North Dakota Living

No Rest for the Wicked

It is officially the last weekend of summer vacation and as usual, summer has flown by in a wink. In my family, however, summer break is technically over at the end of July, because every August means only one thing: Harvest. This is a crazy time for farm families. Crops are ripe and need to get safely into those bins or off to those elevators; all eyes are on the weather every day; and don’t even think about taking a day or even a night off to relax… unless, of course, it rains. But a hard rain can mean disaster if the crops are overripe, so you can’t even be too gleeful about that day off. I learned at an early age to be happy about rain when my dad was happy about rain, and in turn unhappy about it when he was, too.

My dad taught me to drive a combine when I was 12, which means I’ve been doing it  now for 18 years — by far my longest-running job. Now that I’m a teacher, I go through a rather difficult transition every August from throwing on torn work clothes and work boots every morning, whipping my hair into a ponytail, making a lunch, and operating a combine in solitude for 12 hours a day… to trying to look presentable, copying worksheets, confiscating cell phones, and filling the days with lessons and activities in an attempt to correct the wayward grammatical ways of today’s youth.

Believe me, trying to look presentable is not easy for me. Neither is teaching rules of grammar to 125 kids who really don’t want to be there.

Anywho, back to farming. The kids in my family have followed a typical pattern as we’ve grown up:

First and foremost was practice farming with practice machinery. How else would you learn to drive in straight rows?


Also at this age, it was good to hang out with Dad and Grandpa to learn the ropes of farming.

tommy11 tommy15

Then, around 8 or 10 years old, it was time to get out there and work. Our first “real” harvest job was moving trucks. We were responsible for moving the trucks closer to the edge of the field as the combines cut the field smaller and smaller. The purpose of this was to 1) make the trucks more accessible to the combine operators and 2) prevent laziness in me and my brothers, who, if my dad didn’t make up jobs for us to do all day, might (gasp!) want to stay home and watch TV!

“No rest for the wicked,” as my Grandpa Tim used to say.


On the positive side, because we learned to drive stick shift trucks at an early age in the safety of a wheat field, shifting and downshifting and braking and turning became second nature by the time we were legally allowed to drive.

At this age, we could also take breaks from moving trucks to do fun but very unsafe things such as playing in the backs of grain trucks while they were unloading.

scan0039 tommy43

Kids, do not try this at home! Times have changed and I’m pretty sure this would now warrant a call from social services.

Next, as little siblings moved up to take our places moving grain trucks, we were upgraded to combine operators. For many, many years we owned two old Case International 1480 combines, known simply as #1 and #2. The nicer of the two was #2, and that’s the one I drove all the time after I learned to combine. (Being the only girl pays off sometimes.) The 1480s rattled faithfully through dozens of harvests, playing crackling AM radio stations and patiently rolling through the fields as we little guys learned to farm.

Copy of farm (39)

Of course, what’s the use of operating a combine all day if you don’t have a little mishap now and then? Nothing builds character quite like digging around to unplug a combine, straw by straw.

farm (17)

Eventually, we upgraded those two little Case 1480s for a 1680, then a 2188 and 2388 and finally 2588s. Today, we have three pretty nice combines, complete with FM radios, air seats, passenger seats, air conditioning that actually works, and all sorts of other frivolities.


We stay pretty busy during harvest in our combines and trucks. This is important work, but my mom’s job might be the most important of all: Dinner wagon! During harvest, she goes all out on dinners for those hungry workers, AND she brings them straight to the field. I look forward to these meals all year! We’re talking roast beef, baked chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, glazed carrots, freshly baked bread, brownies and peach cobbler… You name it, my mom can make it. And something about working in a field all day makes those dinners so much more amazing. That, and seeing my mom’s smiling face and sharing a laugh or two about the day’s events.

tommy53 summer 148 IMG_1093 IMG_1096

As we’ve grown up, we’ve separated into our distinct roles during harvest. My two older brothers have families and full-time jobs and don’t make it back much anymore. I have summers off as a teacher, so I still operate combine until school starts and sometimes fill in as the dinner wagon. (Being the dinner wagon is not a simple task, by the way. Read about my experience here.) Two of my younger brothers are taking over the farm and have gradually taken on more and more responsibility each year. The last brother is in college and drives grain cart until he leaves, and only has a little mishap every now and then. Here he is with just an eensie little crack in the windshield:


My Grandpa Wayne is in semi-retirement, although I bet he’ll still be up here now and then. My dad, as my brothers learn to take charge, spends less and less time doing the grunt work of harvest, and more and more time in his combine. He’d like to combine until he’s at least in his late 80s, he says. And my mom, bless her heart, still makes us those fabulous dinners.

