The Manitoba harvest: ‘To every thing there is a season’

In his sixth instalment from Northern Blossom Farm, Gary Martens reflects on the length and variety of the Manitoba harvest

The crops in my Kleefeld area look very good. We have actually had less-than-average rainfall with no gigantic rain events to damage the crops. On my little “nano” farm, the peas are in swath but it has rained a small amount most days since, the wheat is almost ready to harvest and the oats will not be far behind.

I plowed up one of the hayfields and am anticipating seeding it to fall rye. The garden peas, cherries, strawberries and raspberries have been picked, the green beans are at peak season, the cucumbers and tomatoes are just starting to come in, we have been sneaking some potatoes from the occasional plant and the chickens are ready for the fryer.

I hope to have some potatoes to store in my newly constructed root cellar. The sweet corn is still a week or two away from harvest.

Harvest is the most critical and time-sensitive activity on any farm. It is also the activity that demands the most labour. Until 175 years ago, manual labour harvest for small grains required four to 10 people, each working a 10-hour day to harvest one acre.

Even when mechanization such as the steam engine and the threshing machine were adopted, trainloads of young men from all over North America descended onto the Prairies to bring in the harvest. It took a crew of 10-12 men around one threshing machine to thresh 80 acres per day if the weather was good. It took about a week to complete the harvest at each farm, if there was no rain. It also took a house full of women to keep the men fed.

Revolutionary machine

Drawing of an early combine design.Hiram Moore is credited with inventing the combine in 1834. The machine included reaping (cutting), threshing and winnowing in one operation. This was one of the most important labour-saving devices invented in agriculture. The basic concept of the machine that Hiram Moore invented 175 years ago is still used today, with no substantial change except to add size and an air conditioner, oh, and a satellite radio so we can listen to golden oldies while the canola pours into the tank behind us.

Now, modern combines can harvest 20 acres per hour or 200 acres per day and that is with only one person on the combine, but you still need at least one more person to haul the grain. Today two persons can harvest 200 acres or 100 acres per person per day compared to one-tenth of an acre per person per day in a manual labour harvest, so that is 1,