Remembering Harvest Time – Harvesting Wheat In Eastern Oregon

By Mary H. Dyer | August 6, 2020
Image by Nataba
by Mary H. Dyer
August 6, 2020

I don’t grow many vegetables. Instead, I rely on generous gardening friends and neighbors to gift me with some of their bounty, and they usually do. I’d rather grow flowers. When I think of harvest time, I think back on the harvests of my childhood – on my family’s wheat ranch in Eastern Oregon.

Remembering the Wheat Harvest

Summer was (and still is) my favorite time of year. We would watch the growing wheat ripen, gradually turning from emerald green to gold (“amber waves of grain” is an apt description). My Dad would pray for wheat in May and June, which could make the difference between a good harvest and a poor one.

Wheat can’t be harvested until it has a low water content, which we would determine by taking a bucket of grain into town to be tested. Once the wheat was ready, usually in late July or early August, harvest would begin in earnest. The days were long and hot, starting with an early morning visit to the “trap wagon” (actually an ancient truck equipped with grease and oil) to prepare the equipment for the day.

When I was little, I loved to be out in the field harvesting wheat with my Dad, unlike my sister who would rather stay in and help my mother cook for the crew. At noon, we would all head in for lunch. My mother was a pretty good cook, and unlike me, she enjoyed growing both vegetables and flowers.

Before we entered the kitchen, we would stomp around on the concrete driveway to knock the dust off our jeans and the grain out of our cuffs, and then wash our hands in the sink in the garage (using Lava soap). My brother would usually grab a quick nap under the cool shade of the locust tree before we headed back to the field.

Dad would drive a truck and my brother would run the combine. Dad would also hire several guys to help. (By the time I got to high school, I had crushes on nearly all of them.) People enjoyed working for my Dad because he was fair and he let everybody quit early on Saturday. I drove a truck the summer I was 16, but I’m not mechanically inclined and I really wasn’t very good at it. 

Water never tasted better than in the dusty burlap bag hanging from the truck mirror, but sometimes, Dad and I would drive to the tiny store a couple of miles away and bring an ice-cold Pepsi back for the crew. We all wore straw hats, and when wheat harvest was finished, we would celebrate by throwing our hats in the header of the combine.

Harvests are very different now. Crops are smaller due to CRP (the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to plant environmentally friendly grass instead of growing wheat). Usually, two people can harvest the smaller crop (often a husband-wife team) with bigger, fancier equipment. The changes have made a huge difference in rural communities, both socially and economically.

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