The Coming Harvest in Yunnan

Aini .harvesters in Lancang County

In September the grain begins to ripen, casting a golden yellow hue over the fields. It rains less, the sun is out more often and later this month farmers will begin harvesting. They cut the stalks with sickles. Threshing is usually done on the spot, by whacking sheaves of grain against the sides of a v-shaped, buffalo-hide trough. They leave the stubble behind, to be plowed back into the soil. Some people burn the stalks after threshing and strew the ashes in the fields. Others stack them in nearby trees for later use as thatch or compost. After collecting the grain, winnowing is the next step, done at the field or at home, usually by shaking it in a round tray so that the chaff flies off in the wind. They could also winnow by climbing up a platform and slowly pouring the grain onto the ground below, while the chaff separates as it falls.

Rice is the main grain cultivated at lower altitudes. In the higher mountains it might be millet or buckwheat and on the Tibetan Plateau in Shangrila County it is barley. The monsoon rains recede here a little earlier than in the rest of the province and by mid-September Tibetans begin cropping. After cutting the stalks they hang the sheaves on the great racks that have sat surreally empty on the plain all year, like chairs set out for giant guests. After a month they are dry. Then folks climb up the racks to kick loose the sheaves and those below take them to the threshing grounds.

The most common method of separating the grain is flailing. Teams of four whip the grain stalks with flails comprising two metal poles attached by a rope, allowing the upper pole to swing down on the grain. The other way is by leading a pony pulling a grooved drum in circles over the piles of grain stalks. Next the grain is collected, winnowed and stored. A portion will be used to make alcohol, the rest ground into flour and consumed.

TIbetans at the harvest in Shangrila County

Where the farms are large, a few families labor together, taking turns at each other’s fields. The work is strenuous and tiring, but of critical importance and carried out in good moods. In most places in Yunnan a single annual grain crop is the norm. The autumn harvest is the farmers’ primary product, their sustenance for the coming months, the reward of months of care and labor and, since it is food, something than can be enjoyed immediately. It’s no wonder harvest seasons are happy times.

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