Chase County Wheat Bounty
At Home with Traveling Harvesters.
(page 3 of 3)
Don Brummond has been cutting wheat forever and a day. He was 32 when he started out in the harvest game while living in northeast Nebraska, in Osmond, and he’s still going strong 40 years later. After a 42-year career in the insurance business, Brummond retired to a Colorado with his wife, Marilyn, but he still returns for the summer wheat and corn harvests. Of course, these days, it’s a sweet ride with an air-conditioned John Deere 9600, with a 30-foot-wide header blade and digital gizmos that help read the temperature, wind, and moisture on the wheat.
Brummond is eager to give this field a buzz cut, but first he waits for a tenderfoot writer to climb aboard his glass-enclosed, digitized cab. He starts driving, and cutting, and a long rectangle trail follows in his wake. He is 72 now. He has seen it all, and sometimes way out here, he sees nothing at all.
“You can drive around a section and sometimes you don’t even meet anybody,” Brummond says. “We’re the only people on the road.”
Sadly, there are some other visitors on this field. The baby pheasants become casualties when the 3-foot-high stalks are swallowed up by the huge blades. “The little ones aren’t smart enough,” he says. “They run ahead of you, and you can’t slow down for all of them.”
But Brummond wants his heavy-booted teen on the tractor to slow down. They must stay together and he needs to keep his machine cutting at between 2.6 mph and 3.5 mph. If it goes faster, too much straw will spit out behind after leaving the thresher and it might gum up the works. The combine stays close to the edge and continues its wheat conveyor belt, with the header feeding the stalks into the teeth of the sickle, and the auger gathers the stalks into the feeder before it passes along into the cylinder, where the grain and chaff part ways.
“What you want to make sure you’re doing is getting all the wheat so you’re not leaving it in the field,” he explains. “If you cut too high, you don’t get those low heads of wheat.”
Brummond’s tank is filling and he beeps for young Tyrel to step off the gas. The veteran and the rookie line up and the grain pours out from the giant auger tube into the grain cart. It goes off like clockwork. There will be more cuts and a couple more successful transfers, and then Tyrel speeds off to Witt’s nearby rig, patiently waiting to be fed. There are many more hours to go on this field, but they’re not in Kansas anymore, where the Goings’ midnight ramblers made a deposit at the grain elevator at 2 a.m.
We soon depart the combine after a victory lap. But Witt has also made room for me on his monster truck. We ask him if he’s ever given it a name.
“Yeah,” he nods. “My Truck.”
Witt and My Truck have survived a few close calls over the years. He’s dodged lightning bolts and stampeding bull racks cutting him off, and a tornado-force crosswind near Imperial that pulled My Truck across a gravel road. Witt just cranked up the AC/DC classic rock and he and My Truck kept on truckin’.
“All you do is keep going,” he said. “Game of inches. Oh yeah.”
The ride to the Wauneta tower for Witt must seem as exciting as a dog paddle for Michael Phelps. Still, when you’re steering nearly 100,000 pounds over dusty trails, it’s not exactly a trip to the post office. But the easy rider has been making these deliveries for a dozen years now.
“Pull on a scale. Pull over to a pit. Everything drops out.”
Witt admits things can get a little hectic when there’s a traffic jam at the grain elevator.
“I’ve always got people pulling in front of me,” he says. “Every now and then somebody in front of me does something stupid and I get a little upset. But it’s part of the game.”
Dennis and Colleen Goings have been at this game since 1973. They’ve earned enough cash to keep cutting, but the friendships they’ve found along the way are much more valuable.
“Some of our best friends are the people we cut for,” Dennis says.
Two of the dearest are Oklahoma farmers who hired them on one of their first jobs. When a long rain delay kept them on the farm, they attended the wedding of the farmers’ daughter. They’ve been breaking bread together ever since, and still cutting their wheat.
Perhaps the couple that cuts together stays together.
“We get so damn tired you don’t got time to argue,” Dennis laughs.
But Team Goings may soon be gone from this game. They once survived a violent storm by making a mad dash to a Quonset hut as a horse trailer hurtled toward them in the fierce winds, yet modern-day challenges of rising costs, age-restrictive hiring regulations and technology conflicts have struck like a Texas twister.
“I’ll miss seeing the people,” Colleen says. “But as far as the laws and the traveling, no. He misses it. I don’t.”
“You get some 35-year-old guy and he won’t listen to you,” Dennis laments. “Back when we started, that’s all we hired was high school kids. We had a lot of local farm boys run with us.”
Dennis is said to have the mechanical wizardry worthy of a pitcrew ace, but he can’t fix a computer code flashing on his screen. And although their fee of $23 an acre is nearly double from the 1970s, the profit margin has been slashed.
The cunning bookkeeper, truck driver, and snake hunter says perhaps by next summer she and Dennis will bid farewell to cutting and focus on their farm and the September corn harvest. It can weather the storm a lot better than wheat.
“Corn doesn’t deteriorate in the weather like wheat,” she says.
“Hell, there ain’t no wheat in this country anymore,” Dennis says. “It’s scattered all over.”
Yet for now, there are many more Nebraskan farmers waiting for the harvest. There are spacious skies, and amber waves of grain.
“There are no purple mountain majesties,” Colleen chuckles.
But the sun is shining. There are more fields for the combine to cross and the nation’s breadbasket still needs to be filled. The big wheels keep on turning. The chase is on in Chase County.
(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)