Monday, July 20, 2009


Asleep by Ten, Up by Six

Regular readers may remember that life changed unexpectedly when my father passed away last year--I found myself looking after part of the family wheat farm in Nebraska, which my great-grandfather started over 100 years ago. I'd been to harvest lots as a kid, but last year was the first harvest in which I really tried to immerse myself into the entire process as an adult. I've excitedly been waiting to see how the seed wheat we selected, and which I saw planted last September would turn out. The rain that has been plaguing New Yorkers also got some play in Nebraska, with the end result that harvest has been delayed--and the wheat thick and lush. I have not minded our soggy June at all (plus, I hate summer heat in New York) because I've been hoping it would help us achieve a rich crop.

This year my husband was able to come with me, and I was eager to show him a completely different side of the United States. He took to the open road as I expected, happily driving through the prairie while listening to Pat Metheny.

Nebraska is also beef country. This is a mammoth "value pack" hamburger . . . dispenser. I think if you needed to feed about 30 people, or wanted to eat hamburger three times a day for ten days, this pack would be suitable. I've never seen anything like this anywhere else. Harvest has historically been tyranny of the hamburger and the potato. But being pregnant means I'd like to try to eat some other foods this summer. And so, my secret weapon--my mother--has also arrived with a suitcase full of raw ingredients necessary to cook Japanese food.

Gordon likes the prairie.

You might remember I went to visit our harvesters in Pennsylvania at the end of April. Back then Eric and his family and crew were days away from heading off to follow the country's wheat belt--and we parted ways knowing we would meet up in Nebraska in July. I hadn't been in Kimball for a half an hour before a white pick up truck with familiar bumper stickers stopped in front of me at a stop sign. I yelped and clambered out of the car, scaring my husband who thought I had been stricken by some form of prairie road rage. But it was Eric, who'd seen me driving, and parked in order to greet me.

Before we came to Nebraska, Gordon asked me if anyone ever wore shorts on the farm. I said, "No." Of course, the first farmer we met--Eric--was wearing shorts. But then Eric is made of some kind of indestructible material which makes him impervious to weeds or burrs or even rattlesnakes--he showed me a tail of a snake he'd killed on his travels this year. Eric is a kind of uber human masquerading as a farmer. We decided that his shorts don't count.

Gordon and I abandoned our little rental car in favor of Eric's truck to head out to look at some of our wheat fields--Eric had been on his way to assess how ripe the crop was looking. As he drove, he narrated the land to us. Here a farmer had tilled his land and due to winds, was losing his top soil. There, someone had left the previous year's stubble in place and was practicing "no till" farming, which meant the dirt--and moisture--were staying put. "Your family is doing it right," he said. Gordon and I sat mostly rapt with attention, asking questions every now and then. It's always wonderful to try to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows much more than you do, and who truly loves what he sees.

As I said, Eric is made of some kind of indestructible material. Here he is, knee deep in wheat, and I am trying to catch up to him to see what he is seeing, and trying not to get poked too much by the plants. I am not made of anything indestructible, and already have a rash from the boots I was wearing to protect my legs from getting a rash from the wheat . . .

In the end, we decided the wheat was not yet ready to cut. This is always a very stressful judgment. Farmers want the grain out of the field as soon as possible. But wanting something does not make it come true--we all have to grapple with reality, and there's no way to really make unripe wheat more ripe than it is. Temperatures in the High Plains are very hot and dry, however, and wheat can ripen in a day. One never knows.

I was eager to see our friends the Yungs and Birkhofers, who have been farming for and with our family for many years. Last September I had a particularly lovely visit with Virginia and her daughters (scroll down). Virginia is, among other things, an enthusiastic reader--the kind of person who lights up with real, rare and sincere excitement at the prospect of reading something new and good. I love this kind of genuine enthusiasm. Understand, Kimball is a town with a library (which my grandmother supported), but no bookstore, and no movie theater. Since September, I've been putting together a pile of books to bring to Virginia, hoping that I could share some favorites with her.

In the photo above, I'm posing with her father, Don, who was my father's great friend--a veritable Obi Wan Kenobi of farming. "If something ever happens to me," said my Dad, "listen to Don." I'm trying to. As it happens, our visit at the Yungs was cut short because Don had diagnosed that the bunkhouse where we stay during harvest had a serious plumbing problem. We needed to get a new sump pump (I think that's what it was). I'm not very useful when it comes to fixing things--and even less helpful this year due to my, ahem, delicate condition. So we volunteered to do the one hour drive to Scottsbluff to pick up the new pump, which meant that Virginia and my booksorting has been delayed. But at least she has the books.

