Chase County Wheat Bounty
At Home with Traveling Harvesters.
(page 1 of 3)
(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
RAIN CAN be a farmer’s dearest friend, but not in the middle of July on the wheat fields of southwest Nebraska. That’s when rain becomes the grimmest reaper of all. For nearly 40 long summers, Dennis and Colleen Goings have rolled about the Great Plains with their combine business, separating the wheat from the chaff for thousands of bread ovens and millions of cereal boxes. They’ve cut wheat for farmers in Texas, personally been fried like county fair snacks during the 115-degree heat of an Oklahoma sizzler, brought their bounty to the endless silo castles across Kansas, and even have chugged stuffed grain trucks past the coal mines of Montana. So many fields. So many miles. So many years.
“It’s like going around the world and back I suppose,” Dennis says with a smile as he waits for the cutting to begin during that endless rain delay in the summer of 2011.
The wheat harvest is a fascinating landscape upon Mother Nature’s canvas. The magnificent strokes are brushed by the rolling blades on a combine cutter as it sweeps upon thousands of golden yardsticks waving from the soil.
But there is no time now for an art tour. It’s time to take to take stock in the stalks. The amazing race is on in Chase County. A desperate chase against time.
The weather picture is not a pretty one. After overcoming decades of challenges cutting wheat so far from home, Team Goings now faces a daunting obstacle only miles from their Elsie farm. The relentless rain has been falling since late June, making mudpies of wheat fields just south of Wauneta. One more twist of that faucet in the sky and the wheat fields could become cranberry bogs.
Yet as bad as things seem, things still could be a lot worse. That pitch might not hold water when tossed by politicians, but it hits home for Dennis and Colleen, because they lived through that summer of 1984. There was a full gluten-free month where they needed an ark instead of a combine. Thirty days of rain. Thirty days of mud. Thirty days of nothing.
“We just sat there,” Colleen laughed.
“We never cut nothing,” Dennis said. “But if you pull out, you’ll never get that job back.”
Wauneta’s giant grain elevator can be heard grumbling deep from its belly, aching for the trucks to start feeding the beast. The Goings’ son, Billy, has assembled a pair of combine crews to double their pleasure and take on two fields at once, but so far those plans have been all wet. Their two high-tech combine machines have been snoozing for days, planted just over the hills and dales near Route 6, unable to perform that mechanical ballet of reaping, threshing and winnowing between blade, sickle, and cylinder. Team Goings has cut 100 acres of wheat, but there’s 20 times that left to go. Farmers are waiting for 2,000 acres to be harvested on wheat fields scattered all about Wauneta and north to Wallace.
“We’re mostly just stopping because it’s rain, rain, rain,” Dennis sighs from his Elsie home. “We’ve only cut a hundred acres. We should be done, but you’ve got to wait until the weather dries up. You can’t cut in damp weather.”
Who’ll stop the rain? It’s all still up in the air, but Colleen sees a ray of sunshine on the horizon. One more day of dry cleaning and the combine diesels will begin their 5 mph charge, she vows. A long wet season will drench their business, but Colleen has faced down scarier fears than bursting clouds. There was that big snake daring to hitch a ride with the truck she was driving in the combine convoy from Weatherford, Okla. After several hours of riding up from central Oklahoma, Colleen was approaching the Kansas border when she noticed the reptile snaking its way up on her hood.
“I’m deathly afraid of snakes,” Colleen said. “Suddenly, it got in the cab with me.”
The men in the other trucks heard her hollering on the radio. There was a wild commotion, and then, an eerie, deadly silence.
Finally, a calm and collected Colleen surfaced over the airwaves.
“Well, he might be an Oklahoma snake,” she said. “But he’s dead in Kansas now.”
Colleen’s cheerful ways have made her many friends in this business, but she’s also a sharp bookkeeper who’s no pushover for a snake on a truck, or in the grass.
“She’s the boss lady,” Dennis chuckles.
“And the truck driver,” Colleen chimes in.
She also appears to be an accurate weather forecaster. The rain has held and the heat is on. The fields dry off on Thursday and the Friday morning dew sizzles away. By late morning they’re ready to cut deep into two fields under the rising sun.
“Hot and dry,” Colleen says. “Just the way we like it.”
You can tell if the wheat is ready to be taken by sight, touch or taster’s choice. Put a bit of grain in your mouth and if it crackles and gets chewy on the teeth then it’s good to go. Colleen even lets her nostrils be the guide.
“Ripening wheat has an odor to it,” she says. “You know when it’s right by the smell.”
“Well, I can’t smell it,” Dennis mutters.