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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a little treat of a video for you: