A Remembrance of the Past; Building for the Future." ~ Eve Eckert Koehler

Remembering Our Danube Swabian Ancestors

Agriculture in Surtschin (Syrmia)
"Wheat, Barley, Oats, Rye, Corn, Feed Crops, Red Clover, Beets, & The Farmer's Work Year"

Surtschin” Ortsbiografie der deutschen Minderheit eines Dorfes in Syrmien
By Michael Schmidt, 1980

Translated by Roy Engel

     As already mentioned, Surtschin was not established by German settlers; the settlers arrived in an existing village already populated by people of another ethnicity. The settlers received no government land grants and had to purchase the land themselves.  This is why some of our farmers owned too little land to support their families. In addition, it was not only the farmers, but also the craftsmen who bought land from the Serbs.  It can be said that virtually every German household in Surtschin owned some farmland.  As a result, there were many small farms.  If a craftsman had enough work in his trade, he would lease his parcel of land to the owner of a small farm.  Lease terms were always on a yearly basis.  The cost of the lease was always paid in advance regardless of whether the harvest would be good or bad. The lessee always bore all the risk.  Lease agreements were seldom in writing, but rather done verbally and with a handshake. The property taxes were paid to the government by the landowner.  Another way that agriculture was practised involved what was represented by the ‘half-share farmer’ (‘Halbscheidbauer’). A ‘half-share farmer’ would take over the complete operation of the farm to receive half of the harvest yield.  He would provide all the necessary equipment and half of the seed.  Upon completion of the harvest, he would deliver one half of the crop to the landowner.  A ‘half-share farmer’ would endeavour to work the same fields for many years.  This had the advantage that he could cultivate the land as if it was his own, with manure from his livestock, because improvement of the soil quality was in his own interest and to his own advantage. 

     Craftsmen and day laborers had the opportunity to earn enough grains for the year by working for barter rather than wages.  These people were called ‘Risaren’.  Prior to the start of the harvest, a farmer and his workers would move from one parcel of land to another, to establish agreements on compensation.  Depending on the condition of the crop, 80 to 120 kg of wheat were calculated for one ‘Joch’ (about 1.4 acres).  If the crop was on the ground, making the harvest more difficult, additional compensation would include a large loaf of bread (2 to 2 1/2 kg), ½ kg bacon or ham, ½ litre of mulberry schnapps, and sometimes 2 to 3 litres of milk.  The ‘Risaren’ were usually married couples and would not have their own horse and wagon.  The farmers would provide these for the harvesting teams if they were available.  Otherwise, the farmer would drive the workers out to the fields in the morning and then pick them up in the evening.  Water and provisions for the day would have to be taken along every day, as would be the children.  Older children would help with the work or take care of the smaller ones. A capable and experienced husband and wife team would be able to harvest one ‘Joch’ in a day, and during the season earn their supply of wheat for the year.  Day workers could also work for barter and similarly earn their supply of wheat for the year.  During the corn harvest it was possible to earn enough feed to fatten two to three pigs. In one day, a man could earn 50 to 60 kg of ears of corn, and a woman could earn 40 to 50 kg. 

The Usage of our Agricultural Lands 

     The main crops grown in Surtschin were wheat and corn.  It can be said that each one of these crops occupied about one third of the arable land. The other crops, like barley, oats, rye, potatoes (for their own use), oil-producing plants (sunflowers, rapeseed and soy beans), feed crops like turnips, alfalfa, red clover and mohar, occupied another third of the farmland.  There were very few grazing meadows in Surtschin.  These could be leased from the neighboring villages of Betschmen and Jakovo.  Furthermore, because of the soil conditions, the quality of hay in these localities was better than in Surtschin. 


     Wheat was primarily grown in the ‘upper’ fields of Surtschin.  In most cases, the previous crop in these fields was corn.  As soon as the corn was harvested, the stalks would be plowed under as deeply as possible.  If the previous crop was turnips, the subsequent wheat yield would be lower since the turnip harvest occurred later in the season, and seeding could not be done until the following spring.

    Much care was taken to make sure that only the highest quality, mildew-free seed was planted.  Seeds were carefully cleaned, sorted and dried.  In the later years, seeding was done mainly with machines, but there was still some done by hand.  It would require from 75 to 100 kg of seed to plant one ‘Joch’ of wheat.  Rows were planted about 8 cm apart and the seeds placed 3 cm deep.  In our region, planting was done towards the end of October until the beginning of November.  The advantage of this timing was that the seeds could germinate, sprout and reach a height of 2–4 cm before the frost set in, making them more resistant to the cold of winter.

     In the following spring, as soon as the ground was dry, the surface would be leveled and, if necessary, rolled.  Once the plants had time to recover, the hard ground surface would be broken up with a harrow, allowing air and moisture to reach the roots.  This would also uproot the surface weed growth.  Harrowing also had the additional benefit of thinning out the crop, thereby stimulating the remaining plants to grow more quickly and healthier.  If old corn stalks would be unearthed in this process, they would be collected and used as fuel for fires. The wheat crop would need no further maintenance until it was harvested.  This would occur at the end of June.  The wheat was harvested by mowers, combines and sometimes still by scythe. 

     Some farmers would sell a portion of the harvest immediately.  Others would wait until the price of wheat became more favourable.  The wheat destined for home consumption would be processed in the Surtschin mill, either immediately or as required.  In the interest of using only fresh flour, care was taken that not too much was ground at one time.  We had two types of flour: White flour was used for baking and cooking and special bread flour was used for baking bread.  Upon request, cream of wheat (semolina) would also be produced. 

     The leftover bran would be added to animal feed.  The chaff would also be used as feed and the straw for bedding. The variety of wheat most commonly grown was “Stahlweizen” which translates as “steel wheat”, and was also called “Schnarrenweizen”, or “rattle wheat”, and was described as “granulated”.  The other variety of wheat grown was “Dreiundsechziger,” or “Dickköpfle," described as “non-granular.”

(Translator’s note: Stahlweizen was most likely the species “Triticum monoccum,” which has the common name “Einkorn.”  It was widely grown in the Balkans and the spikelets (granules) separate easily by threshing of the mature plant.  Dreiundsechziger would have been the species “Triticum spelta,” which is commonly called “Spelt.”  It was also grown in the Balkans and although it also has two spikelets, unlike Einkorn, the rachilla (extensions of the stem to which the spikelets are attached) remain attached to the spikelets after threshing.  Furthermore, the Spelt spikelets contain two kernels which have wide, square glumes, thereby making them large in width.  “Dickköpfle” translates as “fat-head.”) 


     The soil composition in Surtschin was well suited for growing barley.  However, very little was grown and it was used primarily for feed.  Most of it was winter barley and the seeding, cultivation and harvest was done exactly as it was for wheat.  Barley was always the first grain to be harvested, followed by wheat and then oats.  It deserves mention that dried barley was also roasted in an oven, ground and mixed with milk, to produce “malt coffee”.  This drink would be served with preference with the Sunday morning breakfast. 


     In Surtschin, oats were grown for personal consumption only.  It was mostly a spring crop and was used either green or after harvesting as feed for horses. 


     Rye was also called “Kron” in Surtschin and was grown in very small quantities because bread was made exclusively with wheat flour.  Each farmer grew only as much rye as he needed to make rope.  The long stalk of the rye plant was bunched and knotted into a kind of simple rope.  This was used primarily to tie the sheaves of other crops such as wheat.  After the corn harvest, if not plowed under in the same field, corn leaves and stalks might also be lashed together with rope made from rye.  Rope manufacturing was done early in the morning, when the stalks were still wet with dew and thereby less brittle. 


