I know, I know, deer season has just come and gone and here I am still writing about pheasant. And yes, it was a successful deer season, with 3 out of 3 tags filled in my family. But I did say I would write about those delicious little pheasant nuggets sometime, and I’m not one to back down from a promise, and pheasant season isn’t over yet, so back to pheasant hunting it is – specifically, my family’s favorite ways to cook up pheasant.
My dad invested in a dual basket gas cooker (basically a heavy duty deep fat fryer) a few years ago.
Since then we’ve been working on that pheasant nugget recipe, experimenting with different Shore Lunch flavors and the oil temperature until we now consistently get these tasty little morsels you see here:
To make these nuggets, cut up thawed pheasant breast into nugget-sized pieces. Roll each piece in egg, and then shake it in a bag of Shore Lunch (we use cajun). Heat the oil in the gas cooker to 350 degrees. Drop in the pheasant nuggets and fry for about 5 minutes, or until they float and look golden-brown.
Easy peasy, as they say.
If you don’t have a deep fryer, or don’t think you like deep fried food (in which case, I don’t get you at all), we have another pretty tasty pheasant recipe in the form of cajun pheasant alfredo.
To make the alfredo, I like to soften up the meat a bit beforehand, as pheasant can be a little gamey. To do so, I soak pheasant breasts in milk overnight and then throw them in the slow cooker on low, with a cup of chicken broth, while I’m at work. Then that night, I drain and shred it. Perfectly soft and shredded for pasta! Regardless of how you end up with your cooked and shredded/ diced/ chopped pheasant, here is what you do with it:
First, boil water and set linguini to cooking. Also, toss cooked pheasant pieces in cajun seasoning.
Next, in a large saucepan, sauté diced tomatoes, green peppers, and green onions in a little bit of oil (I’m sure other veggies would be great, too.) Add seasoned pheasant pieces. Season veggies and pheasant with basil, pepper, salt, and garlic powder. Pour in 1-2 cups of cream and 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese; stir all together until cheese is melted. Pour over linguini and toss. (There is a bit more detailed recipe below.)
Happy Thanksgiving to you!
Cajun Pheasant Alfredo
2 pheasant breasts (cooked and cut into small piece)
8 oz linguini
2 tsp cajun seasoning
1 green onion, diced
2 T tomatoes, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp dried basil
1/8 tsp garlic powder
2 C cream
1/2 c grated parmesan cheese
Cook linguini according to package.
Coat cooked pheasant evenly with cajun seasoning.
In a large skillet, sauté green onion, tomatoes, and pepper in olive oil. Add cooked pheasant pieces to skillet. Season with salt, pepper, basil, and garlic powder.
Add cream and parmesan cheese. Stir all together until cheese is melted.
Pour over linguini and toss.
Today is the first day of November, and what says “November” more than apple desserts? Apples really are the perfect fall fruit. Lately, I’ve been slicing them up and enjoying them with caramel dip, adding them to my oatmeal in the morning, and most recently, I used them in a dessert that is most definitely worth sharing with you. I pinned it a while ago and have been wanting to use it, and today I had the baking itch for long enough to actually get in the kitchen and throw it together. Let me just say, worth it! (My husband says so too.) We enjoyed them tonight after a dinner of roasted broccoli and ricotta-stuffed shells, another recipe worth sharing, but I’ll save that one for another time.
I adapted my version of this recipe from a recipe on Country Outfitter, which you can find here. They are perfect little bites of apple, cinnamon, sugar, and caramel, and taste especially good when served with ice cream or, in my case, cream poured over top. Yum, yum! And to make it even better, they were incredibly easy to make.
Because I adapted this recipe, I’ll share what I did specifically, but I’m sure the original is good too!
First, I preheated the oven to 350 and diced up two apples. I tossed the apple pieces in a bowl with one tablespoon of cinnamon and two tablespoons of sugar. I also cut up caramel squares into 4 pieces each. (I’m thinking you could also use those little caramel “morsels” they have in the baking aisle. Those things are gooooood.)
