Nomadic 'cowboys' harvest the Midwest's wheatfields

In the vast, undulating wheat fields of western Kansas, a different kind of migrant worker is bringing in the harvest.

Riding enormous, vaguely apocalyptic-looking machines that gobble everything in their golden paths, these nomadic cowboys make a three-month, roughly 1,500-mile trek from Texas to Canada every summer.

But the northward migration across America's midsection is a grueling one - and like all aspects of farming, seemingly on the decline. Some 1,000 "custom harvesters" are riding combines these days, including veteran Doug Paxton. He estimates that several hard years in a row have cut the number of harvesters in half.

"It's a tough life, but it gets in your blood," says Mr. Paxton, whose father started one of the first traveling operations in 1946. Since he was a toddler, Paxton has spent every summer but one tracing a path north along US Route 83. "I know people in every town. Some of my best friends are on the harvest trail. They're all glad to see me come and all glad to see me go. And I'm glad to come and I'm glad to go. I like to keep moving."

On a recent day, three of his six combines were harvesting in Hoxie, Kan., 30 miles to the south, two were being loaded onto flatbed trucks for the jump into Nebraska, and one was finishing up a small field that was "hangin' green" (not ripening fast enough). Paxton himself was in a pickup truck 150 miles north in Ogallala, Neb., trying to drum up more business.

A motley, mostly male crew

This year's crew resembles a Hollywood movie in which a team is assembled for a dangerous mission: There's the strapping North Dakota farm boy, the wide-eyed high school junior from Texas who takes all the ribbing, a college accounting major from Oklahoma, and the salty 50-something veteran who had his own operation once before the bank called in his notes.

For some, it is the only life they know. Lee Crawford is a legendary example among the Paxton crew. Back in the 1970s, the caravan had to leave one truck behind for lack of a driver. On their way out of town, they passed a hitchhiker. Paxton picked him up and immediately made a U-turn - back to his abandoned rig. "There's your ride, now follow us," he told Mr. Crawford, who proceeded to do just that - for the next 25 years.

But for others, bringing in the harvest will be a single summer of adventure before plunging into the corporate world. That will likely be the case for Shane Loftiss of Elk City, Okla. The senior at Oklahoma State University says most of his buddies are doing internships at accounting firms. He hopes to work for the Treasury Department one day, but didn't want to spend this summer behind a desk. "I have the rest of my life to do that. There's no place I'd rather be right now," he says. "You just can't beat this."

Most of the crew is made up of single men. Tom Loken, the operations manager, is the only one with a family in tow, including three young sons. Gloria Loken is the cook for the crew, which either eats in shifts around the small table in the Loken family trailer, or out in the field, where Mrs. Loken delivers the food to them.

"She's probably the most important one here - just ask the crew. When she goes home and the kids are back in school, the cooking becomes my responsibility. That's when we shift to hamburgers and bologna sandwiches - and morale plummets," says Mr. Loken with a laugh.

"I look forward to the harvest every year," says his wife. "And the kids just love it. They drove me crazy this year, always asking, 'When are we leaving?' " As she prepares lunch in the family trailer - chili dogs and pork and beans - she chuckles at the suggestion that the nomadic existence is rough on family life. "How many jobs are there where you can take your kids with you?"

There are a few women manning the rigs. Chad Olsen of Hendricks, Minn., started a custom-harvesting operation 10 years ago. For several years his wife, Pam, drove a combine. This summer, Pam will occasionally strap their two-month-old daughter, Josie, into a car seat inside the combine and go harvest.

It's a hardscrabble existence, though at least harvesters don't have to get up at the crack of dawn.

Moisture, particularly morning dew, is their nemesis. The word "fog" is spoken through clenched teeth. Until the sun and wind have dried the wheat to a certain moisture content, typically 15 percent, elevator operators won't accept the grain for fear of spoilage.

12 hours in the fields

That means a workday which begins at 10 or 11 a.m. But with combines equipped with powerful headlamps and moisture-analysis equipment, crews can work until 10 or 11 at night - or whenever the dew puts an end to their long day. Paxton is one of the few who can determine moisture content within 1 percent just by biting into an ear of wheat.

For crew chiefs, there's no sleeping in. Mornings, Paxton is often scouting ahead, hoping to pick up the odd 100-acre field here or there.

With a 12-man payroll, loans on the $200,000 combines to pay off, and a three-month harvesting season, he can't afford much idle time.

This year a drought in southwestern Kansas caused farmers there to plow under their fields - a total loss. While emergency aid is often available to farmers, custom harvesters simply have to tighten their belts.

Several tough years in a row have worn down Paxton. He says in that time the number of custom harvesters has dropped by half. "Used to be you could make pretty good money out here. Not anymore. I figure just about every combiner out here would sell out right now if he could. Times is rough."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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