It had been over 26 years since I have the opportunity to work on a farm or a ranch so when I got the call from Bryan Clines from TDT Outfitters to see if I would be willing to help out this year with the wheat harvest on Wheeler Ranch, I jumped at the chance. Working on a combine crew had been on my bucket list for years. The last time I worked on a farm, I was 14 years old in Tulare County, California. From there we moved to the Washington, DC metro area and I have been a city slicker ever since. In September I moved my family and my business to Lincoln, Nebraska and I have been slowly working to immerse myself in the history and culture of the prairie life.
The first thing I learned about the wheat harvest was rain is bad and sun is good. The harvest this year throughout Nebraska was delayed because of the immense amount of rain fall. We were scheduled to begin the week after July 4th and actually had to wait almost 2 weeks to get started. After rearranging my schedule, I was able to break away from the business, said goodbye to the kids and took off to meet up with Bryan in Imperial, NE. Bryan is a good friend of mine and we have had the opportunity to hunt together on the same ranch that we would be working during the week.
On the drive out to Imperial, I stopped several times to photograph crop dusters spraying fields. In the early 70’s my own grandparents built a bi-plane and getting the chance to watch these crop dusters reminded me of some of the rides I had with my own grandfather. It is my dream to ride along with one of these pilots and experience the rush of flying over the fields just above the crop line, spinning the plane around and attacking the next pass. It’s on my bucket list of things to do as well and it will happen one of these days.
Arriving in Imperial, I heard the bad news that we would be waiting for an extra day and a half to actually work in the fields, so I took the time to explore a little bit of the area around Imperial. Imperial sits in the Frenchman Valley, a land filled with some of the world’s most fertile soil up on plateaus surrounded by canyons that makes up cattle land so farmers can raise wheat, corn and cattle. We were working on the Wheeler Ranch, which raises cattle and hogs as well as wheat and corn. The ranch is a fourth generation farm and with little ones from the fifth generation getting rides in the combine during the week it is clear to see this farm will be in the family for generations to come.
On our first day of work, I was trained on the truck I would be driving from the field back to the farm. The work was hard and hot but fulfilling because at the end of the day, I could count up the number of loads that I ran from the field. I learned that my truck was holding about 400 bushels of wheat. An average day had me running between 5 or 6 loads to and from the fields back to the farm to be stored in the silos.
The truck I drove was old and a little fussy to say the least. It was a 5 speed that ran well for the first several days while we were up on the plateau, because the driving was relatively flat, it was easy to get from the fields to the ranch and back to the fields. Each truck had a Power Take Off(PTO) installed in the truck that allowed the back cargo portion to lift up and dump the wheat out of the back of the truck. Each load was taken to the ranch and dumped into small bins slowly while an automated auger that was hooked up to a tractor took the grain up a really large tube and dumped the grain into big silos. Each field was dumped into different silos so that the grain could be accounted for from each field.
On the fourth day we began to work on a set of fields that was almost 20 miles from the main ranch. The route we took led across the plateau, down into a valley, across the valley floor and back up on to another plateau. This trip was a bit of a difficult drive with an empty truck but it was downright tenuous with a loaded truck. From field, it was a short drive to the lip of the valley. As I crested the first hill, I dropped the truck into second gear and the truck slowly descended the first big drop. The road was gravel and luckily it was as straight as could be but the grade is probably close to 9% and with 36,000 lbs, and almost 30,000 of that in loose wheat in the back of the truck, the last thing I wanted to do was run off the road in that truck. I fanned the breaks and slowly made my way to the valley floor.
Once hitting the valley floor, the truck was overheated. Temperatures hit a little over one hundred degrees those last 3 days and bogging down the engine, there really was no way to prevent the truck from overheating. Each time, I would pull off in the shade along the road, grab a soda, open up the hood for a few minutes and let that beast cool down. Once it was a little cooler, I would jump in, start it up and cruise across the valley floor until I had to climb my way back out and overheat the truck on the climb out.
Over the week, I learned a lot about how the wheeler farm operates. As the patriarch of the family, Wes Wheeler has been working this land over 80 plus years with his father, and now runs the farm with along with his son Rod and grandson Marty. I learned a lot from Wes, Rod and Marty as well as Bryan and all of the other folks who were there working the harvest along with the family. Marty’s kids would bring us dinner each night in the field with the help of his wife and the food was fantastic and most welcome.
Each day we worked about 14 hours. We would arrive each morning at around 7:30am and by the time we left it was close to 10:30pm each night. The heat was intense. I brought my Kestrel weather meter with me and we broke 100 degrees each day, with heat indexes well above 110 degrees. Twice inside the truck the Kestrel read the heat index at a little over 120 degrees. I drank gallons of water, got an amazing tan, and I felt good at the end of each and every day.
Working a harvest, I learned that equipment is going to break and no matter how prepared you are, some things are going to go wrong. On my fifth day on the harvest we were using a new auger that had just been brought in to replace an auger that had gone down on Saturday, I was first up to run the new auger. Everything went smooth for about ten minutes and then it just blew a bearing. It took all hands on deck to get it fixed but it was running by the next morning. These kinds of things happen on the harvest and being able to work through them quickly and efficiently is essential.
Waking up every morning to watch the sunrise over the fields, and working through the day left me lots of time to watch the harvest unfold before my eyes. Watching the combines work the fields, and the tractors coming in to dump the wheat into the trucks, and heading back and forth from the farm provided an amazing amount of calming rhythm to the day. Watching the sun set as the last load of wheat each night was filling up my truck and reflecting back on the hard work of the day reminded me how important the role these farmers play both in our country as well as in their community.
Ranchers like the Wheeler family are the heart and soul of our country and spending quality time working for them to help bring in the harvest is a memory that will remain with me for the rest of my life. There is no question the work was hot, physically demanding, dusty, dirty, and sometimes frustrating but at the end of a week in the fields with these folks, I truly appreciated what they have accomplished with this land over the last 100 years and I appreciate the life they have working with the land.
I would not hesitate a second to jump at the chance to work the harvest next year. Now if anyone knows a crop duster who would allow me spend a few days riding along to shoot some pictures, I sure would love to knock that off of my bucket list. Life is short and experiencing little moments like helping with the harvest or meeting quality ranchers like the Wheeler family is what life is all about.