Tales of a typical North Dakota harvest

Combining south of New England.

Harvest in North Dakota can be a time of celebration, frustration and, if you get the crop in the bin or to the elevator, pure relief.

Once the crop is cut, there are no more worries about hail, thunderstorms or any other force of nature that can upset the fragile plants on which farmers’ livelihoods hinge. The stuff that makes the money is finally off the field and safely stored.

I spent eight of the last 12 days in August on what amounted to be a working vacation as I helped my dad and brother harvest their durum, spring wheat and canola crop. For those of you who don’t know my family or I, Monke Farms is located just west of the Enchanted Highway about 20 miles south of Gladstone and we farm land throughout northwestern Hettinger County.

Though my job here at The Press made me miss the start of harvest — my favorite part — I was able to experience more of it this year than I have since my first year of college.
Now any farmer will tell you that harvest doesn’t happen without hiccups. Ever.

This year wasn’t too bad though.

Our custom combiners, a hard-working group from Danielski Farms in Valentine, Neb., were limited to a few malfunctions. Breakdowns never lasted more than a couple hours — which is almost unheard of — though we had the worst luck keeping our grain augers going.

It takes time if you’re hauling grain from the field to elevators in town. In our case, most of the land is just too far from any elevator to feasibly get it all from the field straight to market and back to the field in a reasonable amount of time. We must have trucks going at all times so they can come back to the home place, unload into the bins and get back to the field as quickly as possible.

I took this photo of my brother Scott as we were working at the bin site late one harvest night.

That means a breakdown at the bin site — where I spent a good chunk of time when I wasn’t running between the field and the bins in a semi truck — can waste enough time to set an operation back and leave combines’ hoppers full and sitting in the field waiting for a truck. Delays, especially when sunset comes earlier each day, do nothing but hurt the bottom line. So much of what was cut went straight to the bin.

Naturally, Murphy’s Law loves rearing its head at harvest time and, wouldn’t you know it, something went wrong. Some of the smallest pieces on the augers were the ones to gives us the most fits.

I’m just going to say it. Shear bolts are the devil.

We’re pretty sure every shear bolt that could have possibly broke on one of the augers did at least once, including a pair on the power take-off (PTO) U-joint that broke so often we could just about fix it with our eyes closed after a couple weeks.

We joked that the reason we were shearing so many bolts was that the grain was so heavy, the augers couldn’t take it.

Just when we’d had enough of the bolt breaks, our primary auger’s hydraulic winch decided to malfunction and we learned the part needed to be replaced was not as easily obtained as a shear bolt, nor is it easy to fix.

So much for technological progress on farms.

We knew going into harvest we would forever be a man down.

At our combiners’ last stop before us in South Dakota, their longest-tenured truck driver, a hilarious yet enigmatic Vietnam veteran named Charlie, passed away inside of his truck.

Knowing Charlie, there probably wasn’t any other place he’d have wanted to be.

Charlie was certainly missed. He wasn’t only one heck of a trucker, he was a “dirty jobs” guy. If we needed someone to get dirty underneath a machine or climb atop a quonset, he would volunteer to do it because he knew he was the guy who could best do the job.

As we were getting an auger backed up to a quonset, a story about Charlie scaling the building was brought up. A Danielski trucker named Walter, who doubles as a theology professor, said Charlie was probably on top of the quonset right then, watching and laughing at us trying to do it without him.

I couldn’t help but think he was right.

Aside from the breakdowns, there are a few things you can bet on each harvest.

First is that my dad is going to give the combiners the business that their John Deere combines don’t do as good of a job cleaning the wheat as his old Gleaner R60 did.

That combine was sold last year, which allows he and my brother the availability to do whatever job is needed of them, whether it is driving truck, commanding where the next load will be dumped or navigating the combiners to their next field.

Also, you can bet your house that my dad and brother would channel their inner German stubbornness and get into a knock-down, drag-out argument over something minuscule in the grand scheme of harvest and leave me playing the voice of reason.

Harvest means some long days, late nights and tiring drives back to Dickinson, but it’s not hard to get up the next day and do it all over again.

It is a rewarding experience, especially when someone reminds you how much people depend on farmers.

After posting a picture on Facebook of my brother and I doing work at the bin site long after the sun went down, a cousin commented about how people seem to take farmers for granted because they don’t understand the amount of work that goes into the business.

On today’s front page, I wrote about members of the North Dakota Farmers Union going to Washington, D.C., this week to lobby Congressmen to pass a new farm bill. Two farmers told me they believe that there is a disconnect between those who farm and those who consume their products.

Though the Farmers Union and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., don’t agree on which version of the farm bill should be passed, they can at least agree on that point.

If you don’t know much about farming, ranching, or where your food comes from, you should take it upon yourself to ask a farmer or rancher why what they do is important and how much hard work goes into providing the food that is put on their table.

Who knows, the next time you have pasta with a piece of bread, you just might be eating some of that durum and wheat cut over the last two weeks on my family’s farm.

Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at dmonke@thedickinsonpress.com or tweet him at monkebusiness.

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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