Do Farmers Harvest 24-7?

This is a question I’ve been asked on several occasions: during harvest, are we running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the crop in the bin? The answer to that is unequivocally no.

While harvest is an extremely busy and stressful time of the year, and getting the crop off as quickly as possible is our primary goal, there are limits to what we can do. There are actually a number of reasons why we cannot harvest all day and night.

  1. Weather conditions – Essentially, combines thresh and separate grain from straw. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The header collects the crop in front of the combine, and it is pulled inside, where it is smashed against steel concaves that allow grain to fall through. To be able to do this, the crop cannot be wet; how would you break it apart if it isn’t dry? As the sun falls beyond the horizon, humidity goes up and temperatures usually go down. As this happens, the crop becomes “tough” and simply will not go through the combine. As the evening wears on, the straw usually becomes more and more difficult to process, until combining becomes all but impossible. Now, this doesn’t always happen, as a windy, dry night does pop up now and then, and you could actually go right through the night. So what do we do in those situations?dsc_0392
  2. Human limits – We all need sleep. There is no getting around that fact. No matter how hard you push yourself; no matter how determined you are to stay awake all night; if your body decides you need to sleep, you’re done. It’s as simple as that. You may run late a night or two and battle through with 3 or 4 hours of sleep, but that will catch up to you in a hurry. And besides, it’s not just you out there.
  3. Employee needs – Just like us, our employees need sleep too. They didn’t sign up to go a month without sleep! It’s one thing to have a tired manager; it’s another to have a tired crew. And that leads to…
  4. Safety – When you’re tired, your brain just doesn’t function the way it should. You think slower, you react slower, and you don’t notice things you should. Sure, you can run on limited sleep for awhile… but what’s the risk? Harvest involves a lot of heavy, dangerous equipment in the field and semi trucks on busy roads. Pushing too hard doesn’t just risk your life – it can impact the lives of many others.

No matter how much you want to, harvesting all day and night simply cannot (and should not) be done. It’s dangerous, it’s very hard on equipment, and all it takes is one mistake to ruin a life (or many lives) forever. Harvest is a long, busy and stressful operation, but overdoing the hours does more harm than good.

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Is The Customer Always Right?

There is a growing number of consumers that are uncomfortable with current agricultural practices. Use of genetic modification, concerns over animal welfare, and the perceived disappearance of family farms is causing a growing distrust between the public and the food industry. Recent marketing campaigns by some food giants have attempted to remedy this; but they really struck a nerve with farmers.

A&W’s “Better Beef”

First of all, A&W’s “Better Beef” advertising focuses on their goal to purchase beef that has no added hormones or steroids. Why? If you check out their website on this…. you don’t really get a reason why. They just say that their beef is natural and tastes good. They don’t provide any evidence that hormones and antibiotics are a bad thing to use. While I will freely admit that I’m not a cattle grower, this campaign is frustrating to me. No facts are presented as to the dangers of hormones – which are minimal, considering that the amount of hormones in a single birth control pill are thousands of times greater than you would find in any hamburger.

GMO-Free Cheerios

Similar marketing is being done by General Mills’ Cheerios, which are now “GMO-free”. This is somewhat of a misrepresentation of the product, since Cheerios are made from oats, which is not a GMO crop. But, there are some other ingredients that possibly contain GMO ingredients, such as corn starch, so apparently those are no longer in the cereal.

Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow”

The worst marketing of all is by Chipotle. While they do not have a presence in my area, they are a popular American restaurant chain. Their advertisements depict farms as evil, factory operations that care only about profits, with the “little guy” being far more caring and sustainable. The video, called “The Scarecrow” is a harrowing tale of terrifying corporate farms. In truth, it is an exceptionally well-done, emotional video.

The ironic part of the video is that it suggests that you should buy your food from small businesses, when Chipotle is a massive restaurant chain with $3.2 billion in annual sales. Interestingly, they have increased revenues from $2.7 billion in 2012 to $3.2 billion in 2013, when this ad was released. Chipotle is hardly “the little guy”, and it is rather disingenuous for them to accuse farms like mine of being “factory farms”.

I understand the goals of all these marketing campaigns. These are businesses that are trying to capture a new market of consumers that want their food grown safely and sustainably. They are trying to increase their profits by doing this, which is of course the goal of any business. So far, it may be working, with Chipotle displaying greater profits since they enacted this marketing plan.

Nothing More Than Marketing Ploys?

While the goal of increasing profits is certainly sensible, there is more at stake than that. Possibly the most interesting example of the three of them is General Mills. In their own words, the decision to release GMO-free Cheerios “was never about pressure” from critics. As their blog said, “It’s not about safety. Biotech seeds, also known as genetically modified seeds, have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in global food crops for almost 20 years.” They simply did it because they thought their “consumers might embrace it,” (read more on this here).