Next, I opened a can of refrigerated biscuit dough, and flattened all 8 pieces out to make little biscuit-dough pancakes. I spooned some of the apple mixture onto each little pancake, topped each with a few little caramel pieces, and pinched the dough together to make little balls of dough filled with apple-caramel mixture.
Then, I buttered a casserole dish and placed the apple pie balls into the dish and brushed each one with melted butter.
Finally, after each one was sprinkled with brown sugar and the leftover apple pieces, they baked, uncovered, for exactly 20 minutes (any longer and the crust, especially the bottom, would have been too done, so I’m glad I didn’t go the full 25 minutes).
Here is the final product!
The original recipe suggests making a caramel sauce to pour over top. I skipped this step — I don’t like desserts that are too sweet, and I often think apple desserts are tasty enough without too much sweetness added. If you like caramel a lot, by all means go for it! Hubby and I both thought it was good enough without it. I DID, however, as I mentioned above, put my apple pie ball into a bowl and poured a little half-and-half over top. Oh man, that was good. I love cream, and it goes so well with cinnamon and apples!
This would be a good recipe for Thanksgiving or Christmas in lieu of regular pie. I actually liked it better than regular pie, just because I LOVE dough and sometimes pie crust is just not doughy enough for me! The biscuits added the perfect amount of dough to complement the apples and cinnamon, at least in my book.
In my family, the year is broken up into not four seasons, but five: Winter (also known as basketball season), planting season, summer break (pretty much the month of July), harvest, and hunting season. Each year pretty much follows this pattern. If you want to get married in this family, you can choose July, or risk having someone joke that they can’t make it because of harvest, a basketball tournament, or deer hunting. (I had the audacity to get married during deer hunting season, and some of my relatives really didn’t understand.)
Well, anyway, harvest wrapped up over a month ago, and we are officially in the throes of hunting season. I do love pheasant hunting! I love the crisp fall air; I love hiking around outside; I love camouflage and the smell of gunpowder and the crunch of dried grass underfoot. I love the way the last bit of color is stubbornly clinging on before winter rolls around:
I love those cozy fall nights when everyone piles into the house for dinner, and the sun has gone down, and we cook and eat and laugh together and everyone’s hair is matted to their heads from wearing hunting hats all day.
I love pheasant nuggets, too (I will share a little more about those with you later).
Just a few minutes ago, the last visiting family members drove away from our annual family pheasant hunting weekend to their other cities and their other lives. This year was a success, like always. Everyone except my oldest brother and his family made it out to the farm, and other than missing them in our big group, it was great: The other little ones had a lot of fun running around outside; we realized our little black lab mix, Scout, just might turn out to be a bird dog after all; and the freezers are now stocked with pheasant to use for some tasty meals over the winter months.
Tonight I was reflecting on all the memories of countless pheasant hunts I have been on over the years. Several years ago, I quit carrying my little Mossberg shotgun and started carrying my Canon instead, and that suits me just fine. I still get the experience, the exercise, and the fresh air, but none of the guilt because let’s face it, I’m a little too tender (or weenie, however you interpret it) to actually feel good about shooting things myself. Anyway, today during one of our last hunts, I tagged along with my camera as usual. This time, though, I took a few minutes to just listen and observe what was happening around me. We were spread out around an abandoned farm yard close to our own farm. The sky was spread with thin gray clouds, and it was just cool enough to chill the tip of my nose. The air in the farmyard was still — there was no wind and little nearby traffic — but punctuated occasionally by flapping wings or squawks of fleeing pheasants, shouts of “Rooster!” or “Hen!” or “Abby, come! Scout, come!” and sporadic gunshots. A flash of blaze orange through the trees now and then, one of the black dogs bounding through the undergrowth, and pheasants fleeing out of the shelterbelts gave the normally quiet yard an electric feel. I was in the center of it all, just taking it in. I loved it. It reminded me of all those pheasant hunts before, from the time I was a little girl until now: each one with a slightly different group of people and each one in a slightly different time or place.
