I grew up on the hunting club my dad bought and converted into a public golf course in northern Ohio. He had a wife and five kids and no visible means of support until the course opened.
We did a lot of making do with what we had. If we couldn’t afford the recommended materials, which was most of the time, we found another way. We couldn’t afford irrigation pipe, so we spent winters stripping steam pipe out of abandoned greenhouses, cut out the bad spots, threaded them (cost me a fingertip, but that’s another embarrassing story), trenched them in (cost me part of my hearing due to operating the trencher without a muffler for hours on end) and dragged hoses until the wee hours of the morning.
At 13 I learned to drive a little red FarmAll tractor that my dad said didn’t have enough power to get out of its own way. I spent hours on our Allis-Chalmer tractor with sweat dripping down my back mowing fairways, pulling the gang mowers.
I think I grew up with an on-farm experience. We farmed a perennial crop of grass.
The reason I am boring you with this is because I just figured out why I like combines so much. Bob Floyd gave me a chance for my first experience in the cab of one last year and I felt like I was home. It’s taken a year for it to dawn on me why: I mowed greens on our family’s course.
First, I was mowing 19 greens (got to remember the practice green) with a walk-behind Jacobsen. I got really good at it, and it put me in great physical shape. It took about six hours to mow 19 greens, and I made a competition out of it. I tried to mow all the greens before any golfer got to them.
I found out that there was just enough light to see to mow one hour before sunrise. I would get up in the dark and stand on the fringe of green No. 5 waiting until I could just make out the opposite side of the green, and then I’d start mowing.
It went like that for a few years until Jacobsen brought out their first riding greens mower. This had three cutting heads that lifted up and down hydraulically. I could mow greens in one-third the time and do it sitting down! After making a cutting pass, I lifted the cutting heads, looped around and came back for another pass going in the opposite direction.
Once the mower heads were down, it was like a B-17 after the bombardier took control of the plane from the pilot before dropping the payload. I had to stay straight all the way across the green no matter what happened. Any little deviation would show up and stick out like a sore thumb.
Greens get mowed in four different directions to keep from creating a permanent grain in the grass. I mowed parallel to the axis of the fairway, then two days later perpendicular to the axis, then two days later a 45-degree slant to the right and another two days after that a 45-degree slant to the left. Then repeat. All summer. If I messed up the line, it would be there as a reminder for eight days until I mowed the green in that same direction again.
So what does this have to do with combines? Patience, please. We’re almost there. This year was a far cry from last year’s cotton harvest, with cry being the operative word.
Last year, looking out the cab of the harvester, my field of view was 80 percent white cotton bolls and 20 percent stems and field soil. This year was only about one-third bolls. Mike Hendrix, who was running the harvester I was riding in had the shoes of the harvester head skiing over the soil, knocking clods to the side, trying to get every last boll.
It reminded me of a story I heard about an F-4 pilot in Vietnam coming back from a sortie with the leading edges of his wings green from the treetops he pruned evading a SAM missile that had locked on to him. Mike was skimming close over the soil like that phantom pilot trying to cool his jet wash over the jungle – it’s not recommended practice and difficult to pull off unless you really know your equipment.
Mike really knows his harvester. I rode with him for about eight passes and the hopper was not much deeper in lint than when I climbed on. But he made pass after pass, just like I did with my greens mower. Once the heads were down, he kept it right down the pipe and did not let anything distract him. He was too busy watching the shoes, listening to the sounds of the combine that told him how each component was performing, and only glancing occasionally at the video monitor to see the hopper behind his seat filling all too slowly with lint.
Of course his combine cost 50 times more than my riding greens mower, but the work feels the same – long hours, weather dependent and back and forth, back and forth. But it has its perks. You get to operate this amazing piece of equipment, and if you do it right, you can make a good harvest great – and this year, a lousy year, not quite so bad.
Don Gardner lives in Keller and is an extension agent with the University of Georgia and can be reached at email@example.com.