Discovering Novi Bečej: Stories, people, history

By the paths of the past: Discover the rich history, interesting events and unforgettable people who have shaped Novi Bečej through time, as we return together to the heart of this beautiful city on the banks of the Tisza.

Experience the challenges of traditional farming in this vivid narrative. Follow the demanding rhythm of wheat threshing, corn harvesting, and rural life

Planting, Harvesting and Threshing

The sowing of wheat was largely done manually, to a significant extent. It was common to see a farmer in the field carrying an untied sack or bag of about ten kilograms of wheat. The sack was secured and slung around the neck and under the left or right armpit (depending on whether the person was right or left-handed). Using their hand, the farmer would scoop up the wheat and, taking a step at a time, evenly swing their arm to scatter the wheat across the plowed field. After sowing, a harrow was used to cover the seeds. The harrow was typically made of tied twigs, and in wealthier households, it could be made of steel wire with parts resembling blunt nails. Usually, two horses or oxen pulled the harrow. Following the harrowing, the horses were harnessed to a roller to press the soil, facilitating the normal germination of wheat.

Corn was sown during plowing, following the plow, which was drawn by horses or oxen. The farmer walked behind the plow, releasing corn grains into the furrow at regular intervals. It took a long time for people to realize, mainly those who were a bit more observant, that corn could be more easily dropped into the furrow by creating a large metal funnel attached to the plow. Grains were poured into the funnel, allowing them to flow into the furrow. After corn sowing, the field was harrowed, and the seeding was completed.

Harvesting was typically done with a hand scythe, and almost all family members, including children aged 7-8 and older, participated in it. During the harvest, the family would start working in the field as early as 4 in the morning to utilize the dew on the wheat stalks before sunrise to make ropes for tying the harvested wheat. These ropes were made by pulling twenty to thirty wheat stalks from the ground, dividing them into two equal parts along with the grains, tying them together in the area of the ear, placing one end under the left armpit, and twisting both ends with both hands (fists). The twisted wheat stalk was braided into a rope. The braided ropes were placed in a pile, sprayed with water to maintain the necessary elasticity, covered with a cloth, and kept in the shade of the horse-drawn carts. Dry ropes would break and were unsuitable for binding sheaves. Everyone in the field participated in braiding, and enough ropes were made to tie all the harvested grain for that day.

Immediately after braiding the ropes, the mowing began. It was challenging to pull the wheat stalk from the dry ground, shake off the mature grains, and manually weave it into ropes. However, this was not nearly as difficult as the task that awaited them. Adult men mowed wheat with scythes from sunrise to almost sunset, starting in early July, from before 5 in the morning until almost 8 or at least 3 hours daily. Breaks for breakfast and lunch together did not last more than an hour. Those who mowed, or as the peasant said, "pulled the scythe" throughout the ten days or so that the harvest lasted, lost several kilograms. For a well-nourished person, losing a few kilograms may not be much, but for a thin and worn-out farmer, it meant bringing the body to the edge of normal strength.

Other family members did not have much easier tasks, as they also had to spend at least 15 hours daily in a bent position, without any protection, under the sun's rays on their heads. They collected the mowed wheat, using a sickle to form sheaves, and placed them on the spread ropes. This was not an easy job, not only because of direct exposure to the sun and the bent body position but also because the wheat was dry and scattered, scratching and poking hands, and the straw scratching their legs. In those days of intense heat, wearing socks was unimaginable, and people wore opanci (traditional Balkan footwear) on bare feet. Before placing the gathered, or as it was called, "binding" armful of wheat on the ground, the spread ropes were laid out, and the sheaf was placed on them. Spreading the ropes was done by children aged 7-10, while older ones did the binding. Even spreading the ropes was not an easy job, as the child was also exposed to high temperatures, and in addition, children usually did not wear shoes; they went barefoot on the sharp straw. Children mastered the technique of walking on straw, dragging their feet while walking, and their soles hardened because rural children typically went barefoot from March 22 until autumn. However, the straw still scratched and roughened their feet, especially in the ankle area.

