Harvest time stirs memories

Part of our life in rural Kansas is harvest. I married the son of a farmer, so summer and fall harvest come with the territory. My mama came from a farming family, so I grew up watching my grandpa and uncle farm as well. It was always so poetic to watch!

My grandpa and uncle had a large operation and simultaneously ran two green machines along with a grain cart. Through my kid-eyes, the sight was magnificent. At times I would imagine the combines were racing each other to the end of the field, eating rows of wheat as they went. At other times, it reminded me of a dance as the combines ebbed and flowed around bends of the field.

I always loved when Grandpa or Uncle Larry would open up a cab for rides. I was thankful for full protection from the elements, remembering that my mom had to ride in open-air combines when she was young. As the dust and chaff blew around the outside of the cab, I was grateful for the glass. And for the air conditioning!

While the header whirred and the machine hummed, I would turn and watch the grain collect in the combine’s bin. The pile would grow taller as the window grew smaller. The light would disappear, and I would sit there anxiously wondering how we would know if the bin was full. Would the wheat suddenly spill over the roof and down the windows like a waterfall?

It never did. Over the CB radio, there would be a demand for the grain cart, and off the tractor would go, chugging to the rescue. The combines never stopped, except to let passengers on or off and maybe for the driver to grab a bite to eat. The grain would travel through the auger, get shaken out, then get carted back to the waiting trucks. Once the truck bin was full, I would get another ride.

Normally we would haul the grain to the local co-op in Culver, which has since closed. The people at the co-op were always friendly and they somehow always knew who I was. I usually rode with Grandma, so I guess that probably gave me away.

We would bounce off the scale and head for the tunnel. The shade made the temperature cooler, but instead of enjoying it we had to roll up the windows to keep out the dust. I would grab the window handle and with all the strength I could muster, the window inched closed.

By that time, Grandma was set to dump the grain. She would expertly pull some levers and the truck bed would raise. The window, normally covered by the bed, would start to allow the dingy co-op light into the truck. Then came first the slow trickle and finally the whoosh as grain started to free-fall out of the safety of the truck and into the great unknown below the elevator floor.

Once the truck was free of grain, the workers gave a shout and Grandma would push the lever, allowing the bed to collapse. It lowered much faster than it lifted. Then off we’d go, back into the sunlight, back onto the scale, and back out to the field.

As I got older, I would still get to ride in the combine and trucks, but I would also have to help Grandma with the meals. It was by far my least favorite part of harvest. I’ve never enjoyed spending excess time in the kitchen.

But during harvest, that’s impossible. Not only do you have to cook for a crowd, but you also have to pack up all the food, the plates, the cups, the utensils, and haul it to the field where the farmers would eat in shifts.

As they ate, I wouldn’t be able to forget that everything would need re-packed and re-hauled, this time back to the messy kitchen where we would unpack, wash the dishes and clean.

My mom’s experience as a teenage truck driver seemed far more glamorous than my kitchen duties. She told stories about reading lots of books on the hood of the truck as she waited for the bin to fill. I’ve never experienced that side of harvest, which seems tragic.

Now I no longer help my grandparents at harvest-time. My grandma and uncle have both passed away, and my grandpa has retired. But I do help my in-laws. I may still dread being stuck in the kitchen, but I still love to be around the fields—watching the combine roll, hearing the whir of the header and the pour of the grain, witnessing the dance of moving parts.

I love seeing the color contrast of golden wheat paired with a blue Kansas sky, or with the indigo of an in-coming storm. I love watching the sun spill behind the horizon, splashing a colorful backdrop for billowing dust and elegant machines.

Whatever your role this harvest—farmer, cook, bystander—be safe and be aware of the work around you. Make sure you watch out for workers and machines, but also for the poetry. It’s there. I promise.