I hope that title brings back some memories for some of you. It seemed every year in school I had to write or tell the class what I'd been up to over the summer. This year has been a big one for changes. I graduated from my community college with a transfer AA. I worked wheat harvest, and then I moved a couple hours away to start working on my BA at another college. Yeah! I so love change, not!
It's been difficult leaving my hometown of forty years, and my school for the last few years with all my friends. But, now I'm just waiting for classes to start next week and I'm a little nervous. I'll be fine once classes start, and probably too busy to think about much else except school, soon. This is just the lull before the next storm of activity.
So, this article is about my impressions of working wheat harvest. I've been an auto mechanic most of my working career. Locked up in a dark and sometime dirty, smelly shop. On my occasional test drives I would drive out to the country just minutes away and envy those people working outside. I could always make much more in my trade, but I always wanted to work harvest, because I like the wide open spaces surrounding my now former hometown of Walla Walla, Washington.
A little description is necessary, Walla Walla is in Southeast Washington state. The county is triangle shaped the edges of which are bordered by the Blue Mountains and Oregon to the southeast, the Columbia river to the west, and the Snake river to the north. The town itself is the second oldest in the state and the earlier residents made sure to plant trees, a lot of trees. In this town of 20,000 it is very green, outside town it is very brown for most of the year as the weather is arid. Walla Walla is blessed with wet winters, although that hasn't been the case the last couple years winter has been dry, but our springs have been very wet. There has been wheat surrounding the town most my life, but now there is also a lot of grape vineyards. There has always been apple orchards, strawberries and of course Walla Walla Sweet Onions. It is a rich and bountiful valley. I loved living there, and hope to make it back someday.
Onward, this year I did the wheat harvest. I saw an ad in the paper for a farm in Oregon not five minutes from my house, so I went and applied. One of the first people I met was the boss' son, a young man of about twenty. So, I told him that I was a former auto mechanic that couldn't do that work anymore and that now I'm a student looking for temporary work for the summer. I told the young man that I'd never worked wheat harvest, but felt I could drive a wheat truck from the field to the silos with no problem, because in my former career I'd driven so many different vehicles. He asked if I could drive tractor? I said, "Sure, if you're willing to teach me."
After my interview I went home and waited for the call back. A week went by with no word, so I went back out and checked in. I knew I had to wait for the season to start, and I could actually see the wheat fields from my house, as I lived on the edge of town... loved that view, very relaxing to a busy mind to be able to see the horizon twenty or thirty miles away. I'll miss that.
Next thing I know I'm receiving an email, "Can you come to work? right now!" I throw on my work clothes and I'm off for five weeks of work! I expected to be driving a two ton wheat truck, imagine my surprise to find myself driving a tractor. More precisely a Challenger made by Caterpillar. This is a rubber tracked, uh tractor(?) and my role is to be the "Bank out driver." Oh, while looking for this image/link I managed to find the page of the photographer that took pictures on my first week of work. Yes, that's really me driving the tractor, and those are the fields we harvested. It's Just a coincidence I was in the right place at the right time, and I was able to find the photog's page. Here is a YouTube video of the operation I preformed dozens of times a day, although that's not me it gives you an idea of Harvesting Wheat.
Forward! So, I spent a couple hours with an another guy teaching me how to drive the tractor and then I was on my own. Here's how you do it if you ever need to know. When the combine puts out it's arm/auger I would drive up beside the combine, making sure not to drive through the dust/chaff cloud following the combine. Once I've lined my track up with a previous wheel track left in the field from an earlier pass, I had to make sure not to run into the header of the combine, that big twirly thingy on the front, and matching my speed carefully so as not to spill any precious wheat, the combine would began dumping into my wagon/cart. I had to keep a constant eye on the front to make sure I didn't run over the fifty thousand dollar header and keep checking to the back to make sure I was loading properly.
Whew! After two successful loads I would go to the truck and lower my arm/auger, positioning my auger over the truck's bed, checking to make sure I was at idle and turning on my power take-off to run the auger. If I had more wheat than the truck could use, I had to carefully time when to shut off the auger, so as to not overfill the truck (that was sometimes the hardest part.) Then it was back out to the field to wait for the combine to signal me to, "come and get it!"
After about a week I was feeling pretty comfortable with my new job. Although, I will have to admit 12 to 14 hour days are long, and leave about 10 to 12 hours for food, hygiene and sleep. I'd expected that going in so no surprise. I just kept telling myself, "I can do this for thirty days, I'll survive, just keep putting one foot in front of the other... yada, blah, yada!"
My employer must of liked my work, because I was helping train other people to run Bank out wagon after my first week, cool. I worked with a couple different sizes of tractors and wagons. Plus a couple different crews. Oh, did I tell you about the hills? No? well Walla Walla is at the base of the Blue Mountains and that's where the fields we were harvesting are located. It gets kinda steep in places. But, it also affords some wonderful view points. That is if the dust and smoke isn't too thick. The smoke from the fires two-hundred miles away! At the skies more clear moments I could see Rattle Snake Ridge some fifty miles away. After being on the hill side for so long it started to play with my mind a little. I'd be bored and looking at the horizon trying to level it out the way it should be, but it just didn't seem to feel right. Kind of a trick of the mind's acclimation I guess, "Heck the whole world's crooked anyway, right?"
It's really beautiful out in the wheat fields. I saw a lot of golden wheat and pale blue sky for a longtime. Wildlife abounds, the hawks were the coolest. I didn't know they were so opportunistic, I'd see them hovering around the combines, and suddenly the big birds would drop and pickup a stunned mouse. You'd be stunned too if a combine just rearranged your home. There were also a lot of deer, it was nothing to see about five or six in a group. I swear the deer weren't any bigger then a good size dog. Saw some coyotes and an otter down by the creek. How about praying mantis and dragonflies? Yep, we got em'
Oh, and if you're wondering... Yes, I had air-conditioning! Which without I wouldn't have lasted a day! Also, air-conditioning allows the cab of the tractor to be closed. See, one factor that becomes bigger and bigger as the days wear on is - Dust! Lots and lots of dust, mixed with wheat chaff it becomes a very itchy mix. When I was outside my cab avoiding dust became a primary concern. I guess in the long run I do enjoy my comfort don't tell anyone, okay? Oh, well dust became a big part of my life. We'd spend an hour everyday blowing dust out of the equipment with compressed air. I'll stop, just know dust is so small, but so big en masse.
Working outside was everything I'd hoped for. I still have stories from the field I need to write down before I forget. Would I be a farmer, you know if the pay was a little better, and the hours not so long, maybe. But, that's not exactly what farming is known for. Farming for this summer was a wonderful experience. Next summer I'll still be between classes, so I'll see if I can do it all again. I really love the wide open vistas. I also enjoyed the quite times between when my mind could wander where it will go. That is why I wanted to do wheat harvest this year.