Before the end of the workday, usually at sunset, mowing, as well as all activities related to spreading ropes and binding sheaves, is interrupted, and the process of tying sheaves begins. This tying also requires considerable effort, as the sheaves need to be securely tied, and the end is tucked under the tied and tightened rope. It is not only strenuous but also an unpleasant task because dry wheat stalks are tied with bare hands. While adult men tie the sheaves, women and children pull them into piles and stack them in so-called "crosses." These crosses protect the wheat from moisture in case of rain.

Such mowing lasts for 7-8 days, and the workday starts at 3 in the morning when the horses are fed, and everything needed for going to the field is prepared. The departure from home is no later than 4 o'clock. The return from the field is at 9-10:30 in the evening, and by the time the livestock is fed and dinner is served, it is already 11 o'clock, leaving a maximum of 4 hours for sleep.

The toil of farmers doesn't end with mowing. The workday is not any shorter during transportation when the wheat is transported from the fields to the yard with horse-drawn carts, where it is stacked in barns and awaits threshing by the machine. The first transport starts before 4 in the morning, and the last one returns at 9 in the evening. Unloading and feeding the horses take until 10 PM. The average transport lasts 6-8 days and can last much longer if the weather is rainy.

It is not easy to throw sheaves onto the "transport," and it is even more challenging to throw them from the transport onto the stack, especially when it reaches a height of 4-5 meters. A wheat sheaf is inherently heavy, weighing 12-15 kilograms, and the platform on which the thrower stands is unstable, making the job much more challenging than throwing from the ground.

The process of wheat, known as mowing and transportation, even in this simplified description, does not seem easy at all, and the actual difficulty of performing this job is even greater.

With mowing and transportation, the peasant has not yet relieved himself of worries until the wheat is threshed and stored in the granary or "delivered" to the granary of a grain dealer or loaded onto a barge. The fear of rain, even when the wheat is stacked in barns, is still present. Therefore, efforts are made to find a thresher as soon as possible and thresh the wheat.

Concerns and fears for every grain of wheat persisted, and even though the barn provided some protection from rain and moisture, the fear of it getting wet was always present. This fear was more pronounced in poor farmers with smaller wheat barns, as they had to wait for the thresher to be available in their street and in close proximity so they could take their turn. With wealthy farmers, where the barns were large and the thresher had the entire day, and even more, to work, this was not the case, as thresher owners almost fought over their wheat. Thresher owners economized with time, trying to use the working day to the maximum for threshing itself and minimizing the moving around from yard to yard. If threshing was done at a poor farmer's place, much time was lost in these relocations.

The urgency with the wheat process, especially among the poor, was heightened precisely by the fear that the thresher might leave their street, as it would then be challenging to get it back or, if it returned, to have their wheat threshed only after the entire threshing process was finished, when the risk of rain was more significant.

Concern for every grain of wheat was not only present in poor farmers but was a widespread phenomenon. It was not due to overall poverty but the awareness that a lot of hard work and sweat had been invested in that crop. Only the producer was aware of this and, therefore, of the true value of the crop.

After the wheat process comes threshing. Threshing was an even more challenging task than the wheat process itself. In about twenty days, which is the average duration of threshing, each worker on the thresher loses 4-5 kilograms of their weight. Threshing does not affect the owner of the wheat but rather the poor day laborers who organize into groups called "gangs" of 26 people and work on one thresher for the entire duration of threshing. In the name of the "gang," the leader who organized it negotiates a contract with the thresher owner. During the entire threshing period, they work on his thresher for half of the earnings (ušura) that the thresher charges for threshing wheat. The thresher owner pays the machine operator and the stoker from his share.

The owner of the thresher charges 8-10% of the threshed quantity, depending on competition and climatic conditions. If the weather is rainy, the percentage is higher because all wheat owners are in a hurry to thresh as soon as possible. Thresher owners use this as an opportunity to increase the fee, as workers on the thresher thresh less during rainy weather, reducing their earnings. By increasing the fee, thresher owners partially compensate for this decrease in income.

