Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dancing Elephants

The house is empty; I have stockpiled the inputs for a major home improvement project; the sink is full of go cups; and there is a mixture of grains in the washer and dryer. It is harvest time.

I have a love/hate relationship with harvest. We had rain Thursday night and sprinkles Saturday; picking Indian corn led to boots that weighed in at 10# each with the mud on the soles. Never mind, of COURSE the combines will go anywhere, even if the wagons have half mile, 3/4 mile hauls to the trucks. The belt on the big auger broke. The new grain head isn't here yet. The corn is blown down and full of dirt. We know now, before we even start, that there will not be enough storage. The family part of our family farm hasn't settled into a routine, leading to minor disagreements. By the end of harvest, the family part of the family farm will need some serious space from each other, leading to minor disagreements. was a drop dead gorgeous day in late September. The sun was so bright on the garden, I had to keep angling away while I deadheaded perennials. We stopped in late afternoon to celebrate Bella's birthday, with the farmers arriving from one direction and the families from another. I took Blake back to his pickup, wondering yet again why he left the windows open to gather quite so many fat lazy slow late season flies. The combines were sitting at the corner, squat and towering at the same time, pearly white corn kernels piled high on every corner.

The weather forecast is good. The grain is drier than it was at any time last year. Sometime this week, we'll achieve the rhythm that harvest assumes when all is well. We are never a well oiled machine; the best we can aspire to is a tumbling herky jerkiness akin to the domino effect. No just in time delivery for us; we are a ballet of blindfolded elephants.

But that is a part of harvest I do love. The monumental sweep across the terraced hills of the combines; the auger wagons following behind, playing catchup, making their own trails back to auger or trucks. The fluid drain of the grain from the tank; the explosion of dry beans on the windshield; the roar of hydraulics as the combines pull out to shift into road gear when a field is done. Each piece of the machine tumbles into the next. The combines move, the wagons follow quickly, someone brings at least one pickup. The machinery fills; the combines sit, the wagons sit...something must be broken in the chain of command. An auger? Or is it just taking that long to transport all the rest of the dominos from farm to farm. All over the Midwest, farmers, farmers' sons, wives, grandmas, daughters, grandpas and as many kids as can fit in the cabs partake in the dance. It takes thermoses, paper plates, Tupperware, iced tea, Snickers and Pringles, crock pots, paper towels, wipies, Windex, ibuprofen, trash bags, phone chargers, apples by the bushel, pizza, batteries......and these are just the necessities for one combine driver.

I like to ride at night. Once the kids were grown and gone, keeping Blake company in the evening became our ritual. I bring out some hot coffee and chocolate, or a bottle of wine and two plastic cups, and we spend our evening together listening to post season baseball, or jazz on XM. Sometimes we don't turn on the radio at all. In the hills, you might not see the other combine at all unless we dump at the same time. All points of reference blend into the darkness so someone leaves lights on in a truck; the night is disorienting. The skies are bright with stars though and time passes quickly together as the head chews up the stalks and the ears bounce into the machine. We scare up birds, little gray birds that scatter up from the ground. Occasionally we chase a rabbit. A good deal for the bunny in the dark; his life expectancy with hawks on the thermals is not good. Nothing is as quiet as the night when the combines shut down and you stumble through the stalks and the dew to your chilly pickup.

Not so for the bin site. I don't dump trucks like I used to, but it was always a challenge to be where you needed to be to make sure the auger didn't run empty, the auger didn't run too full, the truck was raised when needed, etc., and still preserve one's hearing. I got lots of quality reading done dumping trucks, but was never sorry to leave the noise behind. When we first started farming, we had a portable grain dryer; it was a tremendous bottleneck in the harvest process, but added the smell of ....hmm, maybe steamed cornbread?

I picture harvest from space as we would observe an anthill. Each indistinguishable vehicle creeping along its path with its own distinct purpose and destination looking like so much chaos and confusion from a distance. Crash! goes one of the elephants in the ballet as an unloading auger catches a tree limb. The monumental procession grinds to a halt as the elevator shuts down for maintenance. Parts have to be fetched from 3 hours away. It rains.

Still, when we are all moving, our individual tasks achieve a greater purpose. The fields empty; the bins fill, and, we can see a job completed. And that's the best feeling of all.

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