The distant hickory trees sport golden crowns and the neighbor’s white oak has begun to flash hints of scarlet when the wind rustles its leaves. The slow, colorful drift into winter has begun; the wheels of nature are turning.
The wheels of harvest, however, are not. September is gone but nearly every acre of still-green corn and finally-yellowing soybeans in my central Illinois neighborhood remains.
As farmers wait impatiently for harvest, most speak of a “long” and “cold” harvest.
No doubt, yet this year’s slow-to-start endgame will be shorter and warmer than any harvest my family experienced in the 25 or so years I was on our southern Illinois farm.
Every harvest back then, from the mid-1950s through the late 1970s, was an endurance race that featured more endurance than racing.
To hear my father recall, his first harvest — 1951, I reckon — had to be his worst. Endless rain, snow and mud slowed that year’s corn picking to a horse-drawn crawl as he used a team of horses to bring in the crop by hand, 50 or so bushels at a crack.
By the time he was done late that winter, he joked, he had spent more time with those horses than his young bride, my mother. By the way he spoke of his team, I often suspected he regarded ‘em almost as much.
After my parents moved from their hardscrabble hill farm to a huge-by-comparison, river bottom farm near the Mississippi, a two-row mechanical picker had replaced Dad’s two hands and two horses.
I don’t remember ever seeing that picker picking, but I do remember seeing it restfully rust in the back of the barn. It finally was sold sometime in the mid-1960s when, I guess, Dad and Grandpa thought the new, little Massey combine that had retired it might be a keeper.
And it was, but what a yapping toy poodle — I think it was a Massey-Harris 35 — compared to today’s ravenous wolves. It rattled and whirred with unguarded belts, chains and augers to deliver a dribble of shelled corn into, what, a 35-bu. grain hopper?
And it had a viciously temperate heart because the operator, only my father, sat in the open air almost directly over the header. That meant he ate bugs and dirt during wheat harvest and snow and dirt during corn harvest.
Snow seemed always on the menu during corn harvest. Maybe it was because no one planted corn until May back then. Maybe it was because our 100 milk cows limited the time my dad could combine. Then again, maybe it was because we were slow.
The little Massey was replaced by an IH 303 combine. While bigger, the operator still sat (or, as my father often did out of boredom, stood) smack in the middle of all the dirt, bugs and weather.
One fall harvest, though, was so long and so cold that Dad baling-wired several storm windows together to form a three-sided, open-topped “cab” on the 303 to at least cut the wind. While is worked reasonably well, it looked as though the Beverly Hillbillies — and their combine — were our partners that fall.
Then, in the late 1960s or 1970, Dad bought the last combine he’d ever drive, a crossbred White-Oliver. The companies had recently merged so the combine was painted Oliver green and the three-row (count em!) corn head was Cockshutt red.
It looked terrific when we picked corn every Christmas thereafter.
More importantly, it sported a heated, and every-now-and-then, air-conditioned, cab.
Little wonder Dad kept that relic running nearly into the 21st century: both he and Mom were warm.
He in his combine and Mom with all her storm windows.