The method of earning and sharing income generated interest not only for the thresher owner but also for the "gang" and especially the machine operator. Everyone aimed to thresh as much as possible during those twenty days to secure a higher income. This was achieved in two ways: by maximizing the working day and by making the most efficient use of working hours. The latter was achieved not only through the complete engagement of workers but also by persuading wealthier farmers to have their wheat threshed at their locations. This approach minimized the time lost in relocating the thresher from one yard to another. Each relocation of the thresher, even within the immediate neighborhood, represented a loss of 1-1.5 hours of effective work. If it involved threshing poor-quality wheat, there could be 2-3, or even 4 such relocations in a day, resulting in a loss of 4 or more hours of working time. Much more could be threshed in a day if the threshing was done in one household (yard). Because of this, the "gang leader" and the thresher owner visited wealthier farmers, offering to thresh their wheat.

During the threshing season, one thresher would thresh 35-40 wagons of wheat.

Before the thresher started working in regular yards, in the first days of mowing, some threshers went outside the village to marketplaces in Vranjevo, Dudari, and near the electric power station in Novi Becej. The poor brought their wheat here, usually small quantities equivalent to one or two wagons. No thresher would go to their yards for such a small quantity. This part of threshing "outside the village" was done based on mobility, or a group was formed from case to case, as there were considerable time intervals between one wagon and the next prepared for threshing. Usually, it involved one or two wagons, and then, after an hour or two, the next one would come. There were days when only one or two wagons were threshed throughout the day. This kind of threshing, outside the village, lasted at most a week, after which the threshing moved into the village and was done in yards.

Being the first or among the first to start threshing in yards was considered a special success for a thresher. This had to mean that there were so many designated yards for threshing that the process could run continuously. Threshing could not be interrupted, waiting for new interested parties to appear, as no one wanted their thresher to stand in the yard and wait to be called to work for another farmer. The owner whose thresher started last in the race to thresh more was already at a disadvantage from the beginning.

The thresher consisted of two machines. One was a steam locomobile that drove the other, known as the "dreš," which actually performed the threshing. The steam engine, as the name suggests, was powered by steam. Water was heated by burning straw, and when the steam pressure reached 5-6 atmospheres, it was put into operation. Using a long leather belt (strap) over the flywheel, devices in the "dreš" were set in motion, allowing untied wheat sheaves with ears facing forward (downward) to be fed into the machine, starting the threshing process.

In addition to the machine operator and stoker, 26 workers, called "risari," worked on the thresher. The job of the "risari" was particularly strenuous and under very difficult hygienic conditions. In addition to the machine operator, the job of the feeders was considered the most skilled and responsible. They untied a wheat sheaf, spreading it (loosening it), placing it in the "dreš" drum, which pulled it into the machine. There, through impacts and rotations in the drum, the grains were separated from the ears, and at the same time, straw was separated from the chaff. One of the feeders was, in fact, the head of the team on the thresher, the "bandigazda," and the other was the deputy feeder. In addition to the feeders, the jobs of the strawmen and chaffers, i.e., those who stacked straw and chaff, were considered skilled. It was important that straw and chaff were stacked in a way that prevented them from getting wet. Moreover, the arrangement of the straw and chaff had to be aesthetically pleasing, as they would later settle into stacks in the yard. Owners of larger quantities of wheat chose threshers known for having good strawmen and chaffers, especially strawmen. Strawmen were highly regarded by wheat owners. To ensure they did their job well, the wheat owner would often bribe them with brandy or fruit.

The work schedule looked like this: 2 feeders, 4 workers throwing sheaves from the threshing floor to the threshing machine; one female worker receiving the sheaves, cutting the twine, and handing the bundle without twine to the feeder. The twine cutter alternates between two workers for one position; 6 workers carrying straw from the threshing machine to the stack; two female workers stacking the straw into bundles, which are pushed two to three meters away from the threshing floor, so the "strawers" can take them to the stack. For carrying chaff, 4 workers are used, as there is less chaff than straw. The job of female workers handling fine and coarse chaff is particularly difficult, as there is a lot of dust, and they often perform their tasks with a tied scarf over their mouths to avoid inhaling the dust. Due to these conditions, they change every few hours. Despite the job requiring one worker, two female workers typically work as fine chaff handlers, and the same applies to coarse chaff handlers. There is also one strawer and one chaffer. Threshing is a very difficult job, carried out in the sun where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius. The work is physically demanding and dusty. Because everyone is eager to finish threshing as quickly as possible, the workday starts at 4 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. or even 11 p.m., meaning a working day lasts for 18 hours. This is why every farmworker, whether male or female, typically loses 4-5 kilograms over the twenty or so days of threshing.

