Amber waves of grain harvested across the heartland
August 15, 2011
The harvest has begun and combine crews have loaded up their behemoth harvesters in John Deere green and I-H red and are headed north. From Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakota’s and on into Canada; folks will be crowding the shoulders of state highways and county roads as caravans of harvest gypsies rush to the next ripe and ready field of amber waves.
This year the harvest will be short from the millions of acres either under water, parched by drought, scorched by fire or pummeled by hail. This year, America’s role of feeding the world will be challenging due to the recent rash of natural disasters. However, adversity is nothing new to American farmers and whatever challenges are presented will be met with determination and eventual success, maybe not this year but perhaps the next.
This is not the first time disaster has struck. Many remember first hand, while others of us have been told by our fathers and grandfathers, of the ‘Dirty Thirties’ and the severe seven-year drought that turned the Midwest into the Dust Bowl. There were the swarms of locusts that swept down from the Dakotas, blocked the sun like giant dark clouds and devoured fields of wheat and corn, leaving nothing but barren dirt in their wake. But despite spring floods and summer storms, next year will find America’s farmers planting the seeds of a brighter future and bountiful harvest.
“These days they plant more wheat per acre than we harvested back in the thirties and forties,” my dad recently told me.
We’ve come a long way from horse drawn binders and steam powered threshing machines to the giant air-conditioned combines that traverse the fields under GPS guidance systems. While farming is by no means a ‘cushy’ job, it’s no longer the labor-intensive occupation that it used to be. I’m reminded of a harvest story that my Grandpa Nolting told me.
Wheat harvest in northwest Kansas is generally late June or early July and usually guarantees hot and humid weather. This is country where sweat rolls down your back, soaks the leather sweatband in your hat and beads up on your brow before it runs down the side of your face and drips off the end of your nose all while sitting motionless under a nice shade tree. When you’re working, it takes gallons of water a day to replenish what’s lost. I suppose Grandpa would have scoffed at air-conditioned tractors.
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Grandpa had a two-cylinder, oil-pull Rumely tractor that he used to power his Case threshing machine. It was Grandpa who supplied the equipment and helped others in the area with their harvesting, back when ‘neighboring’ was as common as a gentleman removing his hat in the presence of a lady. Once the wheat was ready, crews worked from dawn to dark to bring in the harvest. Every day that passed increased the risk of loss from potential summer storms of wind, rain and dreaded hail. So keeping equipment up and running was of the utmost importance.
During this particular harvest, the Rumely sprang an oil leak from a cracked cylinder. Oil ran like black sweat down the side of the cylinder and onto the ground. Stopping was not an option, so Grandpa set one of the men to catching the oil that dripped from the cracked cylinder into a bucket and pouring it back into the engine. Another man was sent to Atchison to pick up a replacement cylinder.
At the end of the day, each of the men in the harvest crew headed to their respective homes for a late supper and a short nights sleep, Grandpa began to tear down the Rumely and replace the damaged cylinder. As he worked, by lantern light through the night, he told me that even under a sunless, star-filled sky, it was so hot that as he worked, his boots filled with sweat. When first light began to show itself in soft shades of pink behind the waves of heat that danced across the horizon, Grandpa finished the repairs just as the harvest crew began to arrive.
After the Rumely was fired up and the powerful engine set the threshing machine to humming as wheat and chaff were being separated, the other cylinder of the Rumely cracked and began leaking. Once again, Grandpa set one man to recycling the lost oil while another headed to town for the replacement parts. At the end of the day the crew went home and Grandpa again stayed to repair the Rumely.
For more than 60 hours straight Grandpa worked, harvesting in the daytime and repairing the equipment at night. Grandma brought him food, water and encouragement as he worked around the clock to keep the harvest crew going and bring in the stores of wheat that would help to feed this nation.
After Grandpa told me this story, he remarked that he sure enjoyed putting on a pair of dry socks after those long, continuous days. When he had finished the story, I remember him gazing across the golden field of wheat that rippled before us like a gentle rolling sea. I imagined him seeing the smoke puffing from the Rumely’s smokestack, wheat chaff fluttering in the sunlight like tiny flecks of gold dust, while stout men bent over pitchforks tossing bundles of wheat into the hungry jaws of the threshing machine.
“You know,” he said to me after the image had faded, “those were some of the best days of my life.”
I know that there are still men that possess the grit, dedication and determination that my grandpa had, though they seem to be harder to find. But it is men like him who have built and continue to build this nation. It’s men like him who give, unselfishly, of themselves for the sake of their families, their neighbors and their country.