These same observations inspired a poem that I wrote years ago. I had just left a pheasant hunting weekend like this one and was headed back to college, and the words flooded in. I composed the whole thing in about 20 minutes. It just happens sometimes. Some things in my life just make the words pour out.
Maybe it will bring back memories for some of you, too:
A Gunpowder Morning
This morn to remember dawns cold in November
Far to the east are the lightening skies
And six drowsy hunters arise from their slumbers
To rub all the sleep from their eyes
And give birds unaware a surprise!
Up to the north noble pheasants come forth
Among quiet cattails, feeding their fill
Bold in their splendor, about to surrender
To knowledge that breaking the still
Will be hunters bound fiercely to kill!
The pheasants are snacking and white frost is cracking
Beauty runs deep on this day in the fall
The trees form a cage over green-scented sage
This natural haven is small –
But this day is dearer to all.
For off the horizon the sun’s further rising
Has painted the eastern sky soft glowing red
But then there’s a sound, an approaching dust cloud
And one rooster raises his head
He’s filled with a dull sinking dread!
The truck climbs the hill and moves closer still
Then slams to the stop at the edge of the brush
The men pile out; there’s a point and a shout –
Where moments before it was hush
Now there’s maddening rush!
The pheasants are fleeing; one’s flying, not seeing
His fatal mistake on this mad morning run
A shot, then one louder; the smell of gunpowder –
This pheasant is only but one:
Another fall hunt has begun!
Sometimes, I get so busy in the throes of teaching — handing out papers, collecting assignments, turning on projectors and turning off lights, picking up gum off the floor, repeating what page we are on, helping students remember passwords and telling them for the 17th time what size font to use in MLA style, and ordering them to get out writing utensils, to sit down, to stop poking their neighbors — that I miss out on my very favorite part of teaching: Getting to know the students not as students, but as actual human beings. Humans with stories and lives and experiences and dreams that, unless I do some digging, I might know nothing about.
It’s as if the metaphorical thick and tangled forest of teaching is so dense that sometimes, despite my best efforts, I just can’t see the trees. But those trees are what I’m here for, and every once in a while I get a precious few minutes to focus on one “tree” at a time.
So I get a little break from teaching last week when the senior class is on a class outing for the morning. To my surprise, one lone student shows up to second period senior English. I inquire why she isn’t with her classmates, she gives me a reasonable answer, and we spend the rest of the period working on our various projects in comfortable silence, broken here and there by amiable conversation. I had liked this girl from the first day of school, but she is in a large class of almost 30 seniors and the truth is, I just haven’t had the chance to talk to her much one-on-one. This particular student is one of our oil field transplants, here from Louisiana. I’ve never been to Louisiana, I tell her, but I would like to visit someday. She tells me I should visit New Orleans, but not during Mardi Gras, and Baton Rouge is nice anytime of year. She loves to read; so do I, and the hour passes quickly as we talk about books and music and her other classes.
Sometime during this conversation, I ask about her family. She moved here a little over a year ago with her older brother and his wife. In a matter-of-fact manner, she tells me that both her parents died of cancer — her mom when she was 7, and her dad when she was 11. As she tells me this, her sweet but straightforward voice is broken by the tiniest trace of sadness.
I am ashamed in this moment, and sad. Sadder than I expect to be. In fact, I need to excuse myself for a few minutes (to the copy machine, because where else does a teacher get a minute to herself?) as I feel tears welling up in my eyes. How have I had this student in my class for almost two months and not known the heartbreak of this young girl’s life? She has experienced more heartbreak than I have, and more heartbreak than any young girl on the brink of womanhood should have to.