For children, it was a special joy when the threshing machine arrived in their yard. In addition to the hustle and bustle created by the 28 workers on the machine, including the operator and fireman, children from the entire street would gather to play and roll in the fresh straw, fuel the steam engine, whistle if the fireman allowed, and, in this way, make themselves noticed.

It was beautiful to hear the humming of the threshing machine, especially in the quiet summer evenings. When releasing the wheat sheaf into the drum, the sound of the threshing machine would intensify, gradually decreasing until the next sheaf. The thresher has its own sound, a humming, and the steam engine has its "clanking," which also intensifies when the sheaf is released, as it increases the load and requires additional power. It was the most beautiful music for the farmers.

Each steam engine had a whistle with a different sound, some high, others deeper, ranging from soprano to bass. Each thresher signaled the workers to get up twenty minutes before the start of work, around 3:30 a.m. The morning whistling was the longest. At noon, the whistle announced the lunch break, and after a half-hour break, it signaled the start of work again. Around 5 p.m., there was another break for a snack, and again, the whistle signaled the start of work in the evening and the end of work. This was done persistently to let the competition know when work stopped, as there was competition over who would start working first and who would stop last. It is said that the steam engine was fueled with straw, so when workers needed to bring straw for fuel, the fireman signaled it through the whistle. Children especially longed for the opportunity to fuel and, even more, to use the whistle to ask for straw.

This routine continued throughout the threshing period, but no one minded the humming of the threshing machines or the loud whistling. The sirens were loud and could be heard from one end of the village to the other. It didn't bother anyone that the sirens, from the forty or so machines working in Novi Bečej and Vranjevo, announced the start of work or waking up of workers from 3:30 a.m., and after 10 p.m., they signaled the end of work, even though their whistling represented a significant change in the otherwise peaceful and quiet life of Novi Bečej and Vranjevo.

Farmers were practical, so their ability to adapt to new conditions was simple and without any disturbance. People knew it was the threshing season, and that's how it had to be, so everything was accepted as normal and even a pleasant change. No one complained or protested to the authorities because it simply didn't bother anyone. I don't know how it would be received today if a loud siren started a long blaring at 3:30 a.m., and just as one finished, another started, with an even louder sound, and so on forty times, as during the threshing season with the working machines.

The described method of sowing, harvesting, and threshing is not something that lasts for thirty days while all other work has a slow, comfortable pace. No, every farmer's job was very demanding in those conditions. Even wheat, which required the least amount of work among crops, demanded considerably more hard work for corn, sugar beets, and, in later years, sunflower when it started to be sown more extensively. I say later because during the time I'm recalling, sunflower was rarely sown, and for oil, which was used sparingly because pork fat was in use, rapeseed was sown as the main oilseed, largely processed in rural oil mills.

It's tedious to describe in detail the work around corn, so I'll just list the tasks. After sowing, which I described how it was done, corn had to be hoed twice, then thinned and hilled. When the harvest comes, the workday lasts from before dawn, when the cornstalks are cut, until dusk. All day long, corn is harvested so that in the morning, cornstalks are cut and tied into sheaves, and in the evening, they are stacked in stacks. One can't decide what is harder: whether with a sickle and bent over with hands cutting cornstalks, which are thick and hard as a stick, with dry leaves sharp and hitting the face, or unfolding the husk and breaking the corn cob from the stalk and throwing it into a pile that is not always very close. Harvesting lasts the whole day, so fingers and hands, and the arm in its entire length, are so tired and hurt that they ache all night. The hands even swell so much that one thinks in the morning they will grab the sickle and not only grab it but, so to speak, run with it, cutting thick and firm cornstalks, yet in the morning, work continues without complaining.

It was perhaps even more difficult with sugar beets and every other field crop. It is incomparable to today's agricultural work when tractor seeders, combines, herbicides, and all other techniques that modern life and the countryside make easier are used.

All of this was not difficult for the farmers of that time. They were very tolerant, patient, and often cheerful, perhaps even more so than young people today, both in the countryside and in the city.

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