Thursday, July 23, 2009


Harvest Begins

Every year, different personalities reveal themselves in the runup to actual cutting time. My father, a patient person, was willing to let the wheat let us know when it wanted to be cut. Eric, the harvester who actually cuts the wheat, made his forecast based on his experience and from striding out into our fields to look around and snapping it with his hands. My uncle thought we would begin cutting on Monday. In the end, we started on Wednesday.

But before we could bring the wheat into storage, we needed to prepare our bins--our own storage facilities. Some wheat is taken to the town elevator, which is located by the railway tracks. We pay for this storage, however, and long ago my grandfather built steel bins so we could store our own wheat ourselves for (mostly) free. In addition, once harvest is underway, the line at the elevator to dump wheat becomes very long, keeping trucks occupied for a long time, and slowing down the actual cutting process. By maintaining our own bins, we are able to move faster and take advantage of optimal weather conditions.

My young cousins attacked the inside of the other bins to prepare them for cleaning. They lowered themselves in via a chain, then attached a rope to a bucket. Then, bucket by bucket, they excavated the muck. Having done this job last year, I didn't envy them the task, but was grateful that they were willing to do it at all. They did an excellent job. You can also see a layer of white paint along the bottom of the bin in the background. This seals off cracks and (hopefully) keeps out moisture. Wet wheat in storage kind of sucks.

Last summer, an improperly fixed bin lid blew off the top of a storage bin and knocked over an auger, which suffered a rather serious injury of its own. My uncle said it looked like a wounded giraffe. A real farmer would probably fix these wounds himself, but we don't live in Nebraska full time, and had to hire someone to do the job for us. The new auger was pulled out of our quonset, and positioned beside a storage bin deemed clean enough to receive grain (I'll explain more in a moment). To move the auger is not exactly easy. Everything here is very large and very heavy--as Gordon demonstrates below, posing with a very large and very heavy hamburger value pack.

It's also worth pointing out that trucks play a very practical role out here. Since everything is large and heavy, you really need a truck to "haul things," as my father used to say. It's also pretty tough to drive a little economy car across a "road" that is overgrown with weeds. I can't say that I will ever understand why suburban folk need to drive SUVs, but for farmers, these large vehicles are really and truly a necessity.

To move the auger, we would need some help, and Eric sent over his crew to give us a hand. One of the boys easily climbed to the top of the bin and shouted down orders so the auger would be placed just over the top of the bin and the grain would go in correctly.

We suspect that the presence of pretty teenage girls inspired the boys to work even harder.

As always, it's inspiring to see people move around equipment when they are used to it--and when they are so unafraid of heights. The physical language of people here is entirely different than in the city. Would anyone else I know in NYC so happily clamber up a ladder, then stand there at the top without fear? Some people are just born to do things like this--just as some are born to do, say, gymnastics and to be unafraid.

I've been thinking, too, of gender roles. In the city, it's so easy for men and women to think about their differences in very abstract terms. "Communication styles." "Nurturing qualities." Etc. A lot of the time, we can do the same job in the city. We all cook. We all like to shop and pick out a nice outfit. We all coordinate colors.

And, well, out here, we can't all shove around an enormous auger. We can't all crank it up. Perhaps we can all drive trucks, but some of us have a weaker constitution and can't take the heat. I was thinking last night that when work really does favor one sex over the other, people are quite naturally going to develop a very different sense of politics.

As I explained last year, the auger pulls wheat up from a truck via an Archimedean screw. The wheat is dumped into what we call a "Mayrath" (the manufacturer) from the belly of the truck. The Mayrath then utilizes a short Archimedean screw to deliver this wheat into a hopper. The wheat in the hopper is then pulled up via a very long Archimedean screw to the top of the bin.

The rebuilt hopper in this picture, however, is quite small. Everyone was predicting a disaster. The wheat would splash everywhere and onto the ground.

Don showed up with his tools and laid them out on the ground, ready to make a little adjustment to our hopper. My uncle and cousin--physicist and programmer--began to analyze the exact problem with the hopper. The spoke of vectors and angles and momentum. (Last year they tried to calculate the percentage hail damage to a crop by counting the number of heads of wheat in a plant that were damaged, then multiplying this by plants per foot, etc. I let them do this and did not help).

As the conversation continued to become more abstract, Don finally shook his head and said, "You people." He then suggested attaching something to the lip of the hopper to extend its capability.

Ultimately, this is what happened. You can see that a piece of wood has been attached with two C-clamps, and some boards stuck along the left side. Farming is a series of never-ending problems, but I have a suspicion the men like to grapple with these kinds of problems because it means playing with tools.

With the bins mostly set up, we were off to the fields to see again if the wheat was ripe. There is a visual check that one can do--looking for excess green. But the most important thing is the moisture level. Wheat that is too wet can't be stored, and will be docked by the elevator. We do have the capacity at our bins to dry wheat, but this is also a rather labor intensive process. There are various ways to measure the moisture level, but the most reliable thing to do is to take a sample to the elevator. They, after all, have the power to accept or reject a truck load.

I like this photo--three generations of farmers, with Gordon looking very natural and very serious.

And here I am with my young cousin Tyler, who cheered me up a great deal last year. He's grown up quite a bit and says he's very fond of the farm, so we may continue to see him in the summer, which would be very nice.

Time to cut. The combines get to work.

Riding around in a combine is lots of fun. But it is also a good way to see how the field is looking, if there are bald patches, and how the wheat is cutting. Um, and it's also fun.

My mother is famous for her pot roast--which she learned to cook from my grandmother. We still know the butcher at the local Coop, and my mother stopped by to make a special order large enough to feed 12 people.

Because my mother's hands are not in particularly good shape, she enlisted the help of my cousin Kelsey to do some cooking. When I came in from a trip to the fields, Kelsey happily told me that she had "browned the meat" herself. It's wonderful to see her take pride in a project like this--kids thrive on learning to do things and learning to do them well. The pot roast was delicious.

The interior of the bunkhouse is quite small, but we have my grandmother's old picnic table, which we set up just outside the quonset. My uncle hung a light from the gigantic hook, making what I like to call the "chandelier." Thus we were all able to eat together.

Of course Gordon is making sure to try local beers while he is here. On our visit to the liquor store, we learned that there is also a local Nebraska wine. I had passed some grape vines earlier in the day, but couldn't believe that someone was really growing wine grapes, but it turns out they are. This is interesting--my father and I used to fantasize about giving up wheat growing for grape growing. Perhaps one day there will be a varietal to facilitate this. Hmm. I think I will have to investigate further.

Of course, about the time we are able to grow wine grapes here, the rest of the country, with its richer soil, will long ago have mastered the process . . .

A favorite after dinner activity is a visit to the local Dairy Queen. This was always a very special treat when I was a child, and the tradition continues. It was dark by the time we got there, and on the walk back, I happened to look up and see a very bright object fly overhead at a very high speed. Young Mark (who is not pictured) determined that we had just seen the Space Shuttle--he looked up the shuttle's schedule on NASA's website. It's so dark here at night, that it is easy to see something like the Space Shuttle against the Milky Way.

And with this visit to Dairy Queen, Gordon was able to eat his first Dilly Bar. He says this will not be his last.

I enjoyed reading about your fabulous farming day. What a fascinating activity for us urban-types. Good luck with the wheat, the big sky, farmers and tools, and Dilly Bars. ~ Jeff Holck
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?