     Corn provides an inexpensive source of nutrition for both man and animals, and it requires the smallest amount of seed of all crops.  In order to maximize the yield of these fields, beans and squash were grown between the rows of corn.  A type of wild “sugar cane” used for making house brooms and corn for making popcorn were grown around the perimeter of the fields.

     The growing of corn played a major role in the agriculture of Surtschin because the climate and soil were so well suited.  Corn requires more heat than the other crops and it is easily damaged by late frosts, but it is not sensitive to what was planted on the lot the preceding year. It was mostly grown where wheat had been grown in the previous year. Due to corn’s high nitrogen requirement, the spreading of manure on the fields was extremely rewarding.

     After the harvest, the remaining stalks would be collected and the soil was deep-plowed later in the fall.  If manure was also spread, the plowing would not be done as deeply so as not to keep air from reaching the manure.  This would ensure a high quality layer of humus for the following year.  In the spring, the surface would be harrowed, keeping the soil moist and deterring weed growth.  The selection of kernels for seeding was done very carefully.  Only the healthiest cobs were used and only kernels from the middle of the cob, with the small end kernels being discarded.  Since World War I, corn was seeded strictly by machine known as a “Kukuruzsetzer” (“corn planter”).  Very rarely was seeding done by hand.  Rows were planted 70 cm apart and seeds spaced every 30 to 50 cm.  The seed depth was 3 to 5 cm.  It would require 10-12 kg of seed for each ‘Joch’ and planting was from mid-April until the end of the month.

     When the seeds sprouted, the field was lightly harrowed to break the surface crust. When the corn plants had grown large enough so that the fourth leaves had developed, a hoeing plow would be driven between the rows, followed by selective hoeing by hand.  Hoeing would be repeated after two to three weeks to remove weeds and thin out the crop.  When the corn reached knee height (approximately 50 cm), a ridge plow would be driven between the rows, mounding the soil at the base of the stalks.  This would help to retain moisture and stabilize the plants.  Side shoots that developed from any plants would be removed and used for feed.  These were a treat for the dairy cows.  The harvest would begin at the beginning of September.  The ears were broken from the stalks and transported to the farmyard for husking and sorting.  Healthy and ripe cobs would be stored in cribs, while diseased and immature ones were used immediately for animal feed.

     The following spring, when the corn was thoroughly dry, the kernels would be removed from the cobs and sold.  A large portion would be kept by the farmer to feed his own livestock.  The leaves and husks of the corn plant were used as winter feed for animals and the stalks and cobs as fuel for fire. There was a use found for every part of the plant.  The kernels were used mainly for animal feed, but some was also milled to produce corn meal.

     Corn was sometimes grown strictly as “green corn” for animals, usually on fields where barley had already been harvested.  As a second crop, it supplied a good yield of animal feed, provided there were no droughts.

Feed Crops 

     Alfalfa was a favorite feed crop in our region because of its prolific growth, longevity (four to six years) and its capacity to provide three mowings per year.  Alfalfa grows deep roots and can therefore withstand long periods of drought.  It was used primarily as green feed, but would also be dried and stored as hay.  Alfalfa also has the capacity to fix nitrogen from the air.  This is performed by the bacterium “Sinorhizobium meliloti” which lives symbiotically in nodules attached to the alfalfa roots.  This makes alfalfa essential because it not only doesn’t deplete the soil of nitrogen, but, in fact, increases it for subsequent usage, resulting in high crop yields. 

Red Clover 

     The fields of Surtschin were seldom used for growing red clover because it was so sensitive to drought and not as hearty as alfalfa.  However, it had value as a feed crop due to its high protein content.  Mohar (mohai) was also grown as a winter feed.  When it was harvested, before ripening and drying, it made excellent winter feed for livestock.  (Translator’s note:  no reliable translation for mohar (mohai) was obtained. It is a cultivated type of grass). 