Later, Gordon got a lesson in how to install a new pump for the sewer line by Don, who can fix anything. We had a nice little conversation in which he tried to convince me that farming is much easier than computers--which he seems to think I have some proficiency in. Of course, the truth is that I don't really have any useful skills--let alone any advanced knowledge in computers. But I'm not sure he believed me.

Gordon of course is the big star this harvest--everyone has been wanting to meet Gordon.

I was feeling antsy after the plumbing problem had been resolved. It'd been 24 hours since we'd last looked at one of our wheat fields, and we hadn't had any rain. I wanted to see how the crop was looking. Off I went with my mother and Gordon to a plot known as the "Kob." Understand--most of the countryside is empty. You can go for quite some time and not see a soul. The roads are not paved. Farmers who pass each other on the road wave to each other. When I came to the Kob, I saw a truck parked with all its hazard lights blinking and I thought: "Oh no. I need to stop and help. And, as usual, I am incapable of helping." As it happened, the truck belonged to Eric, who had also come to see how the wheat was looking. He'd hauled the combine headers--the part responsible for actually cutting the wheat--and was awaiting the rest of his crew. We had a good laugh about running into each other again without any planning, yet again.

I like to think that farming is the closest I will ever get to being in outer space. The equipment is mammoth and exotic. Operating anything requires teamwork and careful and abstract thinking.

You always know when you are going to run into a vehicle in the country because, as I said, the roads are not paved, and every car, truck and tractor kick up dust. I saw this little caravan approaching, and hoped it would be the combines.

It was. By this point, my uncle had arrived too and we all stood around to watch the harvesting crew assemble.

These combines remind me of Transformers. Here, Winston is using hydrolics to lift the header--the teeth--off the back of a trailer to attach to his combine. When the harvesters are all done cutting and ready to move to another part of the country, they will detach these mammoth teeth, load up the combines on trailers, and travel on the Interstate. It's all amazingly efficient.

The assembled combine.

The test cut showed that the wheat was not quite yet ripe. Almost, but not quite. We hope to be able to cut tomorrow, assuming these ugly clouds don't bring too much "weather."

I love it. Can't wait to read more. The rice is getting taller here in Akita and as I drive through the fields on the way to work every morning, and back again through the orange reflections off the water in the evening, I always think about how familiar the wheat fields of America are, and at the same time just as foreign as the rice here.

American farms are iconic, but I can't say that I've ever spent any real time on or around one. I've probably spent more time in rural Japan than in rural America, which is strange to stop and ponder.

Have fun and good luck.
This is a really cool post! Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us. All I could think while I was reading it was: this is so America.
Yes, Heather, that's it exactly. When Eric picked us up, his car radio was actually playing a song from "Grease" and I looked at Gordon and thought: this must be just about the most American thing ever. City people don't always understand this part of the country--and of course people out here don't always understand city people. I'm one of those irritating folks who sees value in both places. But to be honest, I generally find it harder to explain the farm to my city friends, than the other way around.

Mike--I loved reading about the rice from you! I remember visiting Japan in the spring a few years ago, and seeing everyone planting the rice--it was so exciting. And I think that farming here has made me pay more attention to what people eat elsewhere and how the farming is same/different. I love how Japan is just so intensely green in the spring in part due to the rice, and also how the paddies add to the fall color. It really is part of your landscape.

Farmers are really iconic characters. You can see how their abilities--fixing equipment, working with equipment, patience and faith--shape their world. And you can also see how farming developed the skills necessary for so many urbanites to leave the farms, as they have in the last one hundred years, to head for the cities.
So wonderful. But bed by 10 up by 6? WHat are you city folk? ;) My grandfather was always in bed by 8:30 and up to town for coffee by 4:30 in the morning.

Seeing those big combines still scares me though. I remember riding in my great uncle Rufus's -- my Iowa family has all those wonderful old midwestern names -- when I was just a kid.

It was SO LOUD. I cried the whole time. I still remember it. I couldn't have been more than 5 years old.

But still. That sky! That view! The East Coast, even the rural parts, feels so claustrophobic at times -- you can't see the sky. And the sky is as much a part of the scenery as the land.

Now I want to take a summer trip to Iowa, have some rhubarb pie and homemade ice cream and take a drive through the fields.

Yes, Christopher. We aren't really keeping farm hours. I think the farmers really get up at the crack of dawn which is MUCH earlier.

And, ahh. Rhubarb pie! I think I am going to have to bake at least one pie while I am here. And you are right that the machinery is loud. My father's hearing deteriorated and he always blamed a childhood spent around noisy machines as the reason why.

As scary as the combines were when you were a child, they are probably even more scary now. They are larger and more efficient . . .which makes them scarier!
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