Archive for Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Childhood memories of harvests recall happy, hard times on farm

July 9, 2008

According to all accounts, wheat harvest in this part of the state is at the height of its operation. The photo of a combine running against a setting sun brought my childhood home back to me. I was glad to learn that the harvest would be a good one this year and that prices for the wheat would remain high due to crop demands all across the board. I remember how all too often my parents' farm would produce a higher-than-average yield, only to be sold on a market glutted with the crop.

On my parents' farm in far southwestern Kansas, the harvest was always over by the end of June - usually by June 28, my father's birthday. Harvest was an exciting time on the farm. There were usually a number of men, the crew doing the cutting, being fed at my mother's table. She produced prodigious meals and snacks for mid-afternoon and midmorning snacks to feed everyone. Usually, another cook was hired to help her get all of that food on the table. When I got old enough, I helped. I remembered watching potatoes being boiled and stirring gravy when I was high enough to reach the stove comfortably. She used to make lemonade and iced tea and put them into pouring jugs covered with wet burlap to keep the contents cool. These were trucked out to the fields with cookies, pie or cake to feed those working in the field.

My brother began working out in the field when he was yet a grade-school child. My father had an ancient blue pickup that Roger drove out to the field with supplies. He also worked on the combines at a relatively young age. He is fair-skinned and blonde. In that merciless sun, even a straw hat didn't protect skin from damage. He has had problems with melanoma on his head, which probably came about from damage long ago in those wheat fields. The immediate concern was rapid dehydration. The humidity was low enough that any perspiration immediately dried, sucking all of the salt out of the body. Salt tablets and a steady water supply kept the men from passing out. In addition to the damage the sun wrought upon the human skin, the metal on the combine would get hot enough to burn.

The combines would run from pre-dawn to late after the sun set, because once the wheat was ripe, it needed to be harvested before bad weather intervened. Usually, rain clouds were good news and greeted with happy anticipation - except at harvest time. Then, hard rain, hail and winds could ruin the crop and wipe out an entire year's investment of time, money and work. Once, I remember standing in a downpour outside our house while my parents sat inside in despair because several fields had not yet been harvested. I knew how tired and frustrated they felt.

Growing a winter wheat crop takes an entire year. First, the fields much be prepared by plowing. Then in late August, the precious seed goes into the ground. The wheat is well up by the time the weather changes into winter. It grows throughout the winter and spring, benefiting by snow cover until it begins to mature in late May. Then, as it turns from green to gold, and the seeds begin to fill out the husks on the stem, farmers begin to hold their breath hoping for a good crop. Then, before irrigation, the whole countryside became a golden sea with breezes making a soft ripple over its surface. This is when the crop is most vulnerable.

Gamblers and farmers have a great deal in common. However, when farmers lose their bet that they can beat Mother Nature to the crop, both their families and many others who shop for food also lose.

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