     Substantial amounts of beets were grown. Together with ground corn, clover, wheat bran and wheat chaff, they were a favored so-called ‘short-feed’ for the dairy cattle.  The amount of sugar beets that were grown became ever less, especially in the last years prior to World War II because the price of sugar beets had dropped to the point where the costs of land, manure and labor made it a poor choice of crop for the farmer.  Sugar beets were also susceptible to weevil infestations, which could wipe out large fields in just a few days. 

The Farmer’s Work Year 

     As soon as the snow had melted in the spring, the fields would be harrowed.  This served to retain the moisture and aerate the soil.  It would also uproot shallow weeds.  If the weather permitted, furrows for oats, barley, turnips and sugar beets would already be plowed in February.  Towards the end of March, the fields for corn would be deep-plowed and harrowed a few times.  Corn was planted at the beginning of May.  Many years ago the sowing of seeds was done strictly by hand.  It was usually the women who would walk along the furrows and sow the kernels.  One can imagine how much work this was, given the vast fields that were used to grow corn.  It was during the 1920’s that planting was done more often by machine.  This was a tremendous saving of time and effort for the farmer.

     By the end of May, the corn had reached a height where weeding and cultivating could not be done by machine.  Doing this by hand was a labor-intensive job and young and old had to participate.  Weeding and cultivating was done twice per crop, so as soon as all the fields were done the first time, it would be time to start the second.  The next task was to drive the plow between the rows of corn to mound soil at the base of the stalks.  This preserved the soil moisture and stabilized the roots.  Similarly, the beets would require weeding and cultivating, but not mounding.

     At the same time, work had to be started in the vineyards.  Virtually every farmer grew grapes for his own use and this work had to be fit into the busy daily schedule.

     The barley harvest began already by the end of June.  This was a difficult time of year for the farmer because of the continuous workload.  As soon as the barley was harvested, it would be St. Peter and St. Paul Day (June 29) and the wheat harvest would begin.  Since wheat and corn were the two major crops in Surtschin, the wheat harvest made large demands on people and animals.  Every family member had to participate in this harvest.  They would set out for the fields at the first light of day to accomplish as much as possible before the heat of the day.  At this time of the year we had a searing dry heat with rarely a refreshing rainstorm.  A glowing, dry heat spread over the unshaded fields, as well as over houses and yards.  Even the night brought little cooling.  In the evenings, when the “Schnitter” (cutters) came home from the fields exhausted, there was still work to be done and very little time to relax and sleep.  The wives of major farmers would not normally work on the fields.  They would care for the livestock and the young children and prepare a hearty lunch for the workers, which would be placed in baskets and driven out to the fields.  During harvest time, lunches consisted mainly of poultry and fresh-baked yeast cake.

     Some wheat was still cut with a scythe, gathered together with a sickle and tied into bell-shaped sheaves using homemade ties made with rye stalks.  The sheaves were piled in a crosswise pattern in such a way that the ears covered each other and pointed inwards, so that the ears would remain dry in case of rain. This arrangement also served to complete the ripening of the wheat.

     After the wheat harvest came the turn of the oats. Mowing machines began to be used prior to World War I.  Even a few baling machines appeared at this time.  These machines greatly relieved humans.

     Once all the fields were harvested, the farmers would begin transporting the crops to the farmyard, where they were set up in high piles.  Farmers with crop sizes too large for their yards assembled their high piles in their fields.  The heavy threshing machines moved from yard to yard to complete this large operation.  One could hear the constant droning of the machines from early morning until late at night.  All available hands were needed at this time.  If a farmer didn’t have enough workers in his employ, day workers were hired.  Threshing was not done by the hour, but from early morning until well into the night.  There were eight threshing machines in Surtschin and most of them were steam-powered.  The owner of the threshing machine would provide four men to operate the machine, and the farmer who had hired the service would have to provide approximately twenty additional helpers.  One of the four operators was actually running the machine, the other three were responsible for feeding the sheaves into the thresher.  This was a very strenuous job, so these men worked in shifts.  Two or three strong young men would throw the sheaves onto the threshing machine with pitch forks, where two girls would receive them and cut the ties binding the sheaves, then pass them on the man feeding them into the machine.  Four or five men would be assigned to hand the empty sacks to the thresher, to collect them when they were full, weigh them, carry them to the granary  and empty them there.  The owner of the threshing machine controlled the weighing, as his payment was based on it.  For example, payment for the use of a steam-powered machine was six to seven percent of the yield.  For a gasoline-powered machine, the payment was eight to nine percent.

