Musings on a Postmodern Prairie Harvest

Sunset glows through blowing chaff, near Hardisty, Alberta. Photo: Andrew Marcille.

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What happens when you put an environmental historian behind the wheel of a $300,000 combine for twelve hours a day

by Andrew Marcille

While farming, I often remember John Kenneth Galbraith’s division of anticipated seasonal work from the drudgery of daily chores in his humorous book of local history, The Scotch. I recall, too, Galbraith’s reminiscence that each time a young man from the Ontario countryside of his childhood left to fight in the Great War, people said that he was escaping from chores. Even a twenty-first-century crop farm, without stock to tend, has small, necessary tasks that each day demands. Agricultural life runs on varied and overlapping time-scales. The seasons have their proper work: the yearly cycle of preparing land, seeding, controlling weeds, bringing in the harvest, and selling the crop. On the scale of a few or many years, land may be repurposed, the focus of the farm may change, and, at the very least, the crops grown in each field should rotate. The long scale is never far from reach, even when the day’s work is engrossing. It only takes a setback to bring it to the fore, as someone’s resignation gives voice to the hope of “Next year…”

Gus walks back across a harvested portion of Section 33 on a chill, blustery day menaced by clouds. The depopulated landscape of canola stubble seems too bleak for a morning just one week past the equinox. South of Hardisty, Alberta, and north of the Battle River, September 29, 2014.
Gus walks back across a harvested portion of Section 33 on a chill, blustery day menaced by clouds. The depopulated landscape of canola stubble seems too bleak for a morning just one week past the equinox. South of Hardisty, Alberta, and north of the Battle River, September 29, 2014.

The growing season that followed the bumper harvest of 2013 was not the ‘Next year’ that Canada’s prairie farmers were hoping for. I spent 2014 on a family farm in eastern Alberta, growing cereals, legumes, and oilseeds on eight sections of rolling country north of the Battle River and south of the well-oiled town of Hardisty. Gus Johnson’s land has never been good. It tends toward dryness, and even if he were inclined to irrigate his fields, he hasn’t the water rights to do it. In 2013, moisture at just the right time brought his farm the best crop in its hundred-and-five-year history. In 2014, the cloudbursts he had hoped to see in June appeared in September, soaking crops already weighed down by heavy early snow. A wet spring delayed seeding; a dry summer inhibited growth; a wet autumn interfered with harvest. It was a rough year. But it was also, in the end, a success: the crops grew; we harvested every acre; the farm survives; and immense amounts of food flow from our few hands to a hungry world.

The work of a modern harvest is overwhelmingly machinery operated, and its chores are machine maintenance. These are the daily and seasonal rhythms of an industrial agricultural model that was developing in Canada even as Galbraith escaped his own chores for academic work. We began each morning by filling the pickup truck that served as our mobile workshop with diesel from the farm tanks for our two combine harvesters, which burnt more than five hundred litres apiece in a normal work day. The combines had friction points to grease, rock traps to clear of jammed chaff, and levels of hydraulic and engine oil to check. Operating a modern harvester is less like bringing in a pre-mechanized grain harvest than it is like playing a monotonous computer game with terribly high stakes for upwards of twelve hours, if the weather holds. I moved over fields in a bubble of conditioned air, trying to pay constant attention to land from which I felt detached and insulated. Sometimes I was on edge, and sometimes my mind drifted. On the front of my combine was a header, which fed the crops from field to threshing rotor and which had to be frequently adjusted. If the header were too high, some of the field’s yield would be passed over and lost; but if it were too low, it might meet the ground and pick up the harvester’s nightmare—a rock. Even a small stone can wreak havoc on the innards of a combine, leading to expensive repairs and disastrous downtime. A joystick controlled the machine’s throttle and the header height, and my right hand spent the workday changing both to match the terrain and hovering over the kill switch that would stop the thresher.

I look forward from the cab of a combine, harvesting swathes of canola from Section 33, a 550-acre field, at sundown. South of Hardisty, Alberta, and north of the Battle River, September 22, 2014.
I look forward from the cab of a combine, harvesting swathes of canola from Section 33, a 550-acre field, at sundown. South of Hardisty, Alberta, and north of the Battle River, September 22, 2014.

My left hand rarely left the steering wheel. The combines could drive themselves along straight lines with GPS guidance, but I could only use this technology on the few days I spent straight-cutting wheat, harvesting the standing crop directly into the thresher. Wet, heavy snow in the first week of September laid much of the standing grain low to the ground, and picking it up by straight-cut header with a combine was slow and dangerous work. Instead, a nimble machine called a swather cut the crop, laying it in swathes to be picked up by the combines with rubber belts mounted with plastic fingers. Rocks picked up by the swather’s cutting bar landed harmlessly back on the ground, and I was able to follow the swathes quickly across the field. Gus marvelled at the conditions that drove us to harvest, thus: wet midcentury autumns had led most of the region’s farmers to swathe everything for decades, but this was only the second time in his own life that the farm had swathed cereal crops.

The modern family prairie farm is larger than ever, in both acreage and yields, and this creates new problems unforeseen by past generations. Larger bins are more efficient: with a labour force of few bodies (often only one), less jockeying of trucks and augers when loading and unloading is a boon. Huge steel bins, though, can generate convection currents unknown in the smaller metal or wooden bins of most twentieth-century farmers. Crops harvested too warm can combust; those harvested with too high a moisture content will rot. Farmers can remedy these problems in aeration bins, blowing air through the grain with powerful fans, but our aeration capacity was small and saved for high-value crops: the cost of electric drying strains the already slim margins on cereals. Storing crops in hundred-yard-long high-density plastic bags exchanges these risks for those posed by scavenging fauna, demands additional machinery, and generates significant waste. Many prairie farmers avoid the problems and expenses of storage by trucking straight from the combine to a grain company and selling at low harvest season prices, but the nearest elevator is too far from the Johnson farm for that to be an option. We just binned and bagged, kept close watch on our moisture meters, and hoped.

I marvelled many times a day, this year, at what I was accomplishing with machinery and diesel. My combine and I replaced dozens of men and many more draught animals—the threshing teams the same land had employed, a century before. The thirty-two quarter-sections Gus and I harvested had been homesteaded by as many families. This depopulated prairie landscape is now worked, thanks to the power extracted from oil, by only three or four people. Just half of the land we seeded and harvested produced, even in this disappointing year, enough wheat to make perhaps three million loaves of bread, and the other half yielded many thousands of bushels of peas, canola, flax, and barley. I was there for all of the work, and I still don’t feel I can fathom its extent. To a mind steeped in the long history of agriculture, the scale of farming in the Age of Abundant Energy is amazing, its future problems unforeseeable.

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Andrew Cardinal travels and studies travel narratives. He recently completed a Master's in History at the University of Western Ontario.

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