff about 25 smiths and as many other sets of hands — to make the charcoal, repair and/or make new tools and equipment, grow and cook the food to feed the crew etc. With the sources of what they needed relatively close by, they were rather self-reliant in those days as far as production was concerned. The marketing forces were another matter; with most of their products’ users living hundreds of miles away, the early stages of what later became the widespread effects of globalization were already presenting a challenge…

Consequently, between that period and the early decades of the 20th century a large portion of the makers had to quit, while some expanded their workforce to 300 or even more. The technological innovations, such as electricity (initially their own water turbine-generated), natural gas-heated forges etc., enabled more blades per employee to be produced. At the pinnacle of Austria’s career as a scythe exporting nation, nearly ten million blades were shipped beyond its borders in just one year. During that period most of Europe, (see exceptions below) including England and each of the Scandinavian countries had scythe industries of their own. Germany, Italy and Spain — though less known internationally — were examples of excellence in that regard, with the workmanship level on par with Austria’s.

(It is highly probable that, at least on a relatively small scale, scythe blades were once made throughout much, if not all, of Europe. But there is nothing on record in the historical documents which I have been able to access, that scythe industry ever existed in Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Belgium, Holland, Ireland and Iceland. The Swiss, though still today excelling as snath makers, both in joinery and design diversity, can’t really claim scythe blade-making fame either. One brief attempt to set up a small factory was apparently made there, but led nowhere to speak of. The Czech and Slovak experience seem to have also been meager, and limited to the neighbouring monarchies setting up shops in what then were “their” territories. Romania’s scythesmithing likewise never graduated to an industrial level. It is noteworthy, however, that their Gypsy blacksmiths may well have been the last in Europe to make truly hand-forged scythe blades. Referred to as “fist blades”, their making did not employ the mechanically-driven trip hammer.
In Austria, for instance, this “slow and tiresome” method was abandoned soon after 1585, when one of their scythesmiths — Konrad Eisvogel — conceived how the water-powered “tail hammer”, already then widely used in steel making, could help speed up the blade-forging process. Although one guild stubbornly adhered to the former tradition until 1615, the difference of about five-fold increase in daily output caused them to eventually yield to the innovation. Defying progress, the highly sought after Gypsy-made blades were still available in small numbers up until WWII! In this case it was not globalization, but rather communism that caused their “extinction”.)

 

Note 1:

EROEI stands for Energy Returned On Energy Invested, a concept used as an indicator of Net Energy (gain or loss) when calculating efficiency — whether of a simple tool or a complex system.

As a commonly cited example in agriculture, it has been calculated that a modern farmer in Iowa uses ten units of energy for each unit he obtains in the form of the corn he grows. Regarding efficiency, he is put to shame by the peasant in Mexico who still practices the traditional agriculture and receives seven units of energy (also in corn) for each unit he expends by powering his hoe by hand!

How humanity will use the dwindling natural resources and what attitude it adopts to energy use in general is one of the pivotal issues of our times. To those readers who would like more information on the subject, I highly recommend reading Searching for a Miracle, “net energy” limits and the fate of industrial society — a 70 page document written by Richard Heinberg, one of the internationally respected analysts on the subject of peak oil and resulting repercussions. (available in print format as #4 in a series of reports titled False Solutions, or downloadable for free at postcarbon.org) Richard examines the realistic (as opposed to the promotion-oriented) potential of all the various alternatives to our society’s unabashed addiction, namely oil.
In any case, there is a wide-ranging consensus among the authors who do not represents some corporate or political interests that during one version or another of the transition into the post-oil era, some relatively comfortable level of green philosophy will NOT suffice to keep our present infrastructure afloat. Instead, the need for upgrading even the respected old conservation ethic is likely in store. The term many of them have lately been using is CONTRACTION, with some adding the prefix severe…
Whether we will take two years or twenty to accomplish anything of lasting substance remains to be seen, but vascular plants will need to be cut just the same. I am certain that sometimes soon into that period the mainstream will come to fully embrace the fact that — if the EROEI of the various options is considered — there simply is no other more efficient way to cut forage than with the scythe. Communicating that fact beforehand is an important role of those to whom, in this paper (and elsewhere) I’ve referred to as “the scythe activists”. If they don’t, the scythe blades of the future may well have considerably lower EROEI value, if they are readily available at all…

 

Note 2:

The terms “East” and “West” are used loosely here. Alternately I could say rich and poor, or developed and developing/under developed. None of these contrasting pairs express it accurately. For instance, Japan is, geographically, a country in the East, but also a rich and developed one. Or, is the USA’s southern and exploited neighbour , Mexico, in the West group? If industrialized means “developed” Mexico partially fits that category. But what about the huge segment of its illiterate populace who still practice hand hoe agriculture? And regarding, for instance, a health care system, the rich and decidedly Western country of USA is, in relation to Cuba, nothing but an underdeveloped nation, yet most Americans consider the Cubans “poor”…

Examples along these lines are many; the Eastern and Western parts of the globe obviously contain a mixture, and for purposes of scythe-distribution the specific situation in each respective region must be identified.

