It’s 10 a.m. and the sun blazes down on a patchwork of golden grain that dots the High Plains near Seguin in northwestern Kansas. A blistering southerly wind pushes the heat index to the century mark.
On this late-June morning, a roar of combines signals the latest edition of another wheat harvest. Cutting begins about this time each day and continues until midnight, or when the golden grain becomes too moist or tough to cut.
Fifteen-minute meal breaks are the only time off in a 14-hour workday. Although the days seem to last forever, technology has made life easy compared to the dusty, itchy harvests of yesteryear, when farmers sat on open-air seats and ate dust while sweat ran down their faces.
Modern combines come complete with contoured seats, soundproof cabs wrapped in tinted glass, air conditioning and stereos. Computers monitor the entire operation.
Across Kansas, farmers pilot these 12-ton machines as easily as the family car. Equipped with dual brakes, power steering and automatic transmission, these machines move through the fields at speeds of 5-miles-per-hour or more, depending on yield and field conditions. One machine can harvest more than 4,000 bushels of wheat on a good day.
Ask any farmer and he’ll tell you there’s nothing like cutting a field of wheat where the crop bunches up in the header and slows the combine to a crawl. Yields like that make farming and harvest fun.
And with crops like that, it doesn’t take long to fill up the bin. That’s when the grain cart waddles up next to the combine and 350 bushels of wheat is augured into the cart on the go.
It takes several hands to operate a harvest crew. Many producers operate one or two combines, a tractor operator pulls the grain cart and another couple helpers drive the semis, loaded with wheat, to and from the field.
There’s also usually one farmer who oversees or ramrods the wheat harvesting operation. He’s busy keeping an eye on moisture levels, making sure the machines are operating smoothly or lining up the next field to be harvested.
Farmers hate days when weather changes and the sun ducks in and out of the clouds. On such days they baby-sit the crop.
They test a field. Then move to another down the road, hoping to find wheat dry enough to harvest. No wonder farmers have been known to cuss the weather.
If and when harvest roars ahead full speed, it can be a frenzied time. Cutting the wheat and transporting this precious grain to the elevator or bin becomes the ultimate prize.
Man and machine race to beat the clock and weather. A storm with heavy rain, hail or damaging winds is every farmer’s worst nightmare and the possibility of such natural disasters is ever present during harvest.
Still, harvest is an event of beauty – the culmination of nearly nine months of growth, rejuvenation of the land and the ultimate prize – an abundant crop of golden grain. Seems like there are always moments of reflection when harvest is running smoothly, the crop is a good one and a farmer has time to stick his hands into a mound of wheat and pop a few kernels into his mouth. It’s at times like this, he’ll look out over the land he loves, where the machines are moving through clouds of dust and chaff.
“You gotta take what’s given you in this country,” they’ll think to themselves while chewing the wheat that’s by now turned to gum. “Some years, what you receive is better than others.”
A Kansas farmer takes risks that test the strength of his spirit. He faces harvest with the hope of bounty. He makes his peace with God and keeps that same peace with his neighbor. Faced with the annual trials of raising a wheat crop, this is the only way a Kansan would choose to live – with himself or anyone else.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion