By Kate Proctor
Over the years, we have had the discussion around our place about which season is the most stressful - planting or harvest. I don’t remember what side of that discussion anyone was on, but I have to admit, no matter what I argued at the time, I’m sure it has to be, whichever one of those seasons happens to be closest at the time of the discussion.
2020 will go down in a lot of memories as the year of COVID-19 – and all the lessons that came with living through a pandemic, lockdowns, and the powers, both good and bad, of the internet. For many farmers, myself included, it will also go down in memory as the harvest where the sun never stopped and we had everything safely tucked in bins and cleaned up before Hallowe’en – something that has never happened before at our place. I don’t even remember any breakdowns. Nothing froze. We never ran out of fuel. It was as if the universe agreed that we had survived a tough year, with lots of unknowns, and we deserved a break.
And so we come to harvest of 2021. “OK - BREAK’S OVER!!” I can almost hear it whispered from the top of the elevator leg. While COVID-19 may still be with us as we wearily trudge through things that have become our new normal – masks, hand sanitizer, and people feuding about why showing proof of age to be served alcohol is cool, but showing proof of vaccination to enter the establishment is not – 2021 feels more like a good old-fashioned normal harvest. There has been rain, stress about soybeans, wheat left unplanted, breakdowns, mud and a definite lack of sunshine.
With that in mind, I thought I’d revisit my old lessons from harvests past as I wait to get back into the field. The only thing I hate more than making mistakes is making the same mistakes twice. Harvest season reminds me that there are always new ones to make and one of the great things about farming is that no two years are ever the same. So there are always lots of learning opportunities.
Perhaps one of the first things I should mention is that the bad years tend to stick in our memories. 2014 and 2018 were both tough harvest years that gave some of the lessons I hold in my memory. Mostly about how much I hate combining soybeans in December and January. Those years were weighing heavily on my mind as the six-day forecasts ticked on this fall with nary a sunny day in sight. “Next week will be better,” became a common phrase around our place. It just never seemed to happen.
Finally, our deadline had come up and we decided to see how well 24 per cent moisture soybeans would go through the combine. Much to my amazement, they did go through the combine and ended up in the bin looking like beans. They were fat, squishy beans, but beans. Next miracle is that they flowed through the wet bin and into our top-dry dryer fairly well. Never having dried beans before, I was pretty nervous to try, especially as these beans were very wet and we needed to take about 10 points of moisture out of them.
Lots of people claim to know how to dry beans. Not many that I talked to had experience drying them that wet. Getting it wrong would be expensive and potentially cause lots of problems. But we took it slow and ended up with beans that looked pretty good, tested well, and were deliverable. It seemed like a few small miracles strung together to get them looking that good, especially when compared to how they had looked while in the field!
I revisited a couple of the lessons from those previous tough harvests. One of my best lessons is that sometimes, it is the things you don’t know that you don’t know that get you. In 2014, this was a lesson about not leaving the flex head in the field when you have to switch back and forth between beans and corn. In 2018, it was a lesson about where ice actually builds up inside the combine and how much it can seem like concrete when you’re trying to chisel it out of there. This year, I had to make an addendum to this lesson. Sometimes you have to park your fear of the things you don’t know that you don’t know and just take a chance. It may turn out better than you ever expected.
Another lesson from the past is that there are always new things to learn about your combine. Harvesting in 2018’s winter conditions helped me get to know our combine in a whole new way. I learned where to plug in the block heater, that you never know when you might get back to the field so park accordingly, it takes much longer than you expect to chill the combine after sitting inside the shop for two weeks, and it is possible to have an entire bin full of beans that will not unload. This year I learned that finding out what needs fixing and getting at it can be the hardest part of the whole repair. And the chance of rain increases the later you work to get things going again.
I always get out on the other side of harvest feeling humbled and happy to be finished. It’s a team effort, for sure. I’m so grateful for our team with everyone bringing different skills to the table. Some bring their never-ending good cheer, no matter what the forecast, and others bringing the lessons of years of hard harvests to help when things don’t go as planned. The deliveries of food and coffee to the field make the long days seem less difficult. All of the support that comes from experts who know how to get things running again, especially when they can walk us through repairs over the phone, are priceless.
I think of my farming neighbours – even if we only see each other from a distance through a cloud of dust – all working away feverishly before the next rain shower shuts us down again. We support each other with jokes and advice and sometimes actually showing up to help if we have our own work done. And no matter how many things go wrong in a day, any day where we all go home at night in one piece is a good day. ◊