Should I blame it on the fact that I have almost 150 students this year, and really, how would I have known this? Six groups of 20 to 30 students rotate through my room every day, 50 minutes at a time. We have 50 minutes to get settled, open books, take notes, cover sentence structure or the Anglo-Saxons or the life of Edgar Allen Poe; to get ready for standards and standardized tests and ACTs and college and careers; to do an assignment, put away books, clean up, and move on to the next 50 minutes. The few rowdy students in each class demand more than their fair share of my attention, and sweet girls like little Louisiana, while I’m so grateful to have them in my classes, sometimes get less. Furthermore, a big classroom full of one’s sometimes judgmental teenage peers is not always the greatest place to share real thoughts, troubles, anxieties, past experiences, and dreams for the future. At least not out loud. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it in my students’ writing.
But it doesn’t matter. I can’t let the craziness of teaching make me forget why I’m here in the first place.
She lives with her brother and his wife, she says, because it is a better option than living with her other brother and his wife, and besides them, there is no one else, nowhere else for her to go. When they moved to North Dakota for her brother’s work last year, she moved too. When they move back to Louisiana this November, she will move too to finish her senior year.
I’m going to miss her when she leaves. I will think about her and wonder how my little student from Louisiana is doing. Where will her life take her? I will most likely never know. I hope with all my being that she succeeds wherever she ends up. And I hope, secretly, that she remembers that senior English teacher she had once when she lived in North Dakota.
I am grateful for the reminder she gave me, yet again, that no matter how thick and tangled and dense that forest of teaching gets, no matter how overwhelmed I feel during the daily grind or how much I feel some days that I am getting absolutely nowhere, that I can’t afford NOT to see the trees.
When life gives you a beautiful September Sunday and the trees are exploding in color, there’s really only one thing to do in our neck of the woods: Go walking. Go driving. Go horseback riding or biking or cartwheeling — Just get out there! Yesterday, Hubby, Scout, and I went down to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, camera in tow, just to drive around and soak it in.
I wish the colors could stay. I wish something could hold them here a little longer before we slip into the long cold of winter here on the Northern Plains.
Maybe then, we wouldn’t appreciate it quite so much though.
Robert Frost put it best. If you ever happen to suddenly find yourself teaching middle school English, you will more than likely run into this little poem in the classic teen novel The Outsiders:
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
It is officially the beginning of fall, that time of year where I shiver all the way to school in the mornings and blast the AC on the way home (so confusing). I love fall, though, and I know I’m not alone. There is something so refreshing about the crisp air, frosty mornings, and colorful leaves.
Fall brings another reason to celebrate: FOOD! (“Wait, Rachel,” you may ask. “Isn’t every day a reason to celebrate food?” Why yes! But just let me pretend that I have a legitimate reason to celebrate food on this particular day.)
In particular, fall is football season and comfort food season. Friends and family gather to watch football games on Sundays from now until later in the winter, and having an easy appetizer or two to throw together is a must. The crisper air also means those creamy comfort foods just taste that much better. Plus I’m sure our bodies are just helping us to prepare for the harsh North Dakota winters by really making us crave things like mac & cheese, creamy soups, hearty meat sandwiches, and the like (that’s my excuse, anyway. Survival, man).
To start, I’m going to share a recipe for Cowboy Caviar. It is actually my husband’s recipe. He has adapted it over time and isn’t even sure where he first got it. It’s a perfect appetizer for football season, as it makes quite a nice amount — perfect for sharing — and is also a little healthier than the usual Velveeta-based chip dip as it is chock full of veggies, beans, and delicious spices.
