Fall is always a time of excitement when you live on a farm. Each year becomes a race against time to get the crop harvested before winter arrives. There is also a sense of urgency involved, as the harvested crop is the sole source of income for the entire next year. To make matters worse, the days become noticeably shorter at an alarming rate: It’s a little like one of those games where you hear the clock ticking, and as you near the end, the clock ticks faster which adds a sense of panic and frustration. Farming isn’t a game, however. If you fail to harvest your crop before the snow flies, you risk losing everything, making it ultimately the fine line between success and failure!
While farming is serious business for those whom have chosen to make a living tilling the soil, it was also the source of many pleasant memories for a boy like me who helped his Dad work the fields while growing into a man. Fortunately, I was often sheltered from the harsh realities that make up modern agriculture and allowed to simply enjoy the peace that comes from existing so near the good earth. Life was sometimes difficult, but almost always filled with a kind of simple satisfaction that is unique to those whom practice the world’s oldest profession. Although I’m decades removed from our family farm, I live in a region dominated by agriculture, so I still get caught up in the urgency that surrounds harvest each year. Living in the Red River Valley allows me to partake in one of the things I remember with the greatest fondness from my years on the farm: Smelling the grain dust during wheat harvest.
Wheat is really quite amazing when you think about it. A farmer puts a kernel of it into the soil, and with the right amount of rainfall and fertilizer, that one kernel will produce hundreds of new ones over the course of a summer. The wheat plant grows, produces kernels, and then slowly dies down as the seeds mature. When the plant is completely dead and dry (gold color), it is time to harvest the grain. A combine cuts and gathers the stalks into a chamber that mechanically rubs and separates the kernels from the rest of the plant in a process called “threshing.” The seeds are transferred to a storage bin within the combine called a “hopper” while the rest of the plant is ground up and shot out the back and allowed to decompose. When the hopper gets full, the grain is unloaded into a truck and hauled back to the farm.
During a dry harvest day, our neighborhood was full of combines operating twelve hour or longer days. Grain stalks were continually ground up and shot out of the back, leaving a trail of suspended dust in the combine’s wake. The air of the entire region would be full of the smallest of the small particles, and they would remain airborne for hours, or even days, until eventually a rain returned them to the earth. While some people anxiously awaited the rains to come and refresh the air, I always enjoyed the smell of the North Dakota wheat harvest. Over the years, this pleasant fragrance has come to mean even more to me: It is truly one of the strongest reminders of my long lost home.