There are few industries that feature a concentrated and ongoing effort like harvest time on a farm.
The culmination of an entire season’s work rests on your efforts between now and the arrival of winter. It really is sometimes now or never.
That was certainly the case at times on our family’s operation. My hometown is at roughly the same latitude as The Pas so seasons are short and winter is often all too early. Throw in a little inclement weather and you can suddenly be staring at a hard deadline from Mother Nature.
One of the first harvests when I was old enough to more fully contribute to the family’s efforts was like this. Ongoing rain had virtually all the crop still out in mid-October, when the weather suddenly cleared. Not waiting for an invitation, the crew swarmed into action, even if it meant drying every bushel. One of my lasting memories of that season is the first load we took off. It was so wet that it had begun to harden in the corners of the box before we got it into the yard and we were forced to chip away at it with a scoop shovel to get it out and up the auger and into the dryer.
The days after that we ran long, so after about three weeks we were in much better shape, albeit all exhausted and run ragged. But then the forecast changed yet again. Suddenly the weather reports were calling for snow, and everyone dug just a bit deeper. That night, with conditions still relatively dry and dew free, we kept running, vowing only to stop when we were forced to.
By 4 a.m., saying I was tired was an understatement. I was struggling to keep my eyes open. Leaving the field in our old cabover ’66 Ford, I headed down the familiar dirt road and promptly ran right through the intersection where I was supposed to turn. It took me a couple of seconds, through my exhaustion, to realize what I’d done.
I was lucky. The road on the other side of the turn was definitely poorer. If what I’d been on was a dirt road, this was more like a goat path. But at least it was there. If I’d overshot some of the corners out there, there’d only have been a steep drop-off to greet me. Instead, I was able to simply put the truck in reverse, back slowly through the intersection and take the proper turn. I finished unloading, parked the truck and caught a few winks in the cab before getting back on my way.
Over the years I’ve heard of more than one accident that happened exactly the same way. A grain cart and tractor that wound up at the bottom of a ravine, for example, or a pickup truck that was found having plunged down an embankment, just to name two. Generally they’ve shared one common trait — operator exhaustion. We might pretend we’re inexhaustible machines, but the truth is we’re all fallible flesh and blood. Tire any of us out enough and mistakes will be made. Sometimes we get away with them, but other times the result is tragedy.
When that sort of tragedy does strike, it is sudden and irrevocable. A corner that might have seemed fine to cut is suddenly the source of endless trouble and sorrow in many cases.
I nearly had a brush with that a few years ago on the Yellowhead Highway. It was harvest and I was heading home for a visit with my young daughter in the car. I like her to see the farm every harvest so she understands the business both sides of her family are in. It was dark when I pulled up behind a combine going down the highway in road high, with lights flashing. Pulling out to pass, I suddenly found myself looking at a header that didn’t have any lights on it.
Again, we were lucky. I noticed the reflectors shining my headlights back at me just in time to veer hard left and clear the machine. I won’t repeat what I had to say about the incident here. I’ll just say it was so colourful and adjective filled my daughter still comments on it years later.
I can understand the chain of events that likely led to the situation very clearly. I’m willing to bet the operator only had a short trip down the highway, it was late in both the season and day, and he or she probably thought “it’s not worth the hassle.” For my part, I’m no stranger to the equipment I was passing, I should have known better. I should have slowed down more, pulled out further and been prepared for the header to be there, regardless of regulation or design.
Safety is one of those community projects we all need to be prepared to contribute to. Farmers need to remember that cutting a corner can be disastrous, and to take care of themselves and not get too exhausted. Members of the non-farming public, including myself, need to respect what you’re doing and do what we can to keep everyone safe.
With just a few more weeks until winter’s inevitable arrival, let’s all do what we can to have a productive, profitable and safe harvest.