All posts by Claus Kropp

Groundbreaking Journal Tools & Tillage made Open Access

‘Sharing expertise about our agricultural past is one of the primary aims of the AIMA. Making Tools & Tillage available online represents a significant step towards realising this goal. With the support and generosity of the University Library Heidelberg, decades of fascinating scholarly work have now been made freely available to researchers worldwide. The AIMA community hopes that this represents a new phase in the sharing of knowledge and heralds the beginning of many fresh collaborations between the partner organisations involved.’ — Dr Ollie Douglas, President of the International Association of Agricultural Museums

The international journal Tools & Tillage is a great resource about historic farming techniques and traditional agricultural practices, combined with an (experimental) archaeological approach. Published over the years 1968-1995 it pulled together an impressive number of research projects from around the world, a remarkable effort in the days without internet.

As the number of people studying rural history increases, and museums continue to interpret meaning and method, several of us who work with agricultural museums, experimental archaeology, living history farms, and open-air museums decided to join forces to try and make Tools & Tillage more widely available.

As debates about environmental change gain intensity, and as agricultural practices factor significantly in these debates, the research published in Tools & Tillage seems more and more essential to our collective understanding. Yet, the journal is very hard to access. Three international organisations collaborated to increase access with the aim of engaging younger historians of rural and farm life with the essential knowledge and skills of agricultural techniques published over 27 years in Tools & Tillage.

We found an avid supporter in Dr. Grith Lerche, the only remaining editor of Tools & Tillage, and owner of the copyrights. She co-edited Tools & Tillage with Axel Steensberg and Alexander Fenton. Thanks to UNESCO-Welterbestätte Kloster Lorsch – Experimentalarchäologisches Freilichtlabor Lauresham (DE), the University Library of Heidelberg (DE) scanned the material and made it available, including a full text search of the 137 articles in 1,776 pages.

The full Journal is made available for dissemination and preservation of the electronic files under a (CC BY 4.0) license at:

This project of making Tools & Tillage available was possible thanks to the persistence and good cooperative spirit of many. The partners in this project are:

How often do you step out of your “field”? The relevance – and challenges – of non-field crops for agricultural museums

“Bruising” furze, Courtesy of Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collections*

Farmers around the world do much more than farming, often taking on stewardship for much of the environment we associate with the countryside and important activities that do not usually “fit” into field agriculture can be a vital part of farming economies. A good example of this is furze (Ulex spp., also known in English as gorse or whins), which played a major role in fodder production and had many other traditional uses.

Les paysans à travers le monde s’occupent souvent autant de l’environnement que de l’agriculture dans le sens strict du terme. L’ajonc (Ulex spp.) en est un bon exemple, ayant servi pour l’approvisionnement en fourrage, entre autres utilisations traditionnelles.

Bauern weltweit betreiben oft viel mehr als reine Landwirtschaft und sind wichtige Partner in Umweltschutzfragen. Der Stechginster (Ulex spp.) liefert ein interessantes Beispiel in Bezug auf die Rolle einer Pflanze als Trockenfutter und einer ganzen Reihe anderer Verwertungen.

furze – Ulex spp. fodder field agriculture environmental stewardship

It takes but a brief glance at the environment to see how very much farmers around the world affect their immediate environment, from mending fences to keeping roads passable, from spreading microbial disease in effluents to campaigning for safe bio-controls in the place of pesticides. The engagement of farmers with crops outside their fields – if and when they are mainly in field agriculture – is often considered incidental and nigh invisible. A good example of this involves the many fodder crops aside from hay, or even such crops as “tree-hay”, that do not fit into the stereotyped schema of what we give our animals to eat when they cannot graze. In Irish testimony, furze (Ulex spp.) was often part of a fodder complex, mixed with straw, hay, bran or boiled turnips to make it still more delectable.

Popular tradition and even law (Kelly 42, 380-1, 395) saw furze land as valuable and the plant can “talk” – if you are there to listen, since its pods make a loud popping noise in warm weather when they expel their ripened seeds. Since it flowers nearly year-round, it gave rise to the popular saying “when kissing’s out of fashion, the gorse is out of bloom”.

