You might be imagining office parties, eggnog, corny Santa hats, crowded shopping malls and yuletide carols. Actually, here on the prairie, ‘Tis the Season has a whole different meaning. ‘Tis the season for cutting wheat.
Let’s talk about wheat and wheat cutting…
Out here most of the farmers grow “Winter Wheat”. Winter Wheat is wheat planted in the fall that overwinters and is harvested the following summer. Most farmers leave those wheat fields fallow prior to planting them in September. They are called “summer fallow”. Wheat could therefore be thought of as a two-year crop since it takes the farmer two seasons to produce one crop of wheat. Wheat’s harvest time is variable. It depends on when it is ready. Wheat is a grass. It starts off green and then “heads out”, i.e., makes wheat berries, and then dies. We harvest it dead. The harvest is usually July Fourthish around here.
There is a science to it. The wheat berries must not be too wet. We take a sample to the grain elevator in town. They run it through their special machine and the machine comes up with moisture rating. The moisture content must be a certain number or lower before we can harvest it. If the wheat is too moist, it can get moldy or ignite a fire in the grain bin. (I don’t really understand how moisture can start a fire either, but that’s what they tell me.) The wheat must also be harvested at a certain humidity.
Wheat cutting involves using the combine. A combine is a big big piece of farm equipment that combines a reaper, thresher and winnower. Basically the combine is a harvest machine. We say “cut” wheat because the combine cuts the stalks of wheat, takes the wheat berries off the stalk and spits the straw back out.
Combines are a part of the culture. My almost-three year old has a speech problem. He doesn’t even say verbs yet, but he can say “combine” very clearly and point them out.
Wheat cutting is a race, a race against hail. Wheat is ready in hail season. A hail storm can level a wheat field in a New York minute. After the wheat is ready, the race is on. We hope the combine doesn’t break down. We hope that it doesn’t hail. My husband and all the neighboring farmers work on their own respective fields to get the wheat harvested ASAP. They get up super early in the morning, get in the field as soon as the humidity is right, and work all day until maybe 11 at night. Combines have headlights. They don’t stop for lunch. They take sandwiches or their wives bring them lunch. And dinner. And snacks.
Do you remember the story of the wheat harvest in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s (affiliate link) The First Four Years ? Almanzo had started to harvest the wheat. It was a bumper crop, one to surely get them out of debt. He worked a few minutes and then realized it was too wet to harvest. He did other farm work that day. This wheat crop would solve all of their problems.
About three o’clock Manly came in from the barn and said it was going to rain for sure… The sunshine darkened, and the wind sighed and then fell again as it grew darker yet. Then the wind rose a little, and it grew lighter, but the light was a greenish color. Then the storm came, It rained only a little; then hailstones began to fall, at first scattering slowly, then falling thicker and faster while the stones were larger, some of them as large as hens’ eggs…
In just twenty minutes the storm was over, and when they could see as far as the field, the binder was still there but the wheat was lying flat. “It’s got the wheat, I guess,” Manly said. But Laura could not speak…
“And now let’s make some ice cream,” Manly said. “You stir it up, Laura, and I’ll gather up hailstones for ice to freeze it.”
And just like that, their bumper wheat crop was gone. This was before crop insurance. They ended up in more debt and after a few more years of trials ultimately left South Dakota.
120 years later, weather is weather and this can still happen. This is why wheat cutting is still a race, a race against hail.
Wheat is ready at different times in different parts of the country. Some farmers hire custom harvesters to cut their wheat. Custom harvesters are teams that travel the country, following the wheat season. They came with a bunch of combines, grain trucks, grain carts, tractors, camping trailers, etc. They are usually young single men. A harvest crew passed through Hugo when we were in town for Mass on Sunday and they had six vehicles total, including two tractor trailers that were towing a combine and a grain trailer. I didn’t have my camera.
For little farmers like us, wheat harvest is the big thing. (I don’t really understand why harvesting wheat is a bigger deal than harvesting corn or millet, but I guess I’m just the clueless Jersey girl again.) You know what they say, when in Lincoln County, do as the Lincoln County farmers. So I’ve embraced “the season” and get as excited as everyone now, even if I’m just acting. If I act enough, I’ll believe it. The parrellels between cutting wheat and the Christmas season are amazing.
Just like your families don matching sweaters and take the same annual picture by the Christmas tree, I dress the kids alike-ish and take their annual picture in the combine tire.
You may be known to the neighbors.
“Did you see the Johnson family’s house? They put up 147 strands of lights.” will be a typical comment around the Christmas season.
“Did you know that John Smith got 48 bushel [per acre] by Harris?” is a typical comment here around wheat harvest season. I should add that Harris has probably been dead for 40 years and everybody but me knows where his field is that John Smith bought 35 years ago.
We have a picnic in the field at least once per year. You have turkey or ham, manicotti and all the fixings for Christmas dinner. We have bratwurst or taco salad or some kind of other yummy portable goodness.
You take pictures of the festivities. We take field pictures, too.
You may here the merry voices of carolers off in the distance, jingle bells and Salvation Army Santas ring their bells. Late into the night, we hear combines humming miles away.
‘Tis the season.
Posted in Culture Clashes of a Jersey Girl on the Colorado Prairie, Locally Grown, Wheat and tagged Christmas Wheat, Homesteading, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Overview of wheat, The First Four Years, Wheat, Wheat cutting, Wheat harvesting, Winter Wheat by Laura with no comments yet.