The newest member of the crew is my husband, who, just like the rest of us, started with trucks and graduated to combine. He pretty much fills in wherever he is needed.

photo 3-3

Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to grow up like this. We were fortunate enough to learn how to work hard and help each other, that nothing beats a hot meal together in the field or a cold shower after hours of shoveling barley, and that harvest has the power to bring an already close family even closer. I have a feeling that in a few years we will all be sending our kids to help Uncle Dan and Uncle Tom on the farm, so that they can learn a thing or two themselves about a hard day’s work. And they’ll complain, and we’ll just smile and say, “No rest for the wicked!”

Everyone can use a little character building, after all.

harvest (21)

Here is a little treat of a video for you:


North Dakota’s New Identity, As Revealed by Magnets

North Dakota has changed, to state the obvious.

Change is not easy. I should know. I used to cry big alligator tears when my parents sold off family vehicles (I just wanted them to go to a good owner!) or when we moved away from my childhood home (they did it sneakily when I was away at summer camp, the rascals!). But of course, without change, we would have no progress, no new friends, no new members added to the family, and no iced coffee sold in cartons, since that was definitely not around when I was younger. And that would just be tragic.

When I was growing up, North Dakota had a strong rural and agricultural identity. We had been through an oil boom before, in the 80s, but it was on a smaller scale and its evidence had slowly faded away as I grew up. With our rural identity, we prided ourself on our badlands, our bison herds in the west and our North Dakota State University Bison in the east, our farms and ranches, our small towns, and the wide open spaces. I really shouldn’t use past tense when I say “prided”; we still pride ourselves on these things (4-peat FCS national champion football team, anyone?).

But I think, in a way, a place’s identity is revealed by its magnets. Yep, simple little refrigerator magnets. Think about it: A place will print on magnets whatever it is best known for — whether the locals love it or not — and sell those magnets to tourists in gift shops and gas stations. My husband and I have started a little magnet collection to commemorate the places we’ve been, and sure enough, the silly little things portray the images that we want to remember most about those places. In Boston, we bought a Fenway Park magnet. In Maine, a lighthouse magnet. From Ireland I brought home two magnets: a little wooly sheep and an idyllic country scene with a pint of Guinness in the foreground. From Scotland I purchased two bitty Highland cattle. (Boy, are they cute!) We also have a Great Wall magnet from China, a Shakespeare magnet from England, a magnet replicating a Monet painting from France, and a little pirate magnet from the Bahamas.

You get the point.

North Dakota magnets, for many, many years, portrayed a few key things: scenes of the badlands, bison, wheat fields, western meadowlarks, and the like. But, when I was in Medora last weekend, my husband and I noticed that a new breed of magnets has officially overtaken the old. The Bakken is now our identity, and it is splashed all over those little North Dakota magnets.

The Old:

IMG_2637 IMG_2639

And the New:

IMG_2640-2 IMG_2642 IMG_2638

Obviously, this has been happening for years now. Cenex and Conoco wasted no time stocking their stores with t-shirts, caps, and coffee mugs depicting oil wells and rigs when all of this began. Some shout “North Dakota Oil Country” or “Rockin’ the Bakken” in large letters, and some take a little more vulgar route with slightly obscene slogans.

It makes sense, though. After all, what is it that has attracted people by the thousands to our state? Not the bison and meadowlarks, that’s for sure, although I like those things myself.

When we were examining those magnets in Medora, the nostalgic side of me wanted to buy that meadowlark magnet just to say, I remember how it used to be. I remember the empty spaces and the empty roads and I remember when meadowlarks outnumbered people. But the realistic side of me wanted to embrace this new identity and buy an oil country magnet just to say, This has revived our state. This has given people opportunities, and this has finally reversed the trend of young people leaving our state. And that means something, too. 

In the end, we settled on a magnet that simply said, “Medora.”

Change isn’t easy. A new identity creates some growing pains — for both the people that were here first and the people moving in. But luckily, we don’t have to pick a “side.” North Dakota has room for more than one identity… and my refrigerator has room for more than one North Dakota magnet. I should really go back to that store.

Has this change been easy for you?