O.W. Thomé, 1885, Wikimedia Commons; Wikipedia Creative Commons, “Whin or gorse on Fife coastal trail”

Furze may not be just “one” thing, in some places. Also known in English as whins or gorse, there may be up to seven species that hybridize easily in the British Isles, though they were usually seen as quite distinct in local traditions. The plant had uses in addition to fodder, as especially noted for Ireland: as a dye plant, as a natural harrow, to sweep chimneys, line storage pits, provide bedding for human and litter for animals. Furze ash was used as fertilizer, plant extracts as medicinals and to make soap, as well as being an important cash crop as fuel for bakers, to such an extent that it was considered a major fire hazard when stored in great quantities in towns.

Furze is a fire-climax plant and regenerates strongly when burned, so that some research might indicate the plant self-oriented genetically to be more flammable! It was once a familiar sight in the environment as ditched hedging and in constructing drainage systems and, today, it is often used, as is its cousin, broom (Genista), for land reclamation, because of the nitrogen-fixing capacities and the cover they provide for wildlife.

Nutritionally, furze provides an important protein supplement to livestock, but obviously it was far too prickly to suit the mucosae of horses, cattle, goats and sheep, so it had to be processed to “gentle” it. Once done, the plant was especially valued for putting a sheen onto animals’ coats and its protein content was a special boost to working animals.

Lucas Furze billhook and hand guard and how to make a furze mitten, both p. 76, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

Billhooks with leather hand guards or straw “mittens” were used to gather it. It was softened for use as fodder by “bruising” because, unlike broom, it is quite prickly. Agricultural engineers and scientists term this process “promoting bioaccessibility”. Furze was often bruised with a mallet, while in some kind of hard support, such as a furze stone or whinstone. Such stones were often found near homes or stables. In some cases in Irish tradition, the processing was even done inside the house in a furze pit not far from the family fire, so it was also a winter task in a convivial spot. Furze was at times worked with flails with an iron beater or with beetles like those used to pound potatoes. There is even mention, in a case in Scotland, of a circular trough for furze with a rounded stone pulled by a horse. Of course, there is ample attestation to furze or whinny mills, and Mackenzie of Ross-shire in Scotland was producing these for “export” to other parts of the British Isles as early as the 1840s. Mechanized furze “machines” followed upon these early versions and at times were so large that they needed a special building for themselves.

“Bruising” furze; the second method could be done outdoors or indoors, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

 Another technique involved using a chopper on furze in a ground-level trough as one would a pestle with a single-bladed or cross-bladed head. In fact, for hand processing, a pounding technique could precede or follow a chopping technique to produce a “mash”. This sort of “food” ferments quickly, but – as today with dark “homemade” hay – animals often especially liked the taste. (N.B. don’t try letting it ferment yourself for a demonstration – it is against EU regulations!) Some testimony speaks of special skills, of the right “trick” to turn the chopper while bringing it down, that accelerated the work and produced a better mash. Lack of information on such tricks may disguise the intricacies of processing furze effectively and this recalls one of the remarks Isabel Grant made about Highland Scotland: when she asked a potential collection contributor about the price he wanted for an implement, he stressed that it was very valuable: it might not take long to make it, but it took a lifetime to learn how to use it (Grant 104).

There may once have been a particular geography of the tools, techniques and types of furze used, but it has escaped us, with the passage of time, so do remember in collecting testimony to enhance your array of implements: if you know someone who knows how to do it, catch them while you can!

Meanwhile, how often do you step out of your familiar “fields” to look at the plants beyond them, once valued for so many reasons? Tell us about it.

Notes and Literature: There is a summary of a fine volume on hay and hay-making in AIMA Newsletter N° 11: “A Place for Hay. Flexibility and Continuity in Hay Meadow Management” in MARTOR The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Journal 21/2016, see For the British Isles, discover the delights of everything you ever wanted to know about furze in A.T. Lucas “Furze. A Survey and History of its Uses in Ireland”, the entire issue of Béaloideas, Vol. XXVI, Dublin, 1958-1960. The remark about the value of an implement comes from Isabel Grant Highland Folk Ways, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1961/1997, and in his Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998, Fergus Kelly details the value of land as seen through the plants that grew on it.

* For kind permission to use the illustrations from Lucas’ issue on furze, special thanks to Rionach uí Ógáin and Cristóir Mac Cárthaigh of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society, and Michelle Ashmore of the National Museums of Norther Ireland Picture Library for facilitating authorization to use the photograph from the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collection.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer, Associate Researcher, CRBC Brest,

Marlene Hugoson and Cozette Griffin-Kremer at the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum in Bucarest, Romania, 2018

What is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Some experiences from the 65th World Ploughing Championship in Einsiedel (Germany)

Zusammenfassung (Abstract):

Basierend auf selbst gemachten Erfahrungen der 65. Pflügerweltmeisterschaft im baden-württembergischen Einsiedeln im Jahr 2018, stellt der Autor die Frage nach der Relevanz von tierischer Anspannung im 21. Jahrhundert. Während in Einsiedeln eine Zuordnung derselben eher in agrarhistorische Zusammenhänge oder als schmückendes Beiwerk deutlich wurde, kann aus den Erfahrungen von Institutionen wie Tillers International oder der modernen Forstwirtschaft eine weitaus höhere Relevanz nachgezeichnet werden. Letztlich plädiert der Autor für eine Stärkung der Tierischen Anspannung nicht nur in einer kulturhistorischen, sondern auch auf der praktischen Ebene.


Animal Traction – World Ploughing Championship – Oxen – Horses – Sustainability – Forestry – Agriculture  

On September 1st and 2nd 2018, the 65th World Ploughing Championship took place at the Einsiedel farm estate in Germany. The world´s best ploughers from more than 30 countries competed in stubble and grassland competitions, each with reversible and conventional ploughs and of course – with tractors.

Grassland competition at the World Ploughing Championship 2018 (picture: Claus Kropp)

Alongside the championship itself, the organizers presented a vast supporting program ranging from old-timer tractor shows, regional delicacies, performances and speeches as well as demonstrations of cutting-edge agricultural technology. Another part of the supporting program was the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing and the Hohenheim Field with steam plough demonstrations, featuring the motto “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times”.

Ploughing team at the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing as part of the supporting program of the World Ploughing Championship (picture: Claus Kropp)
Ploughing with draft oxen and (re)constructed medieval plough at the Hohenheim Field Days (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming from the Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology in southern Germany, we were able to become part of these Hohenheim Field Days with one of our draft oxen and a (re)constructed medieval plough. We also had the chance to present our work and research at the (re)constructed Early Medieval manor with an information desk alongside those of other institutions, associations and museums. Besides being busy with ploughing demonstrations and talking to many interested visitors, I had the chance to take a closer look at the way animal draft power was presented and valued within the event. I asked myself: what is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Judging from the event itself, you could say it is just a relic of a time long gone, a nice thing to have and to preserve as part of our cultural and historical heritage. This can be emphasized with the fact that even the State Horse Ploughing championship was only listed in the supporting program.

I agree one hundred percent that animal draft power is a valuable part of our agricultural past and that agricultural museums need to preserve this knowledge and these practices. In this respect it was right to schedule our ploughing presentation within the “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times” of the Field Days. I nevertheless completely disagree that animal draft power does not play a valuable role in the 21st century and I would have wished that it had been presented not only as a relic of the past but also as an innovative and effective way to cope with the sustainability challenges of our present time. Let me emphasize this with some examples: Looking at the long work of Tillers International in Africa and other continents, it can be strongly stated that – considering the circumstances – ploughing with draft cattle can still be the most economic and efficient way of soil cultivation – not to speak of the most sustainable. The traditional utilization of cattle as three-use-animals (meat, milk and work) plays a key role in this respect. This can also be said for some aspects of modern forestry: In many ways horse- and to some extent also ox-logging once again became effective modern ways of working through a new understanding of sustainable forest management.

It is well known that logging with draft animals ensures far better soil protection than larger forestry machinery (e.g. Harvester) could ever accomplish. It can also be an economic and valuable alternative to heavy machinery when working in steep terrain. I myself had the great opportunity to meet one of the most experienced oxdrivers from France, Philippe Kuhlmann, and he showed me very impressively on his farm that there is no better alternative for him than ox-logging considering his forests lie in the middle of the Vosges Mountains. Both the cows (from which he also produces tasty cheese and which he still milks by hand) and the males (be it bulls of oxen) are used for logging purposes. This was another key moment for me to understand that even in our high-tech society draft animals can play their part.

Vosges cattle working at the farm of Philippe Kuhlmann (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming back to my experiences at the World Ploughing Championship, I can onlyplead strongly to promote draft animal power in a different way in the future: strengthen the value of it as an important part of our cultural history but at the same time emphasize the use of it today – and tomorrow. In a way, the organizers of future large scale events like this could learn from the way agricultural museums operate around the globe in opening a window onto our past and providing pathways towards our future.

Claus Kropp
Manager Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology