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  Harvest Time

by Paul Yanko 
First, you gas up the troops (l to r) John, Don, Anne and Dave Bashutski.
First, you gas up the troops (l to r) John, Don, Anne and Dave Bashutski.

The end of summer in Saskatchewan brings a number of dramatic changes. Green leaves turn to fiery red, orange and yellow, and the once seemingly-endless hours of daylight give way to twilight and darkness far too soon after supper.

For farmers, this season represents the culmination of a year's work, a time when the bulk of the annual income is made or lost. It's harvest time.

This year, from my perspective, there'll be another dramatic change. I've been given a chance to plunk my butt on a $180,000 John Deere combine and view harvest from the driver's seat. As a city kid with no background in farming whatsoever, it should be interesting.

Don Bashutski rolls up to my house shortly after 8 a.m. in an old, beat-up, half-ton truck. The old half-ton is the vehicle of choice among farmers. It can be used to haul anything from fuel to fencing, and it's durable and easy to repair. It's the perfect vehicle for the rigors of farm work.

"Good morning Pauloosh," Don shouts in his typically upbeat tone. "Did I get you out of bed?" he laughs.

(For the record, he didn't. My young daughter Ashleigh usually handles that task at about 7 a.m., weekend or not.)

The sky above is clear and blue, and a stiff breeze buffets my face as I slide onto the smooth-worn vinyl seat of the half-ton and clear a place for my feet among an assortment of tools, work gloves and rags.

As we drive west out of Lestock, a town of about 250 people located 140 kilometres (about 90 miles) northeast of Regina, I notice some menacing black clouds in the southwestern sky. Rain is the last thing a farmer wants to see during the harvest.

Don looks after the care and nurturing of the John Deere.
Don looks after the care and nurturing of the John Deere.

We arrive at Donís parentís farm 15 minutes later. John and Anne Bashutski are sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee while their youngest son, Dave, nibbles toast. Don, who was 44 at time of writing, is the second-oldest of 10 children and the only one who regularly works the familyís seven quarters of land (one quarter is a quarter mile by a quarter-mile square, or 160 acres). His dad still chips in, as well.

Anne immediately offers up toast, eggs, cereal, fruit, homemade buns, jams, juice and coffee. The coffee maker, which likely hasn't seen a moment's rest in two weeks, sits steaming nearby. Food -- coffee definitely included -- is the fuel farmers need to maintain the hectic pace that harvest demands. It's always available in great quantity.

Breakfast is eaten at a surprisingly leisurely pace, with plenty of jokes and stories swapped. I'm told we can't begin combining until the sun has been up for several hours, enough time to dry the dew off the crop. Makes sense, I guess; you can't cut the lawn when it's wet.

Things may be delayed even longer today because, as we eat, those ugly black clouds I spotted earlier have moved overhead and it's beginning to rain. It's strange what a blessing or bane rain can be, depending on the time of year. Don, and I suspect most farmers, has come to terms with this.

"There's nothing you can do about the weather, so why beat yourself up over it."

Fortunately, the rain quickly passes. After we load diesel fuel into a tank in the truck's box, we hop into the vehicle for the short drive to the field. It's about 10 a.m.

The first thing that strikes me as we approach the combine is its size. This 1991 John Deere Model 9600 is about four metres high (13 feet) and more than 9 metres long (30 feet).

After Don greases a few key joints on the behemoth, I follow him up five steps into the cab. I'm surprised there's actually a second seat, albeit a slightly smaller one, to accommodate a passenger. With a turn of the key the engine comes to life.

The cab offers a commanding view of our surroundings through its large, curved windshield. It also gives us a close-up view of the "header", the part of the combine that actually cuts the crop. This particular header, the biggest available, cuts a swath nearly 11 metres wide (36 feet). But the big boy adds $25,000 to the cost of the combine.

The instrumentation and controls seem remarkably simple. One main "stick" functions as a throttle, and the stick features two switches to control the height of the header and the "bats". The bats are the rotating bars that hold the crop upright and help feed it into the combine, once the blades on the header have cut it.

Three digital gauges situated in a pillar on the right side of the windshield indicate fuel, engine temperature, and the amount of crop being lost in the chaff, the discarded plant stalks ejected out the back of the combine. A fourth gauge can be set to one of four readings, including engine revolutions and speed. Several buttons on a console to the right of the driver are used to engage or disengage conveyor belts, the parking brake, or to control lights and air conditioning.

A combine is basically a fancy lawn mower. It collects the seeds of the crop it cuts by forcing them through a very small space, next to what's called the "concave" -- the process is similar to crushing the shell of a peanut by rolling it back and forth between the palms of your hands.

The seed-sifting space next to the concave can be made larger or smaller, depending upon the size of the grain being harvested. Once separated from the rest of the plant, the seeds fall through holes onto a conveyor and are saved in the combine's "hopper". What remains of the plant (the chaff) is carried toward the rear of the combine on "straw walkers", before being spit out onto the ground.

That old scythe and flail business must have been a pain.
That old scythe and flail business must have been a pain.

This hopper can hold about 225 bushels (about 8,200 litres) of seed before it must be emptied. A high-capacity auger transfers the contents of the hopper to the box of a waiting grain truck in about two minutes. The crop, on this day it's flax (used to make vegetable oils and linseed oil for paint as well as printer's ink and paper) is then augered into a bin for storage.

