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Weeds: Tales of harvest adventures

I was talking to Dale, a former farm kid. I was telling him how harvest was going. Dale tolerated me a while, and then said, “You corn and bean farmers. You’ve got about as much to do as me mowing my lawn. You get your machinery out a few times a year like I get my lawn mower out.”

My comeback was, “Yeah, but the government gives us a bunch of money, so this must be important.” To which, he said he should get a Lawn Support Payment. I couldn’t argue with that. It made about as much sense as some farm payments.

Farm kids like Dale and me grew up on diversified farms with day-long and year-round lists of things to do. With cows, steers, pigs, chickens, corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa, not to mention kids and a garden, the work literally never ended for our parents.

Now animals are mostly raised in large confinement operations, and a shrinking number of us raise corn and soybeans on the surrounding land. I admit there are gaps on the calendar for crop farmers. There’s time to do other things. Frivolous things. Like write a newspaper column.

Springs and falls are still intensely busy. Yes, more than mowing your lawn. Every harvest, a few days stand out that become stories to share with fellow farmers. Those are days that don’t go as planned. Here’s a couple from Harvest 2020.

I was unloading corn in the yard. Nephew Jay was running the combine. I got a text, which usually meant a wagon was full. This time it was a short video with the message, “Is this dust or smoke?” The video showed wispy white something coming from the side of the corn head.

Uh oh. There’s a lot of dust around a combine, but not like that. I jumped in the pickup and raced to the field. Jay was out of the combine. There is a panel on the side of the corn head covering the pulleys and chains that propel everything. Smoke was sifting out around the edges of that.

That cover is held on by six bolts. I grabbed a wrench, got the first one off, and pulled back on it a bit. Given a gasp of oxygen, the smoke leapt out as flames. We ran to get the fire extinguisher on the side of the combine. We don’t extinguish many fires, and there were a couple frantic seconds figuring that out.

Inside that compartment was a perfect combustible blend of oil, grease, and corn dust. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spray the fire without getting the panel off. One by one I removed the bolts on my knees getting a face full of smoke, dust, and extinguisher retardant as Jay sprayed the newly freed fire leaping out into the air

It was briefly exciting. In seconds that seemed like hours, the flames were out as smoke continued to billow. If, this a large “if,” we didn’t have that fire extinguisher, I’m not sure how the story ends. It was windy, and a hundred acres of dead corn plants might have given that fire a mind of its own.

We had several days of Red Flag Warnings this fall. Those are increasingly common: dry wind and extreme low humidity at the time of year when everything green has turned into potential tinder. Combine fires are not uncommon, each of them being a combustible vessel of grain dust and petroleum products.

Our situation was not apparently dangerous, although there were enough ingredients to make it so. It was reminder that there are hazards in working with machines and nature. Lots of jobs around here, not just farming, are so defined. An increased emphasis on safety and better equipment during my career make things better. But danger remains.

We drove the combine to the yard where I took a hose to the smoking parts. The water was met with hissing and more smoke, and finally just dripping. Our attention turned to back to the task at hand: harvest. I called Miller Sellner Implement to let them know we were bringing in our disabled machine.

We were met by Laverne Krzmarzick and Cole Krzmarzick who ascertained that a bearing going out had caused sparks leading to fire. A half day in the shop would get us going with some repairs to be completed later. They were joined later by Clint Krzmarzick and Carter Krzmarzick. Every customer at Miller Sellner gets great service, but I figure it doesn’t hurt to have my surname.

My other story involves less danger and more embarrassment. Promise not to laugh.

I was racing to finish corn before our October snowstorm, working alone with ten acres to go. To get done quicker, I was going to haul these last loads to nearby Central Region elevator. Heavy snow was forecast late in the day, but flakes began falling in the morning as I started combining.

I filled my two wagons and jumped from the combine to the tractor. I drove the first wagon to the elevator in increasing snow. As I unloaded, I heard other farmers were quitting. Snow on corn plants can plug up a combine’s innards.

Getting home with the empty wagon, I jumped in the combine to drive it home and into the shed. Then I ran to cover things up by the bins. Now it was full-out snowing, and I ran back to the field to take the other wagon to the elevator. That was the plan.

When I pulled off the scale, Jay (a different Jay) waved me to the number two pit, which wasn’t normal. I climbed off the tractor and Jay said the sample came out weird and we would have to recheck it. He turned to unload my wagon.

My empty wagon. My mind spun briefly, wondering where my corn had gone. OH! It hit me. I forgot to switch wagons back in the field and hauled the empty wagon back into town.

“Um, that’s imaginary corn,” I said cringing. “I heard the price for imaginary corn was up today.” I was scrambling to not look dumb. At this age, I regularly misplace things like phone and wrenches. But not 400 bushels of corn. It was a senior moment, writ large.

Oh well, any time you can get out of harvest with the people and the machines mostly intact, you have to be thankful. Thanksgiving Day is timed perfectly in that way.

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