Chase County Wheat Bounty
At Home with Traveling Harvesters.
(page 2 of 3)
One guy on Team Goings who can’t pass the sniff test is their lead truck driver, Ken Witt of Paxton. He is allergic to wheat and has to keep his nostrils from flaring when he delivers another gazillion grains in his giant truck to the tower a few miles away. Witt’s eyes can swell shut for days if he gets a whiff of wheat dust, and that would make driving a 100,000-pound load of grain in this big rig quite a challenge. He used to play in piles of wheat as a young boy, but his immune system absorbed too much and by the time he was 7 it was time to take a grain check.
He seems no worse for the wear after thousands of miles in this cab. He has been working for the Goings since 1996 and will be 48 before this summer harvest ends, but the tanned and fit Witt seems forever young. He’s looking cool in the scorching sun. His earring glistens, and his mustache, ponytail and shades give him the air of a pirate of the prairie, awaiting his wheat booty. Witt has a deep, but peaceful drawl as he swings a mallet at heavyweight tires on his three big trucks. He needs to make sure they’ll last for the long haul. Just like him.
“It keeps you bouncing,” he says of the summer harvest. “I do a little bit. A little bit of everything. Oh, yeah, personalities change at the harvest. Everybody’s does. Especially towards the end when everybody’s wore out.”
Witt takes a look under his tarp-covered container on his big rig’s trailer. He double-checks that its trap doors are shut snug. “If they’re open, it’ll make a pretty good pile on the ground,” he says. There seems to be a wink hiding behind those shades.
Now he just has to stay cool and wait for the massive mowing to begin and for the combine’s auger funnel to pour a load into its grain cart sidekick. Then the tractor will zip over to his big rig to complete the grain relay. He waits for the wheat, but it can’t be too heavy a burden because the grain elevator won’t allow more than 50 tons at the weigh-in.
“You can break 100,000 pounds on this rig easy,” Witt says. “So you’ve got to be careful how you load it.”
Of course there are tricks of the trade. Some drivers will sneak only half a rig on the scale to shield the weight. Witt lucked out once when he was turned away, since he was driving back to a feed lot and was able to cash out the pile with some hungry helpers.
“He’s the one that don’t get riled,” cracks the young combine captain, Billy Goings, as he jokes about his easy rider, Witt. “He just sits back and lets us all worry about it.”
Billy has been helping his parents for 30 of his 36 years. He’s now their neighbor, and for the past decade he’s basically been running this grain train. He’s brought along his young daughter, Sophia, and coffee and a bagel for Witt. The heat is cooking, and the more uncomfortable the weather becomes, the more comfortable Billy feels.
“Ninety is about right,” he says.
His parents will be arriving to join in the fun soon, but regulations and bushels of expenses and the hassles of computerized machinery have taken their toll.
“They’re old school and they don’t want to change,” Billy says. “The help’s harder to find. We used to have cousins that came up. It was more of a family deal.”
Witt takes an easy sip of the coffee and soaks in the sun. He realizes the delays from the stormy weather have some farmers hot and bothered, but he also knows there’s no sense driving around in circles. He’ll leave that to the guys cutting the fields.
“It’s gonna get to the point everybody’s gonna be screaming, wanting the combine,” Witt says. “But we’ll get there when we can.”
Billy starts to cackle when I tell him this is my first harvest rodeo, since I’m a Bostonian. I’ve never been on a big rig, or a combine machine. I’ve never seen the wheat stalks vanish in the blades. Now he has a question for the questioner.
“Are you here on a midlife crisis?” he cracks before explaining his share of the good life. “I’m just glad to be out here. It’s fun to go visit for a half a day in the big city, but that’s about it.”
The muddy nightmare has faded and the field of dreams has returned. It’s time to start cutting wheat. The cagey veteran will drive the combine, and an eager youngblood will keep pace alongside of him on the tractor. They’ll team up to finish off the 150 acres on this field.
Teenager Tyrel Kerchal of Wauneta is a cousin of Dennis, and he’s ready to get his grain cart going for the Goings. He’s even brought his fancy boots.
“This is my kind of sport,” he says. “I drive the tractor by the combine. We have to keep our speed together. It’s teamwork.”