Harvest. It’s a word that’s unlike any other in the farming vocabulary. I don’t think there can be many others that conjure up so much nostalgia, so much emotion, so many memories. Converse at length with any old farmer and they’ll talk reverently of golden summers in times long gone. Of shared experiences, both good and bad, in the fields and farmyards that they roamed as young men and women. I shared a wonderful hour recently with my 94 year old Grandfather, my Mother’s Father, showing him a video from Youtube of harvest in 1938. His eyes misted over and he smiled as he watched it, and he became more animated than I’d seen him in years, recalling steadily scything wheat and oats for days on end, driving the binder from a hard iron seat behind a horse, and stacking the bound sheaves into stooks in the fields, before loading them onto horse drawn carts by hand, and then unloading them the same way into the dutch barns at the farm. I’m certain that watching that video made him fleetingly feel young again, and I’m so very glad I got to share it with him.
Sitting here writing this in our draughty farmhouse kitchen in November of 2016, hearing the freezing cold rain battering the window, and with Rocky our Jack Russell terrier curled up at my feet, it feels like it could be a lifetime away. A different world. And yet.. And yet, it isn’t.
I have so many of my own recollections associated with harvest time, that if I stop and close my eyes, I can almost feel it, smell it, hear it, see it. I can feel the childish excitement of getting to ride in the Combine with my Uncle Malcolm, never tiring of watching the giant header pulling in the crop, and pleading to take the steering wheel just one more time. I can hear the rattle of the grain augur taking it up from the 6 tonne trailers, that seemed huge to me at the time, to the storage bins, and feel the itch of the barley dust on my neck as I shovel the last of it through the chute. I can feel the hot August sun on my skinny back and shoulders, and my Grandfather’s rough, callused hand dwarfing mine as we walk across a stubble field to see my Father baling small bales of straw through clouds of dust with our Jones superstar baler. The vivid colours of the machines against the yellow corn are imprinted on my mind. I can see my Mother driving the Massey Ferguson 290, easing off the clutch gently as myself and my Sister are stacking bales on the trailer behind her up to 8 layers high, laughing to ourselves mischievously at one of our many in-jokes.
I can taste the dust in my mouth and nostrils as we unload the trailers full of bales back in the stack yard at the farm, and I can feel the soreness in my soft fingers from the thin string, and the sweat running down my face as I lift the bales on to the elevator. Starting as a child on the trailers, before eventually graduating to the much more responsible role of stacking in the dutch barn as I got older. Priding myself on being able to do a man’s work when I was still a boy. The iconic sound of the Briggs and Stratton engine on the Lister bale elevator is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life. We still have it here, and although rarely used now, I’ll never part with it. Days and days of my childhood summer holidays are spent like this. Loading and unloading thousands of bales, and watching numerous trailers of grain being tipped. Bringing the harvest in. Taking a quick break between loads, sitting on bales of straw eating cheese sandwiches and crisps, and drinking cold lager shandy from plastic bottles, surrounded by my family.
The sun always seemed to shine during those childhood harvests. There always seemed to be time, although I suspect that’s my memory playing tricks on me. It isn’t quite like that now, and if there’s a word that I associate the most with harvest these days, it can only be ‘hectic’. We tend to start in the middle of July with Barley. The few weeks previous are generally spent meticulously servicing tractors and equipment, cleaning out the grain store, and mostly, fretting about the weather. If there’s a weather app out there that i haven’t looked at yet, then it’s only a matter of time. Apps, TV forecasts, the sky, and even bloody pine cones are studied carefully in the hope that it will give us some kind of an edge over Mother Nature’s plans. But ultimately, whatever hand we’re dealt, we have to get on and cope with it as best we can.
Harvest days nearly always start with my Dad and I convening to plan the day ahead. Our ritual morning meeting. With land and crops spread out over several locations, the logistics of where everyone needs to be at a certain time can take some organising, and to say that mobile phones are vital is an understatement. There’s a team of us involved; Me, Dad, Malcolm on the Combine, and Keith and whoever else we can get to do it at the time, carting grain from the fields back to the farm, with both my Mother and Wife assigned the vital role of being on stand-by to fetch any spare parts or emergency items that we may need at any time. For most of the year on our farm it’s just us as a family, and as much as I enjoy that aspect of the job, i’ve always loved being part of a harvest team. There’s a camaraderie and shared effort to it that you perhaps only appreciate as you get older.
Generally I’ll be on the baler (we’ve long since moved onto big square bales these days), either baling our own straw, much of which we sell to neighbouring livestock farmers, or contracting for others. It can be difficult at times to juggle doing our own with baling for others, but we make it work. Much of my summer is spent in this way, rushing from one baling job to another, and it’s one of my favourite things in the world. I’m not sure why exactly, but there’s something deeply satisfying about arriving in a field full of cut straw when the morning dew has burnt off, and leaving it full of tidy and compact bales many hours later when the Sun has long since set. I’ve got a relationship with that baler, that probably only people who’ve operated them can understand. They can be temperamental machines at the best of times, with the knotters that tie off the strings around the bales being notoriously difficult when they want to be, and we have our moments to be sure, but mostly I think the world of her.
Gathering in the grain and straw is easier and more efficient these days too, with 12 and 14 tonne trailers tipping into the grain store that we built here in 2012, and a telescopic handler to push it up into high heaps with. I bring in the straw with the same machine behind a trailer that can hold 50 big bales at a time, and unload into a purpose built straw shed that we put up two years ago. The increasingly small good weather windows that we seem to get nowadays make these machines and buildings invaluable, and we simply couldn’t do the job without them.
Some harvests, like this last Summer of 2016, are relatively straight forward. We had little rain in July and August and we were able to get all our grain harvested and in the store without having to artificially dry it down to the industry standard 15% moisture level, saving on cost and stress levels considerably. Others like 2007 and 2013 were the stuff of nightmares, with continued rainfall meaning Wheat in particular, turned black where it stood in the field. Much of it wasn’t gathered in until well into October. Cereals, like any other crop, aren’t cheap at all to grow. The cost of seed, fertiliser, sprays, machinery and labour are a huge outlay which starts the previous winter. The relief of getting a decent yielding crop safely into storage is palpable, whilst opening the curtains on a summer morning to see another day of rain ahead, and your crops withering in the fields, is one of the worst you can possibly imagine as a farmer. You need that crop to pay the bills, reduce the overdraft, and help you get a good night’s sleep again.
Harvest has changed so much even within my lifetime, and as hectic as it can be for us now, there has to be still time for enjoyment and making memories. I love to see my children playing in the fields as we are harvesting, mouths agape in awe and shrieking with excitement as they watch the combine work its way across the field. Then driving their pedal tractors around the farm mimicking us working, and helpfully pointing out to me what we could or should do better. Yes, they’re their Mother’s daughters. They’re making their own memories now, and I hope that when they’re older they look back with as much happiness as I do. Perhaps they’ll tell their Grandchildren how different it was in their day.
And I’ll tell you this; you can eat at five michelin star restaurants anywhere in the World if you have the money and inclination, but I 100% guarantee that you won’t taste or experience anything there that’s half as amazing as fish and chips brought to the field and eaten sitting on a bale of straw whilst watching the sun set, surrounded by your family. It’s what harvest memories are made of.