Combine driving: an uncertain ride on waves of grain Itinerant harvesters work close to the earth and close to the edge


ST. XAVIER, Mont. -- They are the cowboys of Great Plains agriculture, the traveling salesmen of the harvest. And on this sunny afternoon in August their big cutting machines are thrashing like Mississippi paddle-wheelers across a rolling ocean Montana wheat and barley.

That is where we find Doug Neufeld squatting in the dusty wake of his machines, studying the leavings of stubble and chaff like a hunter reading the spoor of his prey. If there's too much wasted seed in the mix he'll be on the radio, calling out adjustments. But keep those combines rolling, because an ugly, slate-bottomed cloud is boiling up to the northeast.

Mr. Neufeld is a custom combiner, and the crews that he and his brothers run are among perhaps 3,000 outfits cutting their way across America's midsection, from south Texas to the Canadian border. Every May, they resume a nomadic ritual of trailer-home caravans, hot dinners served in the field and children who track down old, familiar playmates from summer to summer, town to town, as their families move north with the harvest on toward fall.

Of all the nation's wheat, these itinerant cutters reap more than half, first tackling the winter wheat of the Southern plains and then moving to the spring crop as it ripens in the North. That has been the general tendency since the 1920s, and with top-flight combines now running to $120,000 apiece many farmers are less inclined than ever to take on the job themselves.

So, as grain ripens and dries in sunny fields across the wheat belt, farmers dial up the mobile phones of such people as the Neufeld brothers -- Keith, Bruce and Doug, of Inman, Kan. -- then pace the floor, fret about hailstorms and watch the horizon for the distant plumes of farm-road dust that signal the approach of the machines.

The cutters are no less edgy. For all their technology and the comforting regularity of the seasons, they often move in fits and starts. As the ripening edge of the wheat crop sweeps north, it can leap forward by a whole state at a time when a heat wave settles over the plains, drying the grain to just the right level of moisture. But when the rains come and the grain gets as soggy as a day-old bowl of cereal, everything stops.

So it is that when Doug Neufeld and his crew come rumbling down the gravel road at noon here, about 40 miles southeast of Billings, farmer Ed Nessen is waiting in his 4-by-4 truck. He is eager to show them 2,100 acres of wheat and barley ready for cutting.

The eagerness is mutual. Mr. Nessen is a first-time customer, one the Neufelds have sought for years. Most wheat fields in this part of Montana are far apart on rough terrain, appearing from the air as scattered patches of pale yellow on the rumpled green blanket of the prairie. But the Nessen tract is the fat of the land, a sprawling mass of fields that stretches to two horizons. The acreage means a steady week of cutting if the weather holds, and at the going rate it will bring the Neufelds up to $32,000.

It is also one of the tracts where combines were first used in Montana in 1917, when the corporation that used to own the farm brought the first four machines into the state. That was in custom combining's earliest days, when harvest crews tended to be a rough-and-tumble bunch of transients and brawlers from all walks of life.

They slept in barns, in tents or under the stars, and wary townspeople usually kept women and children out of the way.

Today, as with the Neufelds, crew members are steadier, usually with a background in agriculture. They work for room and board and about $1,200 a month, six days a week (with Sundays off).

They live in their own rolling bunkhouses -- specially built mobile homes -- and it takes no more than a few minutes of CB chatter to tell that they're hardly just a bunch of flat-talking Midwesterners.

A Georgia drawl joins an accent from southern Pennsylvania, only to be followed by the clipped diction of an Englishman. Also in the 16-man crew are two workers from Denmark and one from Northern Ireland, although the predominant origin is the Eastern United States.

But the heart of the work force, as always for the Neufelds, is family. The brothers bought the business in 1984 from their dad. He started it in the late 1950s with a single combiner and a rattletrap trailer that sometimes housed both family and crew.

They're all from Inman, Kan., and still live there when they're not crossing the country. But even though they now have 10 combines, they work many of the same fields once harvested by their dad.

Custom combining tends to be that way, with strong ties of loyalty binding the cutters and their longtime customers.

The brothers grew into the business, taking the wheel of the combines as kids, then working their way up to full duties by their early teens. Their own sons have completed the cycle. Keith's 15-year-old son, Kevin, is as steady a hand as any, and Doug's son, A.J., at age 13, can be found steering a combine through the field on most afternoons. Both soon must return for school, however, and for Kevin high school football practice begins in a week.

With old friends scattered along their route, the harvest journey can seem like a rolling reunion tour. Driving down an interstate highway leading out of Billings, Doug Neufeld recalls that his father would park the family trailer on a farm lot next to a canal, where he'd swim with his pals, the farmer's kids.

"I used to look forward to seeing all of my friends in the different locations," he says.

And by being the harbingers of the harvest, he says, "In most cases, people are very happy to see you. They're anxious to see you. It is the highlight of their year."

But mostly he likes the family closeness that comes almost automatically in this kind of business, where the children help in the field, and the mother cooks and delivers hot meals for both family and crew.

"Even in small-town America, what I see is that people just don't spend a whole lot of time together as a family anymore," he says. "Maybe they'll take a week or two together for a vacation, but we're together the whole summer."

With familiarity so much a part of their job, meeting a new customer such as Mr. Nessen can put Mr. Neufeld "on pins and needles," he says. In initial encounters between combiner and farmer, a courtship of sorts takes place.