     Three women or girls were assigned to rake the chaff from under the threshing machine and move it to a storage room.  The straw was lifted by an inclined conveyer belt (called “Elevator”) to an empty space, where four or five men would portion it and stack it in a large pile.

     Day workers received forty to fifty kilograms of wheat and free meals for a day’s work.  Help from the neighborhood  was very important. Neighbors, friends and relatives were there to help, even though it was hard and dusty work.  There were actually very few farmers who needed to hire day workers for this job.  There was always particularly good food prepared on threshing days.  There would usually be soup, roasted goose and poppy seed or sour cherry strudel.  The farmer’s younger children (10- to 12-year olds) and the neighbors’ children also helped by bringing water, wine and mulberry schnapps to the workers, since it was very hot and dusty.  There were no work stoppages for vespers on threshing days. The day before his turn for threshing arrived, the farmer had to prepare barrels of water for the steam engine and for fire protection. It was the farmer’s responsibility to ensure that enough water was always available during threshing. The steam engine used straw for combustion, and it was the farmer’s responsibility to provide it.

     After the threshing was completed, the farmer’s wife returned to her unfinished chores in house, yard and garden.  When she had some free time, it was often spent spinning wool, while sitting with the other women outside by the road in the shade of the mulberry trees. The men and sons plowed the fields cleared by the harvest.

     Then came the job of harvesting grapes for wine making.  Virtually every farmer grew grapes for his own use.

     The corn harvest began at the end of September and there were no machines to assist with this.  If the fall weather was beautiful and dry, the ears could be removed from the stalks and husked in the fields.  All that remained to be done at home was sorting and storing the corn in the ‘Hambar’ for drying.  If the weather was wet or the harvest had to be completed in a hurry, the corn would be husked after harvesting.  Family and neighbors would spend the entire evening in the shed husking corn until ten or half past ten.  This corn husking was a much-loved occasion for young and old, because everybody had lots of fun, with the boys and girls singing folk songs.  In the early mornings, while dew still clung to the corn stalks, they were cut with a sickle, bound into bundles and stacked in rows to dry.  When all the autumn work was done, the bundles would be brought home and used as feed for the livestock.  The uneaten dense cores of the stalks were saved as fuel for fire. 

     During the corn harvest, only cold lunches were prepared, followed by a warm, hearty meal in the evening.  When all the fields had been harvested, they would be plowed immediately and the wheat fields would be seeded.  Every farmer in Surtschin tried to make sure that all his autumn seeding was done by the second Sunday in November, the day of the Kirchweih festivity in Surtschin.  If the weather permitted, the fields were prepared for spring seeding by spreading  manure on them, followed by deep plowing, so that the soil would freeze well and be loose in the spring.

     Then came the time in which our farmers enjoyed some rest.  Preparations were made for the annual rendering of pigs, which concluded in the evening with the “Metzelsuppe”, a feast at which soup, sausages, and other products made from freshly-slaughtered meat were usually served. 


Beschka Homeland Book by Peter Lang

Alternative Wheat Cereals as Food Grains:  Einkorn, Emmer, Spelt, Kamut and Triticale, by G.F. Stallknecht, K.M. Gilbertson and J.E. Ranney

Agriculture in Surtschin from the book “Surtschin” Ortsbiografie der deutschen Minderheit eines Dorfes in Syrmien By: Michael Schmidt – 1980; Translated by: Roy Engel.

[Published at 18 Aug 2008 by Jody McKim Pharr]

Heritage » Economy » Agriculture in Surtschin (Syrmia)