Harvest Corn flow

This is waxy corn being harvested and loaded. Waxy corn has a high starch content, good for food or industry.
Photo: Richard Oswald

On our farm, harvest is probably the most labor intensive job we do, especially when the harvest is abundant. It is a time of family, shared meals, and the common bond of labor — a season when the youngest children ask for tractor and combine rides and play in the mounds of new grain while the oldest gain experience in doing the work.

Sometimes when drought or flood snatches a plentiful harvest away, it is a time of ongoing disappointment and worry. There is no worse feeling than the realization that twelve months of labor have come and gone with little return — and that twelve more must be invested in the next crop with no assurance of success.

Forty years ago when I told my father I had decided to become a farmer, he responded by going to his top desk drawer to retrieve a handwritten record of his bad crop years. If I had kept that list I could now add it to my own list of poor years, a list I have been keeping since that day in 1967. But I was put off by his attempt to steer me away from a life of crop failures and delinquent loans, so I never took the paper he proffered, preferring instead to create my own.

Harvest in Missouri

Some years, the harvest was so scarce it wasn’t worth the time or the gas. 2007 is a good year.
Photo: Richard Oswald

The thirties and fifties were hard on Dad, and, for me, there have been crop failures in every decade of my farming career. 1969 was bad, and so were ’75 through ’77. 1983 was a drought, and ’84 was flood. In ’89 we were back to drought, then a flood again in ’93″¦”¦

The list goes on.

Harvesting is a family affair
Harvest time is family time. This is grandson #5, Carter Elliott Ottmann.
Photo: Richard Oswald

While Mother Nature practices her own version of harvest-time tough love, my capacity to cherish each and every one remains undiminished. Even a thin pay envelope is better than no pay at all.

Besides, the best wood comes from trees that have stood through countless storms.

In 1964, hail in July took our 80-acre corn crop. All that the storm left behind were nubbins on stalks that turned black with mold and smut over the weeks that followed. After settling with the hail insurance company, Dad mounted the corn picker on his IHC model M tractor and decided to see what was left. He picked all afternoon to fill the 8 by 12 wagon that trailed along behind the picker. It took only 10 minutes to unload a half days worth of harvest. As he got off the tractor, Dad said he was done. The crop wasn’t worth the gasoline and time it took to bring it in. “But,” he said to me, “you can try it if you want.”

Harvest Loading
On my first harvest, my dad’s reaction was, “That’s all?”
Photo: Richard Oswald

So I climbed onto the seat of the M, engaged the power take-off, and for the first time in my life I harvested.

Harvest in Illinois

Picking corn with a two-row picker from the open operator station of a 50 horsepower gasoline powered farm tractor, vintage 1948, is anything but glamorous. Noise assaults the ears while dust and grit clog the nostrils and blind the eyes. Goggles, like the kind the World War I fliers wore, helped, so Dad went to the Army Surplus Store and bought a pair. But in 1964, none of the adult farmers I knew ever wore dust masks. When it got bad enough, a red bandana drawn close around the mouth and nose would have to suffice. The dust — and the cigarettes — account for why lung diseases are rampant among farming’s greatest generation.

Our farm equipment now is a long way from my father’s 1948 openair International Harvester.
Photo: Richard Oswald

So I harvested until I couldn’t stand it any longer and pulled into the farmstead to impress my Dad with the product of my labor. But the tiny 15 bushel pile in the middle of the wagon didn’t impress him much more than the grueling 20 minutes I put in to pick it.
The only comment Dad made was, “That’s all?”

There’s a strong possibility that work ethic is not an inherited trait, but acquired in much the same way as maturity.

Farm equipment has changed and improved along with my work ethic. No longer do we harvest from open operator stations or breathe copious amounts of mold and dirt. We are safer and able to work longer hours, protected from weather and extreme temperatures. Even more importantly, our children can accompany us to the field to learn and experience the harvest as they gain an understanding of what farmer Dads and Moms do.

In biblical times, following the 49th harvest, the 50th year marked Jubilee; a celebration of life when the land laid fallow, to rest. It is a good bet that Jubilee also marked the passing of a generation tattered by a lifetime of labor and worry.

On our farm, Jubilee is only the beginning.

Harvest from dawn until dusk

Photo: Richard Oswald

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