The second recipe I’m sharing today is a favorite classic around these parts: Tater Tot Hot Dish. (Yes, it is a “hot dish” and not a “casserole” because we are in North Dakota, darn it.) This is comfort food at its finest, and is a perfect recipe for a fall Sunday after church. It takes no more than a couple minutes to throw together and then bakes for a little under an hour, which gives you time to change out of your church clothes, do some Sunday chores, and prepare any desired side dishes. I found it years ago in my cookbook North Dakota: Where Food Is Love. I’ve adjusted it slightly, but the credit here goes to Marion Meether who contributed the recipe. Thanks, Marion! It really is a recipe of love.
1 can black-eyed peas, drained
1 can black beans, drained (my husband uses a can of black beans in chili sauce)
1 can corn with red & green peppers, drained
3-4 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 avocados, diced
4 green onions, diced
Cilantro (hubby really can’t tell you how much. “Just put some in.”)
Juice of 1 lime, 2 for extra flavor (in a pinch, hubby uses lime juice from a bottle)
Chipotle spice to taste
Chili pepper/powder to taste
Mix all together in a serving bowl and serve with Wheat Thins or black bean tortilla chips (my personal favorite). You will not regret making Cowboy Caviar!!
Tater Tot Hot Dish
1 lb ground beef
1 pkg. dried onion soup mix
1 can cream of chicken soup
2 cans green beans
1 pkg. frozen Tater Tots
-Spread raw ground beef on the bottom of a casserole dish. I use a 9×13 metal baking dish. Just be sure whatever dish you use has a flat surface to ensure even cooking.
-Season the ground beef with onion soup mix – no other salt is needed. You can also sprinkle some water over the ground beef (about 1/4 cup) for a juicier casserole or if your hamburger is extra lean.
-Cover the hamburger with the cream of chicken soup. Spread evenly.
-Next, layer on both cans of green beans.
-Finally, top with Tater Tots – yep, the entire package.
-Bake uncovered at 350 degrees on the center rack in your oven for a little under an hour — about 50-55 minutes.
Optional add-ons: You can dice onions and add to the hamburger, add an extra can of green beans, top with cheese for the last 10 minutes, and/or serve with ketchup or sour cream. It goes great with mixed fruit and crescent rolls on the side!
Enjoy the fall weather and of course, some delicious fall eating!
Things have more or less settled into a routine around here. Ok, less. Things never seem to get into a routine. This last week, I took a personal day on Friday to attend my cousin’s wedding in the twin cities. However, on Wednesday I fell deathly ill at school, went home, and ended up taking off both Wednesday and Thursday as well. Three days off, one doctor’s appointment, one wedding, and 1272 miles later, I wound up at school at 7:30 this morning staring at piles of various papers on my desk, not even sure where to start. Did I mention parent-teacher conferences start tomorrow?
Oh, well. Who needs a routine, anyway? Or sleep, for that matter?
It was all worth it because the wedding I attended was my cousin Beky’s, one of my best friends and definitely my longest friend. It was special to watch her say her vows to the man of her dreams in her family’s backyard. The day was gorgeous and so was the wedding itself. Amid the flowers, pretty dresses, smiles, and toasts, I watched my cousin throughout the day. She looked both happier and more emotional than I have ever seen her. I was happy for her happiness, and I understood the emotions, too — girls like me and Beky are pretty attached to our big, close families, especially our dads, and marriage doesn’t come without a little bit of bittersweet. I mean, have you ever seen the movie The Father of the Bride? That movie made me cry like a baby back when I was about 13, and I vowed never to get married and leave my dad like that.
At the reception, I gave a little speech about our friendship, which I’ve decided to write down here in honor of Beky and her big day.
For Beky: A Friendship Worth Celebrating
My cousin Beky and I grew up in a sea of boys. I had five brothers; she had four; and when we added in the boy cousins it seemed there were too many boys to count. The problem with being an island of two girls in a sea of boys was that we did not have a clue how to be girls. We would rather play whiffleball, wear our brothers’ t-shirts, and ride bike to our grandpa’s farm to play in the old machinery than touch glitter or fingernail polish. We didn’t cause quite as much ruckus as our brothers, so we were pretty much left alone by our families, except for the never-ending jobs we felt like we were always doing. We were often in charge of babysitting, driving our little brothers to baseball, cleaning bathrooms, and of course, picking rocks and hoeing weeds. All of this is best summed up in the fact that our favorite make-believe game was not playing princesses like other girls our age, but orphans forced to work. (True story.)