Saskatchewan produces 10 per cent of all the world's exported wheat. In a province with just over a million people, there are 60,000 farms, averaging 420 hectares apiece (just over 1,000 acres -- a little more than 1.6 square miles). With a growing diversification into industries like food processing, high-tech, manufacturing and tourism, Saskatchewan's dependence on agriculture is not what it used to be. Still, 15 per cent of the province's workforce is employed in agriculture, and Saskatchewan has 44 per cent of Canada's total cultivated land.

Seems Don and I are barely underway and it's time for lunch. After a 45-minute-food break, we combine through the day without incident, unless you consider a malfunctioning air conditioner an "incident". It's still windy, but the temperature outside the cab has risen into the low 30s Celsius (about 90 degrees Fahrenheit). The cab is surrounded by plexiglass and it feels like Don and I are in a sauna.

We joke about how modern equipment has spoiled us -- air conditioning, to an old-timer, meant taking your hat off so the wind could blow through your hair.

"Things are a lot easier today," says Don.

I realize just how hot it is inside the cab when I open the door to go remove a rock from the header and feel "chilled" by the air that blasts me as I exit. But this is harvest time; Don can't afford to have the combine sitting idle for the five hours it would take to repair and recharge the air conditioning system. He grabs a can of air freshener (lilac scent) and with a couple short bursts inside the cab, he pronounces us fit to continue.

We traverse the same field all day long. There's no set pattern, you simply work around the sloughs and brush. Crop that's laying down as a result of wind or rain is approached from the direction in which it is leaning.

Don and I talk about many different things, from alien abduction to weather. The time it takes to complete a field varies by weather, type of crop and terrain. Stones can clog and damage the equipment, for instance. It occurs to me that to do such a job alone, which is the way Don does it 95 per cent of the time, might get rather boring.

"A lot of problems get solved sitting behind the wheel of a combine," says Don. "You've got a lot of time to think."

Despite all the belts, gears and whirlygigs beneath us, it's surprisingly quiet in the cab -- certainly no louder than being inside a car on the highway. Like many modern combines, this one has a cassette stereo Don uses to listen to a local oldies station. But the volume's always low. The reason for this becomes apparent just before 6 p.m., when Don detects an unusual sound within the normal hum of the machinery. It's a trained ear at work here, because I hear nothing unusual. Don turns off the combine and hops down onto the ground to take a look.

"You've got to stay focused on what you're doing because if you daydream, bad things can happen," says Don. "The combine is what earns your income and if, by listening, you can catch a problem before it becomes serious, you can save yourself a lot of time and money."

What Don finds is bad news. We've broken the "feeder chain", which carries the cut plants from the header to the concave. He estimates we could be out of commission for several hours.

We walk back to Don's half-ton to return to his parent's farm for food and tools. And Don begins whistling -- I can't quite believe my ears.

When the combine hopper is full, we transfer the grain into a truck and keep on rollin'.
When the combine hopper is full, we transfer the grain into a truck and keep on rollin'.

"It does no good to fly off the handle," he says. "People are counting on me to get this crop off the field. This just means I'll have to work a couple extra hours into the night."

It's a display of patience and self-control that must be typical in the farming world. I recall my father-in-law merely shrugging his shoulders and continuing his meal, after telling us a fairly large parcel of his land had been completely flattened by hail.

By the time we get rolling again it's 9:30 p.m., the sun long ago having slipped below the western horizon. Bright halogen lights, maybe 10 of them, light up both the header and the ground in front of us. I've seen these alien-looking, brightly-lit machines roaming the fields late into the autumn night while driving by on a nearby road. Now I'm part of it.

The dust from the chaff is blasting all around us. The lights are almost totally ineffective, like car lights in a downpour. Don stands up, gestures towards the driver's seat and says to me: "There you go."

Well, I've been watching him do this all day, I tell myself. It shouldn't be that tough.

I quickly discover combining requires my total focus. The only adjustment that needs to be made, providing all is running smoothly, is the raising and lowering of the header to adjust to the contour of the land. Still, I marvel at how easily Don chatted with me while skillfully maneuvering the machine. Apparently more than 20 years of farming accounts for something.

My mind is racing as I repeatedly but slowly raise and lower the header to avoid forgetting which way is up and which down. Don is surprisingly quiet. Except for the occasional suggestion, he seems content to let the rookie handle this very expensive piece of machinery.

Extraneous details flood into my mind: The green LED speedometer display reads 2.8 miles per hour as Mick and the boys sing Jumpin' Jack Flash on the oldies station. I laugh out loud and tell Don how weird, but fun, this all seems to me. "It's a gas, gas, gas. . ." I sing to myself.

Repairing equipment on the run is an inevitable part of harvest.
Repairing equipment on the run is an inevitable part of harvest.

I'm not sure how long Don let me operate the combine - it seemed like about half an hour. But I know that when it was over I felt drained -- biology-exam drained.

Don took over and we combined into the night, chatting all the while, until the crop started to get slippery around 5 a.m. During harvest, which typically runs from mid August to late October, Don averages about four hours of sleep a night. Tonight, or rather this morning, he plans to get just a couple before coming back to finish this field.

"I don't even bother wearing a watch," he says as we're driving home, the sun's rays peeping above the eastern horizon. "Time is of no importance during harvest. When you're finished, you're finished."

I was definitely finished.

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