On this afternoon in Mr. Nessen's field, he and Mr. Neufeld speak to each other from the open windows of their trucks in the politest of tones, each deferring to the other as they discuss where the cutting should begin.

The first field is to be a vast expanse of barley. Later will come 1,600 acres of wheat.

As the combines lumber down a farm road toward the first cutting, with their blade headers raised in the air like the claws of giant land crabs, the scene is almost romantically pastoral. The air is perfumed by the honey-sweetness of purple wildflowers. Two hawks circle lazily overhead. A dust devil weaves across the road, skirting the path of a truck. The dark peaks of the Bighorn Mountains loom majestically to the south.

But as the combines clatter into the first rows of barley, throwing up a huge yellow cloud of straw and dust, thunder rumbles in the distance and raindrops begin to fall.

Apart from hail, this is one of the worst things nature can do to a harvest day. Talk on the CBs grows concerned. "We've lost our dust," Mr. Neufeld remarks after a few moments. But the rain stops, and the clouds move on.

To pilot a combine is to become master of the field. You are surrounded by a glass-walled cab that juts out over the rotating blades, a full 9 feet in the air.

The floor shudders beneath your feet, while the engine whines rhythmically and the grain piles up in the rear window as if filling the chamber of a giant hourglass. Rolling up a hill, the combine up ahead disappears over the crest, like another ship on a tossing sea.

It can all be hypnotic enough to lull a person straight to sleep, particularly after lunch. But besides worrying about keeping a straight path and maneuvering so that the hopper truck can unload the grain as you move, there can be the occasional hazard to contemplate.

Wheat field fires, usually caused when the heated muffler of a loading truck brushes against the dry stalks of wheat, can catch in a breeze to move like, well, wildfire.

The Neufelds feel fortunate to not have had a bad one in more than a dozen years.

Then there are skunks. Catch one in your blades and its smell can contaminate a whole load of wheat. No one has yet found a grain elevator that will let a skunked load slip by.

But for this day the main worry is the threat of rain, as clouds come and go threateningly for the first several hours. The Neufelds began this year's harvest bogged in the rains of south Texas for several weeks, idled inside their trailers while costs mounted and income stayed at zero.

From there, the weather got better as Doug Neufeld took a crew up into northern Texas, then on into Kansas and Colorado, before reaching Billings on July 24. Keith Neufeld, meanwhile, took a crew west to California for a few weeks, then moved back to the Texas panhandle and other points in Colorado before linking up with Doug's machines in Billings.

When the wheat harvest is completed either late this month or in early September, they'll head back to Kansas and the Texas panhandle, to harvest corn and soybeans.

All in all, they say, it's not a bad way to see a big chunk of the country.

"We see it in a different way than tourists do," Doug Neufeld says. "We get back up off the main roads and see a lot of the country that nobody else sees."

By 6:30 p.m., his wife, Pam, has arrived with A.J., who is not cutting today, and his younger sisters Tonya, 11, and Jill, 6. They have brought a hot meal of beef patties, bread, green beans, a congealed salad and a large cooler of iced tea on an 80-minute trip to the field.

Dinner is served on the grass as the combine engines idle. Then it's back to cutting.

If the operator of the local grain elevator weren't closing down so early tonight ("He closes at 6, and he's kind of a cantankerous bastard, too," one of the truck drivers had earlier informed the crew), then cutting would have gone on until the dew fell, which on especially dry days might not happen until midnight.

That's when the cutting work grows quietest of all. Banks of headlights beam into the fields as the machines beetle along in formation.

In some ways, being a custom combiner is easier than ever today. There are water and electrical hookups for the family trailers, air-conditioned cabs in the harvesters, and 30-foot-wide blade headers that can cut up to three times as much per year than the machines did when the Neufeld brothers' father started in the business.

"In my lifetime, I'd say one man can produce what it probably took three men to produce when I was a kid," Doug Neufeld says.

But for all that, making a living just doesn't seem to get any easier.

For one thing, there is the stagnant price of wheat. Then there is the alphabet soup of government regulators, from DOT to USDA, from OSHA to the Labor Department. To get Doug Neufeld started on this problem is to mention his greatest headache, one that has taken him to Washington several times to help wheat-industry lobbyists talk sense to Congress.

"The regulations are just choking small businesses like us," he says, "and most of them are, in my opinion, overkill. And then we deal with the real dollars-and-cents regulations of the insurance industry . . ."

Such problems have never made him second-guess his choice of career. Right after graduating from college, he tried being a schoolteacher for a few years, while keeping a hand in for a few months of each harvest. But when the time came to choose between the two, he found the decision wasn't so tough.

"One of the main things was, days never seemed to be long enough in the harvest to get everything done that I wanted to. That told me that I liked it. It was my barometer," he says.

It has also made a good living for himself and his brothers. They have been able to build up a large, 10-combine operation that, when traveling in full caravan, can stretch down the interstate highway 21 vehicles long.

But when he contemplates career prospects for his 13-year-old son, the harvest doesn't often win out.

"He's at the age right now where he still thinks it's pretty neat, but I would like for him to explore other areas."

Mr. Neufeld pauses, driving down the interstate near Billings while wheat fields and sunflowers roll by on either side. He finishes the thought.

"I guess the stress level and tension level is a lot higher than it used to be. I sort of hope he won't go into this."

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