The Last Day of Wheat Harvest
The sun is going down after a long day that isn’t over yet. I watched it come up on the other side of the horizon this morning, so long ago. Then, it was cool and quiet, other than the birds waking up and calling out. The morning light was slanted and golden and fresh. Now, 14 hours later, it’s dusty and brassy and slanted in the other direction. The world is hot and thick with buzzing insects.
We’ve been cutting the hundred-acre wheat field on the old farmstead property today, the last of many long days. While he drove the combine, I parked the pickup in the shade and worked on my laptop, and hunted for wild currants that grow thick around the edges of the fields. The black-blue berries are full of juice, and taste like sweet purple concord grapes. It took me a few hours to hand-pick a few gallons, one berry at a time. There were cattle lowing in the next field over, and a couple of horses, nose to butt, standing in the corner of a pasture sleeping and swishing flies off of each other’s faces. I ate my fill of currants and carried the rest out to put them in the shady pickup, out of the blasting sun.
When the grain truck was full of wheat, I took over the combine while he hauled the load to the elevator in town. I’ve driven some heavy machinery, but the combine was new to me; it’s big and mechanically complex. I learned that there’s a lot of finesse and reading of the wheat involved. This spring we were in drought, so most of the wheat stalks were short, and the sickle and head had to be lowered way down to cut them. But there were a lot of patches of taller, thicker wheat in the terraces where the ground retained moisture better, so the head and sickle had to be raised to avoid getting too much wheat pushed through the feeder at once. There are tons of spinning wheels and gears and belts and chains. Once the wheat heads are pulled in, they’re thrashed and separated inside and moved to a bin through an auger, and the stalks and chaff are spit out the back and spread. Then, when the bin is full of wheat berries, it has to be dumped into the grain truck, which can take six bin loads or so.
At meal times, we were invited to a neighboring farm house. The women prepared ham sandwiches, potato salad, radishes, carrot sticks and lemon merengue pie for lunch. Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, watermelon, iced tea, with coconut cream pie for dessert. It was truly amazing. I felt sort of awkward having them cook for me, being on the men’s side of things. I felt compelled to help with the dishes, but we had to rush off and keep cutting.
Things broke down as the day went by. The semi truck had problems with the turbo. In the combine, a hydraulic hose blew, a pulley belt broke, and wheat got clogged in the intake. This old combine has a lot of metal and sharp edges, and it’s big, loud and dirty. I’ve never been so filthy at the end of a day. I mean, I’ve been dirty from head to toe with horse dirt from riding and working around horses. But that’s just dirt. This is hydraulic oil and diesel and axle grease that gets all over me, and the dirt and wheat dust sticks and dries in the grease, sweat and blood from cuts.
I’m sitting broke down right now as I watch the sun go down. I hit a mud bog at the foot of a terrace, the head dug into the tall thick wheat, and it clogged up. I’m all alone; he’s dumping wheat at the elevator. After shutting everything down, I tried to pull some out to unclog it. After the second cut on my hand, I decided to just wait for him to come back. We’ll work into the night to fill the last truckload. As I sit here in the cab watching the sun set, l’m listening to crickets and buzzing flies, and feeling my sweat trickle and dry in caked dirt, hot wind blowing through the open windows. I’m pondering the difference technology makes in harvesting. Driving this giant machine around a field, miles from any living soul, is pretty empowering. Harvesting tons of wheat berries is satisfying. Hand picking currants, gently pulling each berry off with my fingers, was really satisfying, too. It took me two hours to fill a 2-gallon bucket. With this combine, in two hours I can fill a grain truck with wheat. That will feed thousands of people. Drying and freezing my currants will feed my family this winter.
Suddenly I want to bake whole wheat currant muffins; I’ll grab a few handfuls of wheat from the hopper to mill. I’ll be too tired when we finally get home in the middle of the night. Hopefully we’ll be done with harvest tonight, and tomorrow, after sleeping in and another cool shower, I’ll be ready to do just that.
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