Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Harvest in the Heartland - Part 2

Finally, the unloading is complete and the behemoth turns back toward the field, belches a black cloud of smoke-filled diesel fumes and begins its next slow, circuitous route through the field, dragging the ominous constant rumbling with it. The sudden silence and stillness are eerie. It will be several minutes before the startled crows, starlings, doves and other small animals resume their chatter and go about their business scavenging seeds from the newly barren field. She watches the huge machine creep away to the opposite end of the field. She grabs the thermos and gulps down tepid water, trying to clear her throat, waiting for the ringing in her ears to subside. She licks her parched lips, the taste and gritty texture of residue around her mouth making her cringe when she feels the grit settle onto her teeth.

Farming can be an excellent life, but it also very challenging. No one gets into it or stays in it for the money. Farmers do it to be self-employed, to be independent, to live in open spaces and to enjoy watching things grow. There is a joke about a farmer who wins $10 million in the Lottery. “Oh, good,” he says. “Now I can afford to farm another year.” Not exactly true, but it makes you chuckle at the absurdity.

The harvest season is fraught with risks. When it is tinder dry, there is a huge threat of fire: harvest machines can clog up with stalks, leaves and debris until they overheat and catch fire, while a carelessly thrown match or cigarette can ignite an entire field. Even a bolt of lightning can start a blaze. It is incredibly difficult to fight an inferno when there are no fire hydrants - local volunteer Fire Departments from surrounding communities respond, bringing water with them in their pumper trucks.

One autumn night a few years ago, I was heading home from a town about eighty miles away, driving through the country. I noticed a warm red glow in the distance and thought to myself, “What a glorious sunset we’re going to have tonight.” My stomach lurched when I realized that the radiance was coming from the east. As I drove closer, it became apparent that the source was from a corn field that was aflame. Lord willing, I will never see such a fearsome sight again. Flames shot into the air, surrounded by huge clouds of billowing smoke. The farmer was scrambling ineffectually to create a fire break, while the lone fire truck did its best to slow down the marching blaze. Continuing on towards home, I met several more pumpers arriving. They did not save much of that particular 160 acre field, but they were able to keep it from spreading to the surrounding fields and homes.

Harvest years that are too wet present their own perils: harvest machines, tractors and wagons become mired in the mud, often sunk up to their axles. Even heavy tow trucks can become stuck deep, in which case the largest tow trucks or cranes must be used to pull them out. One year, Wisconsin had a dreadfully wet fall and after fruitless attempts to harvest the corn, many farmers left the crops in the field until the ground froze solid; regrettably, the hard freeze transformed the corn stalks into rods of steel that punctured the tires. The cost of replacing a set of tires on a combine is prohibitive: each of them can run upward from $1500, which would negate most of the profit. The result was that many farmers took a huge loss that year when they had to wait until spring to harvest what little corn was left. Wind, rain, snow and ice all took their bites, along with the wild deer and raccoons that feasted all winter.

What do YOU remember from growing up? Please let me know in Comments.


Patty said...

Thanks for this peek into a world I know little about, Beth. As a teen, I remember the World Trade Center twin towers going up across the Hudson River from our suburban home. One of the contractors my father knew from his work as a bank building manager had the contract for the door hardware. We got regular insider reports from him that made me feel quite proprietary about these new, giant buildings. I adored New York City, especially the architecture, and felt connected to it through this changing of the skyline, one doorknob at a time.

Elizabeth (Beth) LaMie said...


When I was taking classes up at the Univ of Chicago last year, they were building Trump Tower right across the river. I, too, really enjoyed watching the process. Thanks for the comment.