The grain was cut just before it became ripe and gathered in sheaves that were set up as stooks in the field. It was then taken to the stack-yard to complete the ripening process.
The laborious practice of thrashing, or threshing the corn with hand-flails to separate the grains from the chaff had been largely replaced by machines by the end of the 18th century.
The first effective mechanical thrashing machines were invented and patented by two East Lothian men, Michael Menzies in 1732 and Andrew Meikle in 1786.
The Report of the Board of Agriculture for the County of Northumberland recorded: “In 1789, the first machine having circular rakes attached, and with fanners below, to perfect the cleaning of the grain, was erected.” It was probably designed by John Bailey of Chillingham.
Until well into the 19th century, these fixed thrashing-machines were powered by horses turning, through a system of gears, a large wheel in a wheel-house attached to the thrashing-barn. In Northumberland, these round buildings were called gin-gangs.
It became increasingly common for steam engines to be installed in the thrashing barns. The abundance of coal in Northumberland meant there were more steam-powered thrashing machines in the county in the mid-19th century than in any other part of the country. The chimneys of some of the old engine-houses can be seen on farms in the area today.