Threshing Bee: Early Mechanized Harvest on the Family Farm
Here in the agricultural hub of Pelham, Tennessee, work begins early. I get the early shift, opening Harry and Ollie’s, my wife’s market and café, before 7 a.m. Folks often stop on their way to work to pick up a breakfast sandwich. One of these customers is a young man named Evan, and on one particular day, Evan and I chatted while I wrapped his order.
He mentioned that he, his father and his grandfather would be harvesting wheat, baling straw and planting soybeans — all in one operation. This sounded like the perfect setting to take photos for the next year’s calendar, which would feature farming activities in the Pelham Valley area. He assured me they’d be happy to have me stop by. He then gave me directions to several nearby locations where they would be working over the next few days.
That afternoon, I went to the first location. The field being harvested was a beautiful setting — the long field was bordered on both sides by green trees, with the classic golden brown wheat disappearing over a gentle rise in the field. Set against a blue sky, puffy white clouds, and the green mountainside, this idyllic scene had a soothing affect that swept over me. I could hear a muted rumble in the distance. The bright yellow combine appeared on the horizon, gradually working its way toward me, and I immediately began composing photos.
Bob, Evan’s grandfather, stopped to unload more than 200 bushels of wheat into a waiting truck. He invited me to ride in the jump seat of the combine. What a view, sitting high above the rolling waves of golden grain. And what a way to work, riding along in air-conditioned comfort.
As the hungry machine chewed its way across the field of soft red winter wheat, Bob gave me a brief tutorial on wheat and wheat farming.
The combination harvester-thresher is an amazing machine. A huge cutter bar cuts a 30-foot swath through the field on each pass. The combine then threshes and separates the wheat grains from the chaff. Following that, the grain is carried up into the storage hopper that holds up to 225 bushels of wheat, while the chaff and straw are expelled behind.
Bob heads up a large farming operation, and harvesting initiates a multi-step process that results in planting the next crop almost immediately.
The next day, I found the whole family working. Bob was harvesting the wheat, and Evan was driving an International 786 pulling a baler. The baler scooped up the wheat straw and dumped perfectly formed and bound square bales about every 20 feet.
Once the bales were collected, the field was ready for sowing the next crop — in this case, soybeans — which would be harvested in the fall.
Don, Evan’s father, was pulling the seed drill that planted 24 rows of soybeans directly in the field of wheat stubble. This process saves time, reduces equipment requirements, and improves the efficiency of the farming operation. In a matter of a single day, nearly a hundred acres of wheat was harvested, the straw baled, and the next crop planted.
As I was busy taking photos of each part of the process, I recalled seeing photographs of my father driving an old Farmall A with a pull-type combine in tow.
Back then, the fields were plowed and disked to break up the clods of soil turned up by the plow. A planter that could sow two or four rows was pulled along behind a tractor — or a team of mules. It required a person riding on the planter to start, stop and monitor the planting process.
At harvest time, the combine separated the wheat grain from the chaff much in the same way as the modern harvester, but the cutter bar was only six feet wide. The threshed wheat was carried up into an inverted Y-shaped discharge tube. An operator rode on the combine and placed bags under the discharge tubes. When one bag was full, he would move a lever to begin filling another bag under the other leg of the “Y,” quickly sew the full bag shut, and then toss it into the field. By the time he had a new empty bag on that chute, the other bag would be full, and he would repeat the process.
Later, the bags had to be loaded, by hand, on a truck or trailer. The wheat straw could be baled or simply loaded on a truck and carried back to the barn. There was no air-conditioned cab. This was hot, dusty work.
Tapping Farm Memories
This turned out to be much more than a photo opportunity for me, since I certainly had not anticipated it to connect so directly with my own family history. (I grew up on a small working farm in Tidewater, Virginia.)
Upon returning home from photographing the harvest, I found the photos of my dad driving that Farmall A tractor pulling a combine. The photos were taken by my mother, who was a country schoolteacher and an accomplished photographer, and boy, did it bring back some memories!
Attending this modern-day harvest experience allowed me to shoot some beautiful photos and meet some truly down-to-earth folks who work hard year-round, demonstrating the work ethic that built this country.
I now have a better understanding of how both farming and agriculture have advanced, and yet, in many ways, have remained the same for more than five decades. What started out as an agricultural photojournalism assignment turned into a “harvesting flashback” to my family roots — both of which were pleasant experiences indeed.