School’s out. Days are long. The air is hot and golden. My innate urge is to go somewhere and cut some wheat.
My family has custom harvested for farmers since 1974. Summer, for me, is inseparable from wheat harvest — time to load the combines, get in the trucks and follow the wheat as it ripens, from south to north.
“On the road again — just can’t wait to get on the road again.” There’s not a harvester out there who hasn’t had that theme song running through his head.
As a harvest kid, I can say with authority that agriculture is not monoculture. Not everyone in production ag is tied to the same piece of land for a growing season, a couple decades, a few generations.
While I got to know the topography of fields up and down the Great Plains, my kids are growing up in the contours of our fields. That’s pretty much how my husband grew up.
Some custom harvesters pack up the family and take them along, and that was how I grew up. I’ve slept more in a Massey Ferguson combine than a lot of people have slept in their own beds. (OK, not really.)
Most people have to wait until they retire to move around with an RV. Not harvesters! That RV is home away from home for families for six months or more every year.
Several years in the 1980s, we didn’t even wait for school to be out. When the wheat was ready, we left. Who needs the tail end of fourth grade, anyway? Burkburnett, Texas, here we come.
My kids aren’t involved in sports or camps yet, but that’s by my choice — to let my kids just be kids for the time being. Most harvest families who travel don’t get the option. Summer without baseball? Check. Summer without band camp? Check.
But we went to vacation Bible schools in four states and swimming lessons in three — sometimes multiple sessions per summer.
The farmers whose crops we harvested for years and the kids in the towns we stayed in became friends for life.
We’ve held library cards in a dozen towns, too.
“Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head, but that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red.” By the time I was 14 and working full time in the field, a rain delay meant a trip to the library. “Cryin’s not for me!”
Don’t tell that to my dad, though. A rain delay is only good for the harvester when the crew’s been working two or three weeks straight. By then, no one has clean jeans, everyone’s running on a sleep deficit, and the combine engine oil needs to be changed.
The key, of course, is being able to remedy those things in a morning and get back in the field in the afternoon, maybe with a little mud but no hail damage. Getting that is luck of the draw.
This business of staying home isn’t ever going to feel quite normal to me, but when the harvester’s daughter marries the corn farmer, the farmland doesn’t move like the harvest crew does.
It’s easy to paint a rosy picture of harvest as a way of life. The upside outweighs the downside by at least a 7088 Case IH combine, so about 18½ tons.
However, many things about harvest have changed since I traveled with it. If my kids were to go on harvest, it would be a very different experience.
To start with, equipment is 10 times more expensive now. That’s one reason farmers choose the custom harvester.
Employees are difficult to come by. My family, like many other crews, relied on family and supplemented it with hired help to travel with us — sometimes neighbors, sometimes friends, sometimes people found in High Plains Journal ads.
Some of those young people are now in their 50s and 60s, with grandkids my kids’ ages, and are like family.
My parents, brother and two sisters still work together on harvest. They still hire domestically when more help is needed. But these days, my family is in the minority.
Many harvest crews use foreign workers under the H-2A visa program because domestic labor is very difficult to find. The paperwork for the visa system — for business owners, job applicants and consular officers — is unreal.
Safety is of utmost importance, and training and licensing are a critical aspect — and a headache. I got my Class A CDL with hazmat within a few months of turning 21, and it was neat, but not that big a deal.
That may never be possible for my own children. The regulations added through the last 20 years have made licensing harvest truck drivers difficult at best and a nightmare at worst. Yet despite all the changes, it’s still harvest. The crops are ready; the season is right. Listen — do you, too, hear Willie’s call to get on the road?
This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the June 25, 2016, issue of the Kearney Hub.