By “streamlining” I have in mind something of a cooperatively organized system whereby each country has one main “receptacle” which would receive the shipments of blades and accessories from different enterprises to be distributed by the most energy-efficient means possible to the many geographically-widespread retailers and users.

 

Note 3:

Let me illustrate this with a true story. Several years before I first made a scythe education-oriented trip across the ocean and actually met him, I had tried to communicate the pertinence of promotional scythe activity to the owner of a German scythe enterprise. He could not see the difference between what I think of as “creative promotion” versus advertising, and told me: “Everybody in Europe is familiar with the scythe; he who needs it will buy it and he who doesn’t will not – no matter how much advertising we might do. It would be just a waste of money.” I’ve visited him several times throughout the last decade and his views have not changed, though neither did the dedication to his life’s career. Last year, in his late 80s he was still at his office desk, daily active in the business of wholesaling the tool his company made until 20 years ago. I do greatly respect him for that. But he also represents his beloved trade’s arthritic psyche. Yes, such a harsh statement calls for an explanation: 
The scythe industry rose to its prominence during an era when it was exactly how he portrayed it – whoever needed a scythe (and millions did) bought one. The factories’ primary requirement was the production of excellent blades. Competition among makers was always an issue, but it was within the context of a different world. Farmers back then knew what quality meant and no man worth his salt would purchase a blade the likes of those now made in China. The rapid mechanization after WWII was already more of a challenge than the scythemakers knew how to handle gracefully. By the time the cheap imports began to exert an additional squeeze, they entered another phase of existence. The further “economizing” of the traditional process, was their only recourse — but with that as the only weapon in a battlefield with machines, as well as the products from the East, they could not win. They are not to be “blamed” any more than Native Americans armed with bows and arrows should be for losing a battle against a gun-wielding regiment. To oversimplify the respective causes, both are the casualties of progress…

What I do regret, however, is that the scythe industry’s leaders did not conceive of some more creative means of promoting their products in alternative-to-tradition niches that always existed — both within modern Europe and elsewhere. Then as now, in certain situations, the scythe would outperform its modern substitutes, yet in many instances of those specialty tasks the latter, unchallenged, has taken over completely…

It seems to have not occurred to the scythe enterprises to investigate this potential. Instead, in face of the oncoming age of the machine they sat as would a rabbit in the middle of a road blinded by oncoming headlights, too paralyzed to move… For a rabbit the relative safety lays in a briar-patch; for Europe’s scythe industry — or whatever remained of it by the seventies — it would have been the special niches, be they found in Germany, Japan or Africa.

In none of the eight factories I had visited did I ever find a person on staff in the higher echelons of the enterprise (i.e. one in a position to implement creative changes) who really understood this. Nor have I heard stories of previous directors attempting uncommon explorations so as to maintain the scythe’s former good image. On the other hand, notable creativity in the opposite direction (one joining the low-price war) was not uncommon, with a portion of it significantly contributing to the overall demise…

 

Note 4:

 

Note 5:

 

Note 6:

 

Note 7:

 

Note 8:

 

Note 9:
According to actual personal accounts, there was a time (only a generation or two ago) when a scythesmith would readily get into a bloody nose-risking fist fight in a public place should the honour of his employer be at stake. Today such loyalty is probably very rare, if not extinct. Having spent many hours interacting with the workers, both within their duty time and outside of it, the decided slide within the last decade is (to me) unmistakable. This may not be a serious issue as long as the overall economic system functions more or less intact. But should a significant crises strike, the “mere employees” will either walk away or revolt against necessary contractions (reduction in working hours and/or pay). In view of what I see is developing, the most existence-proof option for any industrial enterprises’ survival is to transfer at least a portion of its ownership to its present employees.

Yes, I’m talking of some version of cooperative arrangements. There are, particularly in Latin America, hundreds of examples when in recent history (and especially in times of serious economic crisis) taking that path saved an enterprise from oblivion. I do wish that every scythe factory in Europe was already a cooperative, perhaps in the image of the well-known Basque’s Mondragon or a similar model, because it would be the straightest route to the elevating of workers’ morale and thereby also enterprises’ resilience.