Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Amber Waves of Grain

June in Kansas means wheat harvest or, as my father calls it, Pay Day!  Dave manages the local grain elevator so it's a big time of year for us.  The fields begin to turn from green to gold in early June.  By the third week, semis loaded with combines file into town and travel trailers are set up on empty lots as custom cutting crews get ready for business.  Farmers pull their machinery out of the shed to prepare it for the coming long days.  Wives stockpile freezers of food to be hauled to makeshift outdoor dinner tables to feed combine and truck drivers.  At the elevator, crews  - many of them seasonal help hired just for this purpose - scramble to empty bins to make space for the incoming crop, prepare the ground where they may have to dump overflow that the bins won't hold, and make sure all equipment is in top shape.  There is an almost electrical buzz of anticipation as everyone prepares.

The only way to be really sure if the wheat is ready to cut is to try it. It's a joke at our house, although not a very funny one, that someone will always try on Father's Day.  The only years Dave got to spend Father's Day at home was when we lived farther north, in Nebraska, and harvest started later.  The farmer hauls out the combine and runs it through a small patch of wheat, gathers a coffee can-full from the hopper and takes it to the elevator to be tested for moisture content.  If the content is low enough - the elevator likes it under 12%, but will usually take it a little higher - then we're off and running.  Naturally, the length of harvest for any farmer is dependent on how many acres he plants and how many combines he owns/hires to cut.  For the elevator crew, it's a little different.  Harvest for us begins when the first farmer starts and ends when the last farmer finishes.  Average harvest is three to four weeks, depending on the weather, with the big rush in the middle, when everyone is going at once, lasting about two weeks.  Here's a peek at what life is like at our house during wheat harvest.

Our son, Mitch, works for Dave at the elevator - dumping trucks, moving grain, repairing equipment, and whatever else needs done.  It's a very physical, tiring job, especially since temperatures frequently climb above 100.  Our daughter, Amanda, works in the office - weighing the trucks in and out, testing the grain for moisture, weight and "fm" (foreign material - also called weeds), and keeping track of who hauled in what.  Their days usually run from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. or later.  There have been nights, thankfully few and far between, of working till the wee hours of the morning to get grain in position or repair broken equipment so they will be up and running when the farmers start again the next morning.  When the wheat is ready, it's a race to get it out of the field and safely into storage before a storm can damage it, so everyone works at top speed.  The long hours, heat and apprehension can lead to short tempers.   By the second week days blur together (there are no weekends or days off during harvest) and a rain shower that lets them quit a couple hours early is a blessing.

So where does all this commotion leave me?  In the kitchen.  Several years ago I began making cookies to give away to truck drivers and employees - just a little bonus to cheer everyone up - and the idea really caught on and became a staple at the elevator.  At one point, I was making over 2000 cookies each year.  I have cut that number way down, but I still take cookies, brownies, cake and sometimes homemade ice cream, to the elevator every day. It's my way of feeling involved and supportive. When I'm not working or baking, I'm fixing meals and snacks.  The guys need quick things on hand that they can fix themselves for lunch because no one knows what time their break will be or how long it will last.  Kyle, one of the seaonal employees who is living with us for the summer, is diabetic, and Mitch is a typical 19-year-old, so they both need sustenance on a regular basis. I usually deliver sandwiches about 6:00, then have a meal prepared for everyone when they drag in later.  Cleaning up supper dishes at midnight is not uncommon.

Being the only one at home also means I inherit chores Dave usually handles - mowing, taking out the trash and washing dishes (three of my least favorite jobs, so bless him for doing them regularly!) - along with the usual housekeeping and stacks of really nasty, ripe-smelling laundry. 

Harvest is a lot of work and a lot of stress, but it's also a thing of beauty.  A ripe field of wheat, glowing red-gold under a blinding blue sky, rippling slightly in the breeze is one of my favorite sights.  I sometimes wish we had chosen a life outside agriculture, to be able to look at blackening skies or frost on the morning grass and worry only about if the car is safely in the garage or if my geraniums will survive the cold - not whether the crops will be frozen or hailed out and our livlihood endangered.  Farmers can purchase crop insurance to guard against weather's destruction, but there is no insurance policy for the elevator.  If there is no crop, there is no income, and eventually no business.  But when I see bountiful fields that survived nature's best shot, or watch families and friends work together to bring in a crop, I marvel at the Lord's work and am glad to be "the elevator guy's wife".

There will be a second, less hectic harvest in the fall for corn, soybeans and milo (sorghum), but wheat is what makes Kansas part of the breadbasket of our nation.  Wheat harvest is pay day - the culmination of a year of hard work, sweat, worry and prayer.

"Oh beautiful, for spacious skies..."


  1. Wow - that's a terrific post Tami. My niece's name is Amber and her grandfather always calls her "Amber Waves of Grain" - being the patriotic soul that he is. Now whenever I hear him say that, I'll think of all you described here. Thanks for being the elevator guy's wife.

  2. Beautiful post that had my eyes misty by the end. I've loved driving through the beautiful fields of wheat but didn't really think about all the work involved for so many people. As a person who loves to bake and eat bread I should say thank you to all the wonderful wheat people - especially in Kansas. So, tell everyone from me: THANK YOU.

  3. Great story, Tami. I'm sure your husband will agree, when he has time to read it after harvest. What a job! And many thanks to all of our strong Kansas farmers, who help feed the world!