They are essentially stating that although they believe genetic modification is safe, they are going to advertise against it to make more money. Does this not seem disingenuous? Growing up in the country, I was always taught to stand up for what I believe in, whatever the cost. It seems that General Mills did not understand that message. Sure, they, along with A&W and Chipotle are potentially increasing profits, but they are sending the consumer the wrong message. They are telling the consumer that genetic modification is dangerous, conventional beef production is wrong, and most farms (and by extension, my own farm) are evil factory operations that care nothing for the welfare of people and animals.

Time To Take A Stand

I don’t believe in that mentality. I believe that science should tell us what is safe and what isn’t. I believe that rather than succumbing to public pressure, as a food industry we all need to do our part to educate the consumer, and let them know that the food they eat is safe, and has been rigorously tested. Sure, there are always improvements that can be made, and yes, I am all for safe food and humane treatment of animals. But Chipotle and A&W’s campaigns send a message to the consumer that simply isn’t true, and General Mills is marketing a product against their beliefs as a company.

I believe GMO’s are safe. Otherwise I wouldn’t grow them. I believe that my neighbors and friends treat their livestock with respect and care, and don’t overuse hormones and antibiotics. I am part of a corporate, large-scale grain farm, but that doesn’t make it any less of a family operation that cares for the land it manages and the food it produces. If the customer doesn’t agree with this, then I believe that the customer is wrong, and I will not change my business to cater to that.

Nikon J1 139I will continue to grow GMO crops, and I will continue to use pesticides and fertilizers when and where needed. Through this blog and through my day to day life, I will continue to try and educate people about why we do what we do on this farm. Maybe this isn’t the best marketing plan. Maybe I could make more money by growing organic food and going after niche market consumers. Nevertheless, I believe that we need these tools to feed a growing world sustainably, and I will therefore not sell out to public pressure the way that General Mills, A&W and Chipotle have. After all, if you don’t stand up for what you believe in, do you really believe in anything?

Prepped, Primed & Ready to Go

As I compose this blog on the evening of Mother’s Day, more crosses my mind than just the farm, and the seeding operation that is set to commence. My parents gave me life, morals, and standards which I now live by, and are largely the reason I am where I am today. I owe more to them than I could ever hope to repay. Someday, I hope to be able to provide these things to a child (or children) of my own.

The air drills sit in our binyard ready to go to the field. We did a great deal of work to get them ready this year, and we even rented a new tractor to help get us through the spring seeding season. The sprayer sits in the shed, also ready to go, as well as our other major pieces of equipment. We are ready to begin seeding.

Tomorrow, we will load and calibrate the drills and take them to the first field, located around our home yard. This will give us an opportunity to test everything and make sure no major problems are going to pop up. Usually, the first day or two of seeding is slow, as the machinery usually has some issues, and it does take some time for everybody to get into the right mindset. By Wednesday, we should be going full out, with 10,000 acres to plant, hopefully completed by early June.

Right now, I feel a mix of emotions, as my excitement for the growing season juxtaposes my knowledge of how dearly I enjoy getting a good night’s sleep, which will be non-existent for me for the next while. Mostly, though, I am excited to get to the field and get this crop in the ground.

We went for a ride on our quads (ATVs) today to check some fields and roads and see how the water is running. There are big spots of water (as would be expected, since winter ended two weeks ago), but for the most part the fields are quite dry. Yes, I will admit, we will need a rain- but not for awhile. An inch of rain in 2-3 weeks from now would be wonderful, but Mother Nature plays by her own rules. For now, the focus will be on seeding, spraying and fieldwork, trying our damndest to get this crop in the soil in the best way possible. The quality of the job we do in the next few weeks will determine how the 2013 crop year plays out, and may well determine our financial success in the years to come.

When you plant millions of dollars in the ground and ask Mother Nature to help you out, you are taking a risk. A big one. I am well aware of this, and it does add to the pressure to not make mistakes. Errors can be extremely costly when you are spending $50,000 per day. A simple mistake in seeding at an improper depth, spraying the wrong herbicide on the wrong field, or forgetting to close the tank lid on the seed/fertilizer cart can be devastating in some scenarios.

But, I try to put that aside, and do my job to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, sometimes that comes at the expense of safety, as I learned yesterday when I accidentally sprayed myself directly in the eye with seed treatment. Yes, it is a dangerous substance, and I should have been wearing safety glasses; or at least glasses instead of contacts. But no, I had to pull out my contact and wash my eye immediately to prevent possible damage. These products protect the seed against seed and soil borne diseases and insects, but they are mildly dangerous. Care must be taken against mistakes like this, and against all the other hazards that heavy machinery, toxic chemicals, and a general lack of sleep can cause.

Finally, I cannot forget that my wife needs to have a husband around sometimes too. Right now, she is wondering when I will be coming to bed, as I instead type away on a computer alone. Relationships can be difficult to maintain when you are not around very much. But she understands that this is a critical season for us, and I think she understands how important this life is to me- because I think it’s important to her as well. But she will always come first.

Tomorrow, seeding begins. Talk to you soon.