Monday, January 23, 2012

Guest Essay: Harvest Memories

Alfred "Rusty" Rustad with the family's 'new' combine 
[Photo Courtesy:  Rustad Family Collection]

By Michael Rustad

As a child growing up in Northwest Minnesota, I remember that all of the town's activities centered around the harvest in late August, early September. Football practice often had to be scheduled in the wee hours of the morning to accommodate harvest season. My grandfather, Alfred Hagbart Sr. and my father, Rustee, farmed our quarter section and rented another quarter section of land from Bob Shantz. We were a rather primitive operation. Attempt the impossible. Achieve the possible. And, that was not easy in Minnesota.

Today:  The '35 Chevy truck awaits restoration 
[Photo Courtesy:  Rustad Family Collection]
Our farming operation did not have air-conditioned cabs and stereo systems incorporated in the combines. We had a 1935 Chevy truck that was started with a crank. It was an extremely difficult gear shift and several of the gears were stripped or in bad condition. The truck ran well because of my Dad's ability to over-haul the ancient engine. Our combine was a 1942 left-handed Allis-Chalmers combine. I could never get a clear understanding of why the combine was left-handed. One of the consequences was that the initial rows of fallen grain had to be moved by hand to enter the field. What idiot invented a left-handed combine? We had the only left-handed combine. This required my brother and I to move the rows, so the combine would not run over the fallen wheat and lost! This was my job. My grandmother Rustad often drove the truck and I often kept her company.

It was during the harvest that I developed severe breathing problems from the intense dust. The truck front-side windows were both broken so they would not roll up all the way. There was no way to prevent a cloud of dust from entering the truck. It was quite an unpleasant experience. I later learned that farmer's lung, the equivalent of asbestosis, killed many farmers. By the way, the grim reapers (as the lawyers called them), were dangerous too. There were unprotected and unguarded moving machinery ready to take off your favorite arm or leg. My friend, John Hunt, fell from a tractor and a plow shear created an injury. He plowed up a nest of hornets and fell off while fending off the hornets. He recovered but nearly lost his life. My next door neighbor Diane was also run over by a tractor and fortunately was not seriously harmed.

The truck loads of grain were generally augured into the grainery directly. I did not comprehend how dangerous these unguarded augers were until reading accounts of farm accidents later while studying product liability law. There were no warnings of the dangers of unguarded augers. The farmers of that area presumed that any damn fool did not go near the auger. Yet, year after year, the toll of farm accidents marched on.

I did not enjoy the harvest period very much as it was a period of high tension and excruciating long hours of work which largely fell on my Dad's shoulders. He would work a full day at the Post Office and rush home to work in the fields. I was not a gifted farm boy when it came to mechanics, machinery repair etc. I remember trying to help my Dad get the combine in shape for an upcoming harvest and negligently left a wrench inside. When the combine started the wrench broke every slat and caused us to lose a few day's time, which is precious during harvest. My Father was infinitely patient but was not pleased with me. But, he never again asked me to crawl into the inner bowels of the combine.

One of the family's old tractors is slowly being grown over now
[Photo Courtesy:  Rustad Family Collection]

Lunches in the field had to be grabbed on the run. I remember my Dad eating corn on the cob while driving the combine. He somehow managed to eat a half dozen ears of corn in the course of a lunch in the field and he simultaneously continued to operate the combine. He had a rotary motion when he ate the corn and never dropped an ear.

Gallons of coffee were consumed by the harvesting crew. My grandfather Rustad was a legendary coffee drinker and I remember him draining near a 1/2 gallon of coffee out of the jar in the field. That amount of coffee would have stopped the heart of most Americans, but he was a Norwegian-American.

I was always relieved by the end of harvest. I cannot recall many good harvests. It seemed like something came to ruin the harvest every year. There was "rust" that infected the wheat, hail, or too much or too little rain. My experience with farming convinced me to pay attention to my studies so I would never again choke from harvest dust.

I often wondered why some of the smaller farmers continued to farm long after it was [not that] profitable. I think that I finally understand why decades later. I believe that there must be something inherently satisfying about being your own boss and looking forward to a better crop next year.It is like being a Red Sox fan. Maybe, next year the Red Sox will win the World Series. However, there is always some natural disaster preventing success in the next year. In the days before corporate farming, there were many farms like the Rustad family farm. This meant that the towns of the Red River Valley were populated by young families with dreams of a better harvest next year. Today our land is out of the family and owned by one of the "big" operators. I knew from an early age that I needed an escape plan from the Great Northwest. When I left that area, I thought it looked best in the rear view mirror. Decades later, I seldom go back to the Great Northwest, Minnesota. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that it helped me develop my character and personality---and work ethic.

The combine in later years...
[Photo Courtesy:  Rustad Family Collection]