How can riding a modern state-of-the-art harvesting monster take you back half a century? Well, let me tell you. Today’s story begins at Harry and Ollie’s, my wife’s market and café in Pelham, Tennessee.
Here in agricultural Middle Tennessee, work begins early, and I get the early shift at the café, opening before 7:00. Frequently folks stop on the way to work to pick up a sausage biscuit or breakfast sandwich. For several weeks, a young man, Evan, would pick up a biscuit. We chatted while I wrapped his order. He mentioned that he and his father and grandfather would be harvesting wheat, baling straw and planting soybeans—all in one operation. This sounded like a perfect setting for photos for next year’s calendar of farming activities in the Pelham Valley area of Tennessee. He assured me they would be happy to have me stop by and he gave me directions to several nearby locations where they would be working over the next few days.
That afternoon I went to the first location. The field being harvested was a beautiful setting—the long field bordered on both side by green trees; the classic golden brown wheat disappearing over a gentle rise in the field; all set against a blue sky, puffy white clouds, and the green mountainside. I could hear a muted rumble in the distance. The bright yellow harvester appeared in the distance, gradually working its way toward me. I immediately began composing photos.
Bob, Evan’s grandfather, stopped to unload more than 200 bushels of wheat into a waiting truck. He invited me to ride in the jump seat in the harvester. What a view, sitting high above the rolling waves of golden grain. And, what a way to work; riding along in air conditioned comfort.
As the hungry machine chewed its way across the field, Bob gave me a brief tutorial on wheat and wheat farming. This was soft red winter wheat used for general baking.
The harvester is an amazing machine. A huge cutter bar cuts a 30-foot swath through the field on each pass. It threshes and separates the wheat grains from the chaff. The grain is carried up into the storage hopper that holds up to 225 bushels of wheat while chaff and straw are expelled behind the harvester.
Bob heads up a large farming operation, and harvesting initiates a multi-step process that results in planting the next crop almost immediately. The next day, I found the whole family working. Bob harvested the wheat. Evan was driving an International 786 tractor pulling a baler. The baler scooped up the wheat straw and dumped perfectly formed and bound square bales about every 20 feet.
Once the wheat was harvested and the bales collected, the field was ready for sowing the next crop—in this case soybeans—to be harvested in the fall.
Don, Evan’s father was pulling the seed drill that planted 24 rows of soybeans directly in the field of wheat stubble. This process saves time, reduces equipment requirements, and improves the efficiency of the farming operation. In one day, nearly a hundred acres of wheat were harvested, the straw baled, and the next crop planted.
As I was busy photographing each part of the process, I recalled seeing photos of my father driving a Farmall A pulling a harvester—they called it a “combine”—many years ago.
Back then the fields were plowed and disked to break up the clods of dirt turned up by the plow. A planter that could sow two or four rows was pulled along behind the tractor (or mules!). It required a person riding on the planter to start, stop, and monitor the planting process.
At harvest time, the combine separated the wheat grain from the chaff much in the same way as the modern harvester, but the cutter bar was only six feet wide. The threshed wheat was carried up to an inverted Y-shaped discharge tube. An operator rode on the combine and placed bags under the discharge tubes. When one bag was full, he would move a lever to begin filling the other bag under the other leg of the “Y,” quickly sew the full bag shut, and toss the bag into the field. By the time he had a new empty bag on that chute, the other bag would be full, and he would repeat the process. Later, the bags had to be loaded—by hand—on a truck or trailer. The wheat straw could be baled, or simply loaded on a truck and carried back to the barn. There was no air-conditioned cab. This was hot, dusty work.
This turned out to be much more than a “photo op” for me—I had not anticipated that it would connect so directly to my own family history. I grew up on a small working farm in tidewater Virginia. Immediately after I returned from photographing the harvest, I found the photos of my dad driving the Farmall A tractor pulling a combine. The photos were taken by my mother who was a country school teacher and an accomplished photographer.
This modern day harvest experience enabled me to shoot some really colorful photos and meet truly down-to-earth folks who work hard all year long, demonstrating the work ethic that built this country. I also have a better understanding of how farming and agriculture have both advanced and yet, in many ways, remained the same for more than five decades.
So, what started out as an agricultural photojournalism assignment turned into a “harvesting flashback” to my family roots—both very pleasant experiences.
Note: A related article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Capper’s Farmer.