Harvest is the time of year when all things come together. It is the time when one tiny seed planted in the spring matures into a plant that gives back — sometimes a thousand-fold more seed and food than the original seed. Multiply that one plant by a billion to make a field, and those fields feed a nation.
It is truly miraculous! Farming is the only occupation where a person invests a year of work and can only reap the benefits during a few short weeks in the fall. To make it even more miraculous, each farmer’s story is different. Two can plant exactly the same variety of seed at exactly the same time and have two completely different yields. It becomes very personal.
This year, I was privileged to take an active part in harvest again after being away from it for over 30 years. Ron let me help him. To be quite honest, there were a few moments when the word “help” did not apply! But I had all but forgotten how fulfilling harvest can be. It’s not just about getting the crop in; it’s about harvesting memories, too.
I had also forgotten how meticulous you have to be, even in the smallest details. I pulled the wagons up from the field for Ron and unloaded into the storage bins. Driving up so that the chute of the wagon is positioned just so over the hopper of the auger is critical. Too far left or right and the grain tends to pile up and go over the sides; too far back and you lose some on the ground. Every kernel is money, so you don’t want to lose any. Laugh if you may, but I had markings on the ground to show where to position my front tire and where to stop. It sure made life a lot easier, and, in this business, time is the name of the game.
I haven’t progressed far enough yet that Ron could “dump on the go” like many farmers do with grain carts. Unbeknownst to me, one time we tried this, and let’s just say it did not go well. Remember what I said about every kernel being precious? Enough said.
So I had to know where to meet him in the field so he could dump. Sounds simple, right? Well, here in Indiana they have waterways, which are strips of land that cut up into the fields to let the excess water run off. This means that combining isn’t as simple as going around through lands or back and forth. Sometimes Ron would need to dump at the far side of the field, sometimes in the middle of the field, and sometimes at the lane. Basically, he needed me at the opposite place of where I was. Yep, not quite so simple!
OK, I can hear some chuckles from some folks now. You may think that I am poking fun at something that seems so elementary. What is hard to grasp until you do it is that every little detail is important when it's crunch time for the farmer.
Now, back to what I said, that “harvest changes everything.” Anyone who is a farmer, is married to a farmer, or knows a farmer will attest to this fact. Harvest is harvest. Period. Unless it is a matter of life or death, nothing else matters during these few short (or long, depending on your view) weeks each fall. That husband, father, brother, or friend changes into someone you don’t recognize. He doesn’t hear half of what you say, if anything; he is a little bit on the edgy side, he doesn’t sleep, only eats on the fly, and has generally no idea what is happening outside of the agricultural community.
I’m just saying that this is how it is; it’s not right nor is it wrong. After all, it is their once-a-year payday. It's hard to fathom how not cut-and-dry this whole business is. Moisture content of the crop and the weather are the two dictating factors that decide when crops are taken in.
Different varieties of corn and soybeans have different maturity traits, so they ripen at different times. How much rain has fallen over the summer, what kind of fertilizer was spread, and type of soil all play a role as to when the crop is ready. Combined with the fact that that a field may not all ripen at the same time all adds to the complexity of harvest.
Each day is different, too. You may have a real good drying day where the moisture content is down and you can run grain from morning to dusk. The next day may seem the same but, if there is more cloud cover or the humidity is up, the grain may pick up too much moisture and become tough.
The days when the sun is shining and yet conditions are not right to harvest are the absolute worst. It brings out all kinds of fidgety and pessimism. There is nothing worse than knowing that you should be in the fields and, at the same time, knowing you should not be.
Farmers in any given area are a pretty close-knit clan. They are constantly keeping tabs on their neighbors to see if they are in the fields or not, how much have they gotten done, are they storing grain, are they loading it out, etc. This brings up a whole other aspect. Grain market reports are scrutinized not daily, but sometimes hourly. Farmers constantly gauge their yield and market price to decide if they should store their grain for sale at a later date, ship it right out of the field and sell, or store it and put it on delayed price. In addition to this mix, they also have to decide if they have enough storage space according to the yield they are getting. For every farmer, every year, this is the gamble.
Yes, farmers definitely have just cause for grumpiness and pessimism at this time of year. It’s a way of life. Yet, it is a rich way of life, for no other vocation lets one get so in tune with the earth. Every farmer knows that the piece of land that he has been entrusted with, the piece that he calls his own, will only be good to him and give back according to how good of caretaker he has been. It’s give and take.
Yes, for a few weeks each fall, harvest changes everything. Not to worry, though, soon everything will be back to normal, and the cycle will start all over again for next year. That’s a farmer’s life.