Haymaking, the old-fashioned way: ‘Great to be able to show this to people’
Scattered around our two museum windmills, fence racks full of hay add to the lustre of what is already a deeply characteristic Dutch scene. This is another prime feat of old-school craftsmanship by our miller Aad Schouten. “It’s part of our culture.”
Pitchfork in hand, wooden shoes on his feet, tell-tale hat donned and a pipe dangling from the right corner of his mouth: anyone stumbling into 58-year-old Aad Schouten at work around the Kinderdijk windmills is flung back in time, making a leap of sixty years or more. “I feel it’s important to show how people used to do these things. This is part of our culture”, as Schouten explains from his position of miller, closely tied to the Kinderdijk World Heritage Foundation (SWEK).
The method of haymaking demonstrated by Schouten is a technique locally known as ‘ruiteren’, named after the fence racks called ‘ruiters’ around here (‘ruiters’ is the Dutch word for ‘horsemen’). This much-used technique was readily applied to the low-lying grassland of the Alblasserwaard area. Schouten: “The grass changed by the arrival of artificial fertilisers. Nutrient supplies increased, and so the grass took longer to dry out completely. The pace of this drying process is greatly increased by lifting the grass up from the ground like this.”
The ‘ruiteren’ process of racking up hay involves a wooden construction made of willow or pinewood, over which the grass is draped. The wind is a major factor in speeding up the drying process. This in turn enables the grass to retain more of its protein content, which benefits the animals feeding on the hay throughout the winter. Racking up the hay turned out to be a perfect match for the famously unpredictable Dutch summer weather. The job takes a fair bit of hard work, however. “It took me about five days’ work altogether. We have about twenty rack up around the Blokweer and Nederwaard museum mills now”, as counted by Schouten, who has been living in the gorgeous ‘Wingerdse Molen’ windmill in nearby Bleskensgraaf since 1981. “These ‘ruiters’ will be around for a few more months. They blend in wonderfully with the surrounding scene.”
Racking up hay had another very real advantage back in the mid-twentieth century: it drastically reduced the risk of fire. Drying the grass in this fashion reduced the speed at which giant stacks of hay were getting heaped together in a single barn, which in turn made fires caused by heated up hay a lot less likely. – So what about that pipe of yours, then? “Haha, well, that’s quite harmless out here in the field, you know.”
It’s great to be able to show this to the people visiting here
By the onset of the sixties, machines took over the task of haymaking. Anyone familiar with the polder landscape will recognise the bales of hay dotting the meadows in Summer. Nonetheless, here at Kinderdijk World Heritage, we still operate along the lines of tradition occasionally. Schouten: “I just like the opportunity to show this to the people coming to visit here. It’s a nice way to decorate the area in a traditional way. Besides, it helps us protect the troughs between the mills here, excavated to provide sand for the foundation of the mills. This way, we prevent them from becoming overgrown spots of wasteland.” All in all, this seems to be yet another example of man and nature working together towards a win/win situation for the Kinderdijk windmills, then!