I can still see my father rushing into the kitchen, exclaiming those words to my mother as she stood in front of the sink washing the breakfast dishes. There was such urgency in his tone. It meant that everything else on the farm now took a backseat to harvest.
As harvest drew near, as the fields transformed from green to gold, as the heads filled with kernels began to droop under the weight of their precious cargo, Daddy checked the fields daily. He waded into the interior of the field of waist-high wheat, because he knew the edges ripened first. He picked a few heads and squeezed out the kernels with his fingers. He popped a handful into his mouth and chewed. If the kernels were still soft enough to chew into a gummy, pasty blob, the wheat wasn’t ready. But if they were dry and hard and crunchy, it was time.
The weeks leading up to harvest were occupied with servicing his combine and truck, the only equipment he needed. He greased gears, changed oil, checked tires, replaced worn parts and cleaned his truck bed, which he also used to haul cattle. Then he waited, filled with anticipation and anxiety.
I remember great harvests after which my mother could afford to replace the worn living room sofa. And I remember somber harvests when Daddy announced at the breakfast table that the thunderstorm the previous night had destroyed two thirds of the crop.
So much depended on that harvest.
As a child, I loved harvest. Our normally quiet farmstead was filled with activity – Mama busy cooking, my sisters hauling meals to my dad and brothers in the fields, uncles visiting to help out and give my dad a break, cousins to play with.
As a teen, I still loved harvest, even though it now meant work, not play. But it was interesting work. It was beneficial work. It was family work, and I was part of the family.
Nowadays, harvest for me is different. I still love the sight of the “amber waves of grain”. I will never stop loving that. But I no longer play with my cousins in the wheat truck. I no longer haul the wheat to the elevator and eat fried chicken in the fields. We rent out our cropland, and it is the renters who do that.
Since our move back to the farm, harvest commences for me with a casual text from Danny instead of an urgent rush into our kitchen. His text will simply let me know that the harvesters are moving onto our field. From our front porch, I watch as multiple state-of-the-art machines with air conditioning and GPS devour the wheat in giant swaths. Sometimes, if my own work for the day is done, I’ll sit in my porch rocker, observing, as I sip a glass of merlot. There are no harvest tasks for me anymore.
As I slowly rock, I can’t help but wonder what my dad would think if he could see these metal monsters clean up in a few hours the same field that used to take him a day and a half. But, I guess, that’s progress. I take a sip of wine. And I sadly realize that harvest, for me, has lost its magic.
Until this year. Until I got the chance to see harvest again through the eyes of a child.
Our son, his wife, and four children visited our farm the weekend following the Fourth of July holiday. They came from Phoenix to see family, and let the kids experience a few days of farm life. They didn’t come for the wheat harvest. That turned out to be an unexpected bonus.
Danny and I both agree that in all our years, we don’t ever recall a wheat harvest in our area that wasn’t completed by the Fourth of July. But this year, due to the wet, cool spring we had, many fields were not yet ripe until after the holiday. The wheat on our own land had been cut several days before our son and family arrived. But Danny was determined to give our grandchildren the opportunity to witness a wheat field being harvested.
He called our tenant farmer and asked if he still had fields to cut. It turned out that they had not yet cut their own. “Would it be okay if the grandkids got a combine ride?” Danny asked.
“Absolutely!” was the response.
The 8-year-old and 10-year-old granddaughters put on their boots and cowboy hats, and along with our son, drove with Danny and I to the field. We watched from our vehicle as the massive machine made its way around the field towards us. When Travis, the driver, saw us, he stopped, got out of his cab, and welcomed us onto the field.
Danny and our son stayed in our vehicle while our two granddaughters and I climbed the ladder into the giant cab. There was room for all of us with the 8-year-old on my lap and the 10-year-old sitting cross-legged on the floor of the cab, directly behind the top-to-bottom glass windshield. She had an unobstructed view of the entire process.
During our ride, the 8-year-old constantly asked Travis all sorts of questions that he skillfully answered to her complete satisfaction. Meanwhile however, the 10-year-old was silent, totally mesmerized by the whirring blades of the header, the rapidly oscillating sickle, and the spiraling auger feeding the cut stalks into the belly of the beast.
I touched her shoulder. “What do you think of all this?” I asked.
Her face beamed as she turned to smile at me. “So cool!” she exclaimed.
I nodded. It really is.
(Read about my childhood harvest memories in A Year on the Family Farm and my adolescent harvest memories in Another Year on the Family Farm.)
Next Week: The Prairie’s Tree of Life