“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” 
-Bertolt Brecht

How To's

How To: Chalk Paint Furniture

With our recent move, my hubby now has a shop for all his tools in an old quonset no one was using, and with summer vacation I’ve had a little more time for projects I’ve been meaning to do for months. I’d like to share my last little project with you, which we did last week before all the craziness of harvest started (more on that later). Oh, and there is the craziness of school starting in a week and a half… I do believe I should probably go set up my classroom and get some lesson plans done!

Why can’t I just do fun projects all day? Sigh.

Anywho, Hubby and I found this little desk at a garage sale last summer for $15. I liked its size and two drawers, but not so much its color. It just looked kind of blah, really didn’t match anything we had, and was scratched and scuffed all over.


I meant to paint it all winter but just didn’t get to it with the wedding and school and the move.

Speaking of moving, I have finally put this desk to good use since we moved to our little modular home in the country. In our previous house, I had a built-in desk in the kitchen which I used all the time, and Hubby had his own space for an office. Here in our little modular home, one spare bedroom is, well, the spare bedroom and storage space. We turned the other little bedroom into an office. Hubby set up shop in the office, but I decided I’d rather put this little desk in the living area and keep it stocked with a few supplies and power cords that I use a lot. I do a lot of blogging, photo editing, and Pinning on this little desk. It’s extra convenient because I can look up recipes and still be near the kitchen.

The time finally came to get this desk spruced up. I’d heard a lot of good things about Annie Sloan chalk paint and decided to pick up a quart in Bismarck at Eco Chic Boutique, which carries Annie Sloan paint, brushes, and wax. If you don’t know much about chalk paint, it gets its name from its thick chalky texture. It is NOT the same as chalkboard paint, which is also popular right now. Chalk paint is a hit because you don’t need to do any sanding or prepping beforehand, no matter what you are painting on. That sounded good to me!

At Eco Chic, I picked up a quart of the color called Old Ochre, a pretty antique off-white which is exactly what I’d envisioned, and a can of the soft wax which is recommended after painting. (I also impulsively bought a quart of Duck Egg Blue because I liked it so much.) The cost of a quart of chalk paint is kind of shocking, but once I actually used it, I found the cost to be well worth it. It definitely lived up to the hype!

I also decided that rather than paint the whole desk with the Old Ochre, I wanted to stain the desk top to a darker, richer wood hue and paint the base with the Old Ochre. I’d seen some examples of this online and really liked how it looked.

Here is what we did:

First, we took off the drawers and hardware and moved the desk to the shop. Hubby sanded the desk top with his belt sander. Remember, this would not be a necessary step for the chalk paint, but because I decided to stain the top instead, we had to sand down the old varnish.


Next, we stained and painted the desk. After a few tries finding the right stain color for the top, we chose a beautiful rich color called simply Walnut and applied two coats. We only used one coat of chalk paint for the base of the desk. We quickly found out that you do NOT need to over-apply this paint! A little goes a long way. In fact, right away I tried putting it on a bit too thick. I quickly realized that this only led to noticeable build-up and paintbrush lines that I didn’t want. Applying a thin layer worked much better. It was amazing, actually, how little paint it took to cover the whole thing.


After that, we applied the Annie Sloan soft wax, which is a protectant for the chalk paint. I was a little uneasy about this step, but it turned out to be the easiest step of all! You simply use a rag or a wax brush to massage the wax into the wood. It was a lot like applying lotion. (I heard that on one of the tutorials I watched, and it made a lot of sense!) I used a discarded t-shirt cut up into rags to apply the wax, and it worked just fine.


Finally, we reattached the drawers and took the old girl back home. I absolutely LOVE how it turned out! It looks so much better in our living area. The wood top matches a lot of our other pieces well, and I love the pretty look of the Old Ochre chalk paint. Perfecto!

IMG_4132 IMG_4130

Here is a before and after:


I am especially happy because I have my little work space back again just in time for the school year to start! I envision myself spending a lot of time here this year.


I will definitely be using chalk paint again. In fact, we’ve already painted a couple of our boring little wood pieces with the Duck Egg Blue just for fun. They look great. I can’t wait to pick up more colors (after my next paycheck, that is.)

Just for reference, here are two of the resources I used before using the chalk paint for the first time:

The Beginner’s Guide to Annie Sloan Chalk Paint & Wax by The Thinking Closet

How to Wax with Annie Sloan Soft Wax by Eco Chic Boutique

You should try it! Happy painting!