Fiddling Alfalfa

By dhowell - Posted on 30 November 2013

Dad usually was the one to call us each morning just in time to get the chores done before it was time to leave for school—we didn't get up any earlier than we needed to. I was a light sleeper and could hear Dad's joints crack as he got out of bed downstairs, moved around to dress before going to the kitchen. I could hear him shake the range grates, open the top of the range and stuff a few sheets of crumpled newspaper into the firebox. Then he used the butcher knife to shave several slivers of kindling from a chunk of an old cedar fence post which always stood next to the woodbox. When the wind was right during summer months, some smoke perfumed with burning cedar drifted through our upstairs bedroom window.

After filling the tea kettle and setting it on the range, Dad went to the back room (called woodshed in spite of the fact that nearly everything but wood was kept there). There he picked up a five gallon pail of swill (usually skimmed milk, potato peelings and dishwater) and a couple clean milk pails. With his hands full, he had to kick the screen door open; at that point he called my name and I had to arouse my three sound sleeping brothers. If Mother called us, it was out of the ordinary and always a half an hour earlier. She only did it when Dad was sick or in the early spring when he fiddled alfalfa.

An exact day for fiddling alfalfa could not be chosen in advance because fiddling had to be done when the ground froze and thawed just right and there was absolutely no wind. When Dad found these conditions at dawn, he set the day and would be at work in the field by the time Mother called us.

The fiddle and alfalfa seed from the granary were picked up by Dad before he walked to the field of wheat which had been planted the previous September and was starting its spring growth.

A fiddle was a hand seeding tool consisting of a couple suspenders holding a canvas bag on a board fastened to a crank driven disc. The bottom of the bag was a six inch square board with an adjustable hole with a shutoff in the center of it; the canvas was tacked round the edge of this board to seal it. The metal disc had four ribs atop it and could be spun with the crank.

About a peck of seed (alfalfa, clover, timothy) was placed in the bag after the size of the bottom hole had been adjusted for the seed to be sown. To fiddle, the operator had to open the hole, spin the crank at a uniform rate and move straight back and forth across the field at a brisk walk. At the edge of the field, the seed was shut off while he paced the distance for the right point for the return walk. This distance had to be just enough to assure there would be neither gaps nor overlaps in the seeding. The disc threw seeds evenly over an area 25 feet wide, as the operator walked, cranked steadily and there was no wind. It didn't take Dad long to finish one of our fields (5 to 10 acres) and join us as we were finishing the chores.

Fiddling alfalfa

Mother Nature finished the rest of the seeding. As the soil thawed and re-froze each day there was enough soil movement (solifluction) to cover the tiny seeds. A gentle rain at the right time helped. Drought or flooding complicated germination so there was lots of checking to see if there was a "good catch". The seedlings grew along with the new grain crop. When we didn't get a good catch, the seed had been wasted and an old hay field might have to be used another year before we could fiddle again to start a new one.

I'm sure Dad had a lot of personal pride when he got a perfect catch—especially in fields along the road for neighbors to see. The uniformity of his new seedlings always amazed me. How did he know the right distances, walking speeds, fan speeds and seed quantities to use?

He still protected new seedlings at harvest time. Shocks of grain were not left on a new field long enough to kill young plants under them. Rather than leaving them there until we could get a rig to thresh them from the field as many others did, we took them to the barn as soon as they were dry enough and put them in the barn or stacked them outside to await threshing day.