Posted by: justawriter | September 2, 2009

Far Afield – Harvest is a golden time of year

Is there any time like harvest time on the prairie?
Even the light seems to be different, taking on a golden glow. There is a haze around the horizon from chaff and dust kicked out the back of combines as they separate their valuable cargo of wheat, barley and canola. Quiet township roads and small town streets are suddenly busy with trucks rushing back and forth carrying the fruit of a long year’s work. Elevator workers hop to it, moving the grain so the trucks can get back to the field for the next load.
Then there are the custom harvesters. It is fascinating to consider their annual migrations, starting near the Rio Grande and pushing toward Canada following the turning wheat and barley, and then back again to follow ripening corn and soybeans. There is a kind of romance thinking about these men and their great machines flowing north and then south and back again like some great inexorable tide.
The old Romans had a two-headed god they called Janus. I think he was the god of doorways or something like that because he could watch inside and out at the same time. He also represented looking at the past and future. Because the Romans gave us the tradition of starting the year with the winter solstice, the first month was named January, after Janus. The turning of the calendar was a time to reflect on what had happened and to look forward to new opportunities.
For me, harvest has that same quality. It is a time to reflect on a year of planning and work and to appreciate the bounty that has resulted. It is also a time to assess the strengths of an operation and to plan where to go from here. That’s an opportunity that eludes some of us who work “regular” jobs sometimes. Here at the newspaper we put out an issue and then start rushing to get pictures, ads and stories for the next issue. Most businesses have to schedule a special event for the kind of reflection and planning that fall into the natural rhythm of farming. Even then, in my experience, most of the employees are more concerned about the work that is piling up that week than what is going to happen next year.
I can’t think of an industry where so much rides on so few days. As the summer sun pushes the crops to grow and mature, the farmer has to get everything ready for harvest blitz. Even a day delay can mean the difference between a great crop and a disaster. Until the grain is safely in the bin or elevator it is vulnerable to Mother Nature’s sadistic whims.
I remember Dad on some of those fall days. He’d make a round, dip an old coffee can to grab a sample and be off like a shot to see if moisture level had dropped to the point where the grain wouldn’t mold in storage. All the while he would be keeping an eye on the white cotton balls on the western horizon, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t sprout anvil shaped thunderheads and drop rain – or worse, hail – on the vulnerable grain.
There were good years and bad over the decades. There were times when I was sure Noah had to have sailed the Ark in September, because it certainly seemed like it was constantly wet for the whole month. There was the year it was so wet that the grain sprouted in the head of standing grain. One year rust got into the oats crop so bad that Dad could have been the Great Pumpkin at Halloween because he was covered with such a thick layer of orange spores.
For the most part, we got through the tough years through Dad’s hard work and a little luck. That made us appreciate the good years all the more. They didn’t seem to come nearly often enough, but when that magic combination of good prices and good crops came together it seemed the spirit of the whole county was lifted. It’s said that a good year for farmers is the best stimulus. That’s because during the lean years farmers tend be frugal, squeezing pennies until Lincoln cries. But they know when the good times come they need to take advantage. Machinery that has been coaxed to work another year even though it would be more comfortable in the scrap heap is replaced. Bins and barns are painted and shingled. Cars and clothes are updated.
Farmers spend when they have the money, not because they are foolish with their money but because they are wise. (There are foolish farmers, of course, but in my experience they aren’t farmers for long.) Farmers know that a year of plenty can be a rare event. They need to take advantage of these chances to build and strengthen their operations so they can survive until the next bonanza year.
This has been a strange year across the northern plains. The summer was chilly so the crops look like it was the beginning of August instead of the beginning of September. Crop prices, which hit the peak of a lifetime last year, are falling faster than an avalanche down a mountain. Still we can be optimistic that the crop yields look to be excellent this year. We seem to have avoided, for the moment, storms that could ruin the standing grain. Let’s knock wood and keep our fingers crossed that we will continue to have a pleasant fall.

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