We grew into teenagers, spending a lot of time together in both North Dakota and Minnesota, where Beky is from. We get a lot of grief from our relatives, especially Uncle Tim, about how we liked to “chase boys” when we were of that age. What our relatives seem not to understand, however, is that we were terrible at it. My signature move when it came to talking to boys, was well, just not speaking at all. Beky might have been better at carrying on a conversation with the opposite gender, but I once saw her knock over a boy that she liked — who happened to be pretty scrawny — and carry him across the park (another true story). We often drove around in my family’s rickety brown-and-tan suburban, which didn’t help matters much. We were probably also wearing our brothers’ shirts. Remember when I said we didn’t know how to be girls? Well, case in point.
As we grew into young women, our dating skills improved slightly. But as my dad would say, it was hard to find someone who could meet our standards when we were trying to find men that could match up to our dads. We waded through the muck of the dating world together, watching other girls find their soulmate at age 21 or 22. We didn’t let us get this down, however. We made our own adventures together instead. As teenagers, we went to camps, our Aunt Barb’s house to help with her Vacation Bible School, horse clinics, and France the first time. We also had numerous bad hair experiments and a lot of different road trips. In our 20s, we attended NDSU together where we made “family dinners” on Thursdays and went to spinning classes at the wellness center. We also went to France a second time, took a cruise in the Caribbean, went on trail rides, and most recently visited Ireland and Scotland. Beky is one of my favorite travel companions.
There was one boy that was with us through all of it — our cousin, JT Rice, who passed away in 2011. He and I loved to tease Beky. We would rate her behavior for the month and put her in various behavior categories, which ranged anywhere from gold (only JT and I were in the gold level) down to tinfoil and poop brown. I know that if he were here today, he would be so proud of the woman she has become. And I know he would approve of her new husband for taking such good care of her and carrying on the torch by being willing to tease her now and then. Maybe her behavior rating would even go up now that she is married. Probably not, though.
We continued to struggle through the world of dating throughout our 20s. No, it was not easy — it really CAN be a battlefield — but in 2013, both of our luck changed. Beky was almost 27 and I was 28 when we both began dating the men who would become our husbands. We were engaged within two months of each other and married within a year of each other.
I was the brave one who went first into wifey-hood, and Beky, I can say honestly that I think both the battle and the wait were worth it. Maybe some of us just need to go through some struggles to really appreciate what we have now. God was looking out for both of us all that time. The most amazing thing about this is, even though we still don’t know how to be girls, we managed to find two wonderful men who, only God knows why, want to spend the rest of their lives with us.
I’ve written a bit about how happy I am to be back on the farm. There’s another thing I’m happy about, too: Teaching high school in a “small” town again. (Not that Watford is really that small anymore, at least compared to how it once was.)
There’s something about belonging to a high school in a smaller town that really lends itself to a close-knit community feel. I missed this the last two years while I was off adventuring in Asia and in Bismarck. When you teach in a small town, you get to know the kids. You know their families. You know all of the other staff members on a personal basis, the good and the bad.
You even, as a teacher, have a certain amount of fame when you teach in a small town. Perhaps the better word is, you are watched. I am sure I could count on one hand the number of times I have been to the local grocery store without running into a student. Often, when I run into students out in public, they say hello. Sometimes they are so weirded out to see me in public that they act all embarrassed, don’t say a word, and then the next day proclaim in class, “I saw you at the grocery store yesterday!” (Students often feel braver in groups, in case you didn’t know.)
Sometimes, I think it it hard for them to believe that we sometimes exist outside the school walls. Students will say things like, “I saw you at the mall last night and it was WEIRD.” Or, “I saw you running. You can run?” Or, “Why did I see you at the restaurant with Mrs. S.? Are you guys friends? That’s weird.” You see the trend here.
Or, they might be very interested with whatever it is that we do outside of those school walls when we are actually acting human — things like what we do in our free time or even what we eat for dinner. One evening, I went shopping at the local Supervalu and purchased some items, along with the necessary ingredients for tacos. The next day in class, a freshman student asked, “How were your tacos last night?”
A bit surprised, I replied, “They were good! I don’t remember seeing you at the grocery store… How did you know I had tacos?”
“Oh,” he said. “My mom saw you, and she told me that she saw you at the grocery store, and that you were buying taco stuff. So then I knew you were eating tacos.”
See what I mean? They’re always. watching. you.
Actually though, I love it. I love belonging to a smaller community. I like that my students work at the grocery store, the gas station, the only Subway in town, and the hardware store. I like that they ask me to come to games and notice when I do and when I don’t. I like those North Dakota Class B sports events where the entire town shows up to cheer on their boys or their girls. I like that by the time every student graduates here, they will have had me in English class at least once or twice.
There’s a lot of things to like, teaching where I do. One more thing I like, is that I’m teaching with my brother Tommy this year. He joined the staff at the same time that I decided to make my way back.
Here we are, being famous in the local newspaper:
I kid. We’re not really famous… yet. But really, it’s great being back in this small town.
Another harvest has officially come and gone. When harvest is over, summer is over, and we might as well face the facts that fall is pretty much here.
It always starts great – spirits are high, the farmers are excited, and everyone is full of energy and ready to go.
Then, as the harvest season progresses, energy wanes a bit. It’s imperceptible at first, but it becomes just a little bit harder to stay out combining until dark. Backs start aching and sleep is in short supply. A few weeks before harvest is over, we also begin to lose workers one by one as they pack up and go back to school. It’s always a little sad to see everyone go, but there’s a practical problem too: When school starts, we lose over half of our workers. The students and teachers going back to school — including two of my younger brothers, two young seasonal farmhands, my mom, and myself — also double as combine operators, grain cart drivers, meal wagons, and truck drivers. They leave with the skills and the manpower and the smiles that just make everything go more smoothly around here.
School started this year for us local teachers on August 17. At that point we were only about half done with harvest. Since then, I have found myself juggling very different roles. Each morning, I’ve tried to make myself presentable and drag myself to school in my heels, clutching my book bag and a jug of iced coffee and scrambling to throw together meaningful lessons for 150-some students in four different English classes. Each evening, I’ve come home and changed into grungy field clothes and work boots and attempted to throw together a passable meal to bring to the field. On a few occasions I’ve taken over for my grandpa after dinner and combined for the rest of the evening. After shutting down for the night, I’ve gone home to rinse off, crash into bed, and do it all over the next day — never mind frivolities such as working out, doing laundry or dishes, or spending time with my husband.
I do love harvest. But I admit that since August 17, I’ve been a little bit anxious for the juggle to be over. Do you know how hard it is to switch from comfy work clothes and ponytails and no makeup, to trying to look like a professional every day? Believe me, it is hard. (For me anyway.) Furthermore, the only things I can think of from my own experience that match the intensity of harvest is 1) planning a wedding in four months and 2) school starting, along with getting classrooms and lessons ready, getting back into a bell schedule, and meeting all those new faces.
As of this last week, however, harvest is finally over after six long weeks, and we can all breathe a little easier now.
There is a lot to be thankful for here, don’t get me wrong. My family is always thankful to get another harvest into the books. I’m lucky to have a good teaching job. And I’m always grateful for the time spent together and the fact that we’re lucky enough to be a farm family.
But let’s be honest, I’ve never been that good at juggling.
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.
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.
And the New:
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