I wrote this when I was flying up in the Midwest fifteen-twenty years ago. Tom still farms, although his oldest boy is taking more of the duties.
Field work started in late September, heralded by a stretch of dry weather and small clouds of golden smoke moving steadily back and forth through rustling dry corn stalks and freeze-gilded soybean stems. Soon, processions of chugging tractors and pick-ups hauling tall wagon-loads of grain and beans to the elevators began passing up and down the highway by day, while the combines’ bright headlights shone long after dark, hiding in their own chaff-fog on still nights. All this came as quite an eye opener to basically a city girl. Ranching I knew something about, and winter wheat, but nothing about harvest time on smaller family farms. One thing I learned quick – up here, “beans” doesn’t refer to pinto or black. All field beans are soy.
Tom farms, both for himself and his father and brother. Brother oversees most of the spring work on their father’s acreage, but Tom is in charge of harvest for everyone. Starting most years in mid-October, he vanishes from the airport for all intents and purposes. Helen, his wife, takes messages but points out that he is on the other side of the state line in a combine cab, and she’ll “try to pass the word when he comes home.” This year, hard work, an early start and cooperative weather gave him enough time to take his twice a month politician run, but otherwise he didn’t dare stop. Being new, I just figured that was that and didn’t really ask why. He’d been patient enough during the winter and spring with all my questions, spending sometimes hours at a go describing and outlining practices, crops, equipment and other facets of applied agriculture that I hadn’t a clue about.
By mid October, things seemed to be almost under control, “Or as under control as they get around here,” Helen chuckled. I’d volunteered to help with cooking or whatever else I could do, and Helen happily took me at my word. Whatever it was had to be either portable (toss in tractor cab and go) or keep a long time as the men rotated in and out of the field. Tom stayed in the combine, letting sons, brother and neighbors drive the wagons to the elevator or grain bins. Often he didn’t get home until midnight, but eventually the fields of standing corn and beans began giving way to bare black earth or knee-high corn stalks, and the pace eased up. Just for a moment though. Both the weather service and Farmer’s Almanac forecast heavy rain changing to snow for the weekend, and the race began again.
Towards the end of the week, Helen called me at the airport. “Tom’s started on the field of beans by the house. They won’t finish until after you get off work, so Tom says why don’t you come on over and ride on the combine?” Tom had made the offer back in summer, but things had been a bit tense around the airport that week, and I hadn’t been sure that Tom exactly wanted me around. “I’d love to!” I exclaimed, delighted to get the chance. “Yeah sure, come on over as soon as you finish.” As you can imagine, the afternoon crawled until the magic hour of five. I clocked out and set a new speed record out the drive and up the highway. At first it looked as if the home field had already been finished, but as I got closer I could see a good-sized patch of beans remained standing, golden-brown in their orderly rows. My car pulled into the yard around a double hitch of tall, taper-sided, grain-filled gravity wagons led by a 4640 John Deer tractor. Mark, Tom’s middle son, waved at me on his way to the elevator. I parked out of the way and walked up to the house, where Helen waved me in. A trio of knee-high neighbor kids surrounded us as she picked up the radio. “Base to unit sixty.” Crackle, crackle “Unit sixty, go ahead.” She smiled, dark Irish eyes snapping. “Your passenger has arrived.” Long pause, interrupted by other transmissions. “I’m heading for the wagon by the yard.” “Roger, base clear.” She shook her head. “Duh! We can see that!” A blocky red shape trailing golden “smoke” advanced steadily through the field, leaving dark soil behind. She pointed to the single parked wagon and its tractor. “Go on out there!” and shooed me down the kitchen steps.
Hat cinched tight against a west wind, I went down the slope to the waiting wagon. Not knowing anything about the equipment, I figured the safest thing to do would be stay glued to the tractor’s bumper. I’d heard enough stories about what that big rotating head on the combine could do to the careless! The red machine drew closer and the head lifted off the ground, still rotating as the Case I.H. combine turned, putting the door near the tractor. A ginger-haired figure in a familiar grey hooded jacket beckoned, so I trotted closer to the huge (to me) machine, scrambled about ten feet straight up the ladder, then entered the cab. Tom patted a small seat beside his, then pulled the door to as I settled in. The front glass of the cab seemed to curve down under our perch, giving an excellent view of the cutter and the illusion that if I leaned forward, I’d fall into the machine.
As I looked around, Tom swing the auger out and emptied his load into the waiting wagon. He started pointing out all the levers, knobs and switches that controlled the height of the cutter, the rotation of the head and the torque off the Cummins diesel engine. Double filters on the vents kept the clouds of dust out of the cabin, and thick glass and air-conditioner muffled the sound of the machinery enough to allow normal conversation without blocking important engine growls. Tom turned away from the wagon and carefully lined up on a swathe. Pointed, slightly up-turned guides on the outside of the bean head passed between the rows, and he allowed the torque and power to build. The head lowered, and slowly the combine began chewing through the stalks and beans.
I stared, totally fascinated by the sight of the black metal bars and teeth curving around, combing up the plants like spaghetti and guiding them into the “mouth” of the machine. Below and behind the head, teeth on the cutter bar slid back and forth like giant electric clippers, cutting the stems almost even with the nape of the earth. Somewhere under and behind our seats, belts, shafts and rotors separated the chaff from the beans, spitting the crop into the hopper behind our heads and sending the chaff out as a cloud of slivers and dust. The now-bare ground looked almost as if powdery snow had fallen, so fine did the combine chop the frost-brittled stems.
Without my asking, Tom explained how the more fertile bottom land soil and high yield forced him to slow down. The plants grew so thick the machine needed time to chew through, even though freezing nights and hot, windy days helped dry and embrittle the stems. Very carefully he trimmed around the old water well. “We don’t use it anymore, but I hate to cap it off. It would be good if a person watered the yard, rather than spending on rural water.” He handled the combine like he flies the planes – smooth and expert, with hardly a wasted movement. As we reached the end of the row near the creek, well away from the road, motion caught our eyes. “Look! Deer!” A doe and twin fawns trotted away from the combine, pausing from the safety of the neighbor’s uncut corn to fearlessly watch the strange, dust breathing crimson creature. “You wouldn’t see that in an office.” Tom commented proudly.
It looked to my untrained eye as if the ground had more clods in it, and I said so. Tom nodded. “Helen’s father straightened out the creek. It used to run all across this field, and if he hadn’t laid tiles, it would still be marshy.” He paused. “You know what I’m talking about?” “Sort of.” He described the perforated, concrete tiles that lay under the farm land like arteries and channels, pulling excess water towards the creek. A pheasant fluttered away from the rotating terror that bore down on its hiding place. “Fifteen, twenty years ago, you hardly saw a single one during the harvest. Now they’re everywhere.”
I thought about all the feather jewelry and other pheasant things I’d seen at the airports in South Dakota. “Well, as hard as South Dakota has worked to multiply the things, I’m not surprised a few slipped over the border.”
He laughed, nodding. Suddenly the tone of the growl ahead of us changed, and he automatically raised the head and slowed the rotation a hair. “Yeah! I was talking to my buddy out in Pierre, and he said that after today, the only hunting will be by reservation. He swore that he was taking time off this week, and nothing was going to get him back to the airport. All sorts of big jets come in and it’s a total zoo.” I nodded. “Remember the guy in Mitchell saying someone had asked about bringing in a 737 biz-jet?” He shook his head. As we turned at the end of the row, the now-south wind piled dust and chaff in front of the huge windshield, hiding the world behind a gold cloud.
The sun sank lower and lower, and Tom switched off the air conditioner. “Can you imagine what it was like when they didn’t have cabs? Lots of wheat farmers must have gotten ‘farmer’s lung’. Our first cab didn’t have heat or air, and I can remember scraping the frost off the inside of the windshield at the end of harvest. Usually we don’t start until this time, and used to, didn’t finish ‘till almost Thanksgiving!” A gentle “plinkitty plink” came from the top of the cab. “What was I saying about not paying attention?” A work roughened hand pointed to the base of the steering wheel, where the yellow “full” light shone. Up came the head, and the over-stuffed Case turned west, to the waiting wagons. “Plink, plinkety plink” falling beans bounced overhead. The bright gold ball of October sun disappeared under the western horizon as soybeans poured out of the auger tube and into the “big red wagon.” Earlier, Tom had explained that so much more corn came per acre that the wagon had to stay along side the combine, taking the grain as fast as the machine cut and cleaned it off the cob. Beans have a lower yield per acre, so Tom just pulled off at the end of the field to unload.
Tom’s youngest son, Martin, bounced up and down in the tractor seat. Tom shook his head. “No, Mark will take it.” A wistful voice crackled over the radio “But Dad, he’s showed me how.” “No.” Marty slumped, frowning. Tom shook his head again as we pulled away from the wagon. “I guess my kids have a disadvantage compared to the others around here. Some are driving tractors at his age, but its just too dangerous.” The big reel lowered again, chewing into the ever-narrowing rows of beans. Tom flipped on the lights, explaining how he could harvest corn in the rain; about how, over the years he’d farmed, heaters, cabs and lights became more and more common. Now some of the fancy units had terrain and crop mapping GPS equipment, and even CD players! I sat mostly silent, perched on the jump seat and absorbing every word.
As the combine worked east and west through the quickly shrinking bean field, Tom talked about all sorts of things. I mentioned seeing the custom cutters working four combines abreast, and he nodded. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do some day. The closest I’ve gotten was that day out at Arapaho, when they had two going.” Next weather came up. “Rain is the worst, especially if it changes to a wet snow, like we had two weeks ago. A heavy rain will drench the soil, until all you can do is wait for it to freeze hard. But then if the plants are beaten flat, you’ve lost everything. And if the stems get moisture, they toughen. Then you get clogs. Lots of farmers have been killed trying to unclog the head without shutting the thing down.” He shook his head sadly.
After an hour or so, one stripe of beans stood alone in the field. One last time, the flashing, chewing head lowered, pulling the bean stems into the combine’s maw. “You can’t imagine how much I’ve looked forward to seeing this row!” Tom exclaimed. “We are done. I’ve just got a bit to do for the neighbor, and Bob’s fifty acre corn patch, but this is the last of the beans. No matter how good you do in spring and summer, all the year’s work comes down to this.” He relaxed, grinning. The auger on Mark’s smaller wagon poured beans into one side of a huge long wagon, and Tom added to the opposite side of the cart. Martin waded through the beans, pulling the piles down and filling the corners of the high-heaped six-wheel gravity wagon. Tom finished unloading, retracted the auger and pulled away, then drove onto the yard and parked the combine near the head’s cradle. “It bolts in there, and we’ll tow it back when we finish.” I’d wondered how they changed the things, they looked so heavy.
He shut down, and I opened the door, stepping carefully onto the straight ladder, my grip questionable around a coating of golden powder. Tom followed and we went around to look at the rotating head. I reached up and gingerly pulled on one of the black teeth. The bar it attached to didn’t move, but the tooth flexed in my hand. It felt like plastic, but wasn’t, exactly. Under the cutter, curved plates of “poly” acted like skids, helping smooth the progress over the ground. Tom gloated a bit. “It’s slicker than metal, and doesn’t get torn up as much.” I could feel front to back scratches along the plates, but no nicks or dents, and really, no dirt.
Tom opened the door and led the way into the brightly lit kitchen. Helen was keeping the neighbor’s two little girls for a bit while their Mom took a last load to the elevator. One tow-headed toddler crawled over and hauled herself up the leg of Tom’s work jeans. “Tom!” she squealed happily, and he picked her up, perching her on his shoulder amid a fit of infant giggles. He smiled, more relaxed and happier than I’d ever seen him. “We’re done!” he announced, as Helen beamed and the boys raided the ‘fridge for sodas. “Everything’s in except Bob’s corn, and that won’t take a day.” The fragrance of slow simmered roast beef filled the house like a perfume from Heaven, and I grinned back at Tom. At that moment, it didn’t matter what the price of beans on the commodities market, or how bad the rain and snow fell the next day. The harvest sat snug in silo, elevator and wagon, the workers tired but safe and finished with the work. Like the old hymn verse says “All is safely gathered in/ ere the winter storms begin. . . Come ye thankful people, come! Raise the song of harvest home.”