Saturday, October 19, 2013

Harvest time in Iowa: Riding in the combine

On Thursday I rode in the combine to harvest feed corn; on Saturday the crop was soybeans. Our B&B host, Doug Helm, farms 4000 acres with a crew of four or five. The fields are scattered all over the county. Some of the land is his; some is his dad's; some land he rents from others. I asked lots of questions. Doug taught high school for ten years before he decided to farm. He's patient and a good teacher.

Here's what I learned about the combine in these pictures. The following description may not be entirely accurate, so bear with me if you know farming. The head attached to the front is for harvesting corn. What looks like little missiles from the passenger seat of the cab fit between the rows of corn, drawing the stalks toward the combine. The stalks get separated from the ears and are discarded on the ground; the ears continue on into the combine. There's some kind of drum or wheel rotating very fast; the kernels of corn are spun off the cobs by centrifugal force. The cobs are ejected onto the field and the kernels go into a bin in the combine. The kernels eventually get transferred to a truck bed for hauling to the cooperative.

Doug harvested 12 acres of corn in about an hour. Inside the cab is a GPS, a computer monitor, and a radio. The cab is heated. There is power steering. It was like being in the cab of a large truck.

Here's some of what I learned:

1. In Iowa, the ground is excellent for corn and soybeans.  A lot of the crop goes to feed animals being raised for slaughter. 

2. I asked whether the seeds were GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) and Doug said yes. These seeds have been modified at the genetic level to be resistant to pests and Roundup, an herbicide. So crops can be sprayed midseason to kill all the weeds. Proponents of GMO say the genetic modification is just speeding up what nature would do over time. In nature, plant mutations which provided protection against pests would survive and their seeds would carry on that protection. I've since learned that herbicide-resistant plants and pesticide-resistant insects have evolved in the last 15 years. Not a long time for the effect of the GMO seeds to be neutralized. 

3. The manufacturer of the seeds is Monsanto. Seeds have to be reordered each year. Farmers cannot retain some of the seeds for planting the following year. There have been a couple of lawsuits where Monsanto won. I'm thinking the company says the modified seeds are intellectual property.

4. Doug said, "We have to feed the world. A lot of people will starve to death if we don't produce enough food." We also talked about food as a U.S. export. I didn't think much about CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) at that time. I know about them, but the subject didn't come up in my conversation with Doug. Still, even in the unfortunate conditions of CAFOs, those animals need to be fed.

5. The farmer uses Roundup as a pesticide for weeding between the plants. I told Doug my understanding was that Roundup contains Agent Orange, used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War and later recognized as a health hazard to those exposed to it. Doug said he didn't think Roundup contains Agent Orange. We looked it up on the computer in the cab and found out he was right. Monsanto used to manufacture Agent Orange and DDT but do not produce it any more. Roundup has another chemical, glyphosate, as its main component.

6. In Iowa the crops are not irrigated. Farmers rely upon the rain. This year had a rainy spring, so the planting was late. Once the planting was done, there was hardly any rain all summer. The harvest this year is also late. I rode on the combine on October 17 and October 19. The weather was cooling down - temperatures in the 50s. 

7. If it starts to rain during the harvesting of soybeans, work stops. Rain toughens the soybean stalks and makes them hard to cut. It had rained the day before we arrived in Iowa, so my first day on the combine was harvesting corn.

8. Prices for crops depend on demand and the amount of crop available. This, too, depends on the weather. A farmer's success might be luck; for example, the price of land when they start farming, the price of crops, whether they have family land or rent from family.   

9. A farmer is a businessman. He has to know how to make connections and market his crop. He has to be able to get along with people. There are a lot of dollar numbers involved, supply and demand, prices and weather, equipment and labor.

These next pictures are of the soybean harvesting. Note the tractor and trailer driving alongside the combine, which can keep moving as it unloads the soybeans. This is more efficient than returning to a location where the trailer is waiting. Both drivers have to be talking to each other and know what they are doing.

The head for harvesting soybeans is different from the one used for corn. Instead of little "missiles", the head has tines or teeth. They straighten the soybeans so the plant can be pulled into the combine.

A pheasant was running along in front of the combine, and we were catching up. The tractor driver dismounted from his vehicle and induced the bird to move out of danger. Doug always watches out for animals in the field.

We loved our four days in Montezuma. The hardest part was dinnertime. We were staying at the bed and breakfast, so we ate in the farmhouse every morning. We usually had lunch with the harvest crew. For dinners we were on our own. Montezuma is a small town with limited dining opportunities. We ended up three nights at the Monte Tap Room, a bar with a newly opened restaurant attached. We had burgers one night, catfish/shrimp on another, and split a rib eye dinner the last night. With a couple of sides, we were good. The servers remembered us each night - we were the only out of towners in the place - and wished us well as we left after our last meal there.  


Judy and Emma said...

Wow! I would have really enjoyed going along for the harvest. Very interesting.

Sandi said...

Fascinating peek into a foreign place, for me. I've never been to Iowa. I liked learning about the farming techniques and about the use of Roundup. Someday I'd like to visit Iowa.

DJan said...

This is an amazing adventure, Linda. To have gone out there and learned what it's like to be a farmer... and how times have changed that he was able to answer your questions about Roundup and Agent Orange right from the cab of the combine! I am amazed. :-)

Olga said...

Impressive operation...although I am not convinced that huge agri-business requiring applied chemicals is the way to feed the world. It is not something I would get up on a soap box over, though, because I really do not know enough about it. I admire your active quest for knowledge and your sharing.

Linda Reeder said...

I love this report. It told me what I wanted to know. Last August we were in Penn and Ohio, and there we traveled through miles of non-irrigated corn and soy beans. I wanted to know about the harvest. I love how things fit together!
The computer in the tractor cab blew me away, and I loved that you could just look up your question right then and there.
Your conversations with the farmer are important. With so much to weigh on both sides of issues like GMOs it's good to have people informed, and you got some hands on experience. Farming has so many variables that are not under the control of the farmer. And today's farmer has to be a chemical expert.
I grew up in farm country in the Willamette Valley, so it's in my blood. I always want to know what crops are in the field and how they get to market. Thanks for this great post.

Arkansas Patti said...

It is nice to hear the other side of the story regarding pesticides and GMO. I still raise and buy organic but see that considering the world population, that is not feasible for all. Farming has always fascinated me and those people whose lively hood depends on the whims of fickle weather have a backbone I don't own.

Out on the prairie said...

Lots of fun to be had, the combine sounds terrific