Old School Harvest Time Now Digitally Enhanced

I drove back to the old home farm a couple of times during the past few weeks, and as the brown corn stalks disappeared and the combine dust settled, I watched a changing portrait of the traditional Midwest harvest unfold. It’s like modern photography. You click a quick pic of the grandkids and look down at your tiny digital camera or smartphone and wonder—when did this happen? Where did the film, viewfinder, and manual focus go? You drive the Midwest country roads at harvest time and think—where are the people, the smoke billowing tractors, the livestock in the fields?

This is not a lament, just an observation. Tech and economics have digitally enhanced the traditional Grant Wood farm scenes, and as Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is.” 

As you cruise the gravel roads, the first thing you notice is the lack of farms. A country section that included three or four traditional farms—two-story house, barn, hog house, shed—now has one or two at most. Fewer farm kids wave as they carry feed buckets to the chicken coop; a family milk cow rarely stands near the barn chewing its cud; and those skinny dogs that used to shoot out of the lanes to chase your car as you drove by are now sitting passively in suburban yards contained by “invisible fences.”

Fields have an altered tinge to them too. Combines look like Star Wars military equipment, and grain is augured into huge semi trailer trucks. You don’t see folks out in the elements so often. Not many farmers with padded coveralls and ear-flap hats sit on cabless tractors as they lean into a November wind and try to stay warm from the heat radiating out of the canvas heat-houser. With companies developing robotic machines, you might eventually need to go to a farmer’s computer control room in his office to see a human.
Animals also make fewer outdoor appearances. Some cattle still forage in the harvested fields for dropped ears of corn, but even in Iowa, the hog capital of the world, a resident can drive the roads for weeks without seeing a Wilbur, Babe, or Porky. Pigs used to root in the fields until the snows came, but most have moved into confinement motels—bit crowded, but the room service is attractive, and even hogs appreciate central heating. No comments from them about the indoor toilets.
It might even be tough to find a pitchfork on a Photoshopped farm. Watered-down manure gets hauled to those freshly harvested fields in gigantic honey wagons, and the “fecal gold” gets injected into the ground. I remember pulling conventional manure spreaders that flung the solids, and early liquid tanks that sprayed the contents. With an ill-advised turn and a sudden wind gust, the tractor driver could be fertilized as well.

The piece most obviously airbrushed from the harvest portrait is the farm corn crib. These slatted buildings would store and dry the ear corn until months later when a “sheller man” brought his machine. We’d rake and shovel ear corn into the huge contraption, and it would fling cobs into a pile and kernels of corn into wagons. When we were kids, the hard work of moving corn was sometimes interrupted by a mad scramble to take care of the rodents that had taken up residence in the corn crib. 

On one memorable occasion, a mouse scurried up the inside of my coverall pant leg and made it to just above the knee before I could grab him and “persuade him” to go no further. After a hard day, the sheller man towed his machine back to town, Dad drove the last load of corn to the elevator, and we’d play king of the hill on a cob pile.

When the autumn sun sets over barren corn stubble and a harvest moon reflects light off metal grain bins, today’s farmers take pride in completing a harvest on some of the most bountiful land in the world. The modern portrait of their labors includes hard work aided by technological advances and improved production techniques. But most don’t get the “pleasure” of walking cornfields to pick up the many ears of corn a rusty four-row picker left. Few get to haul bales of hay to cattle in the pasture or break the thin ice that coats their water tanks. And modern farmers miss out on the stimulation you get when you peel your frozen hands from the steering wheel of a John Deere 4020 after driving it from the field in below-freezing temperatures.
I get nostalgic for those harvest days, but I’m starting to think it would have been nice to digitally enhance some of those images way back then. Maybe if I could have airbrushed out my static-filled transistor radio and digitally added a heated cab and sound system to my tractor, I might have been more in tune as I hauled corn and hummed along with the Stones singing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” 
by dan gogerty (cornfield pic from gwendolynday.blogspot.com and corn crib pic from mikehedge.blogspot.com) **Note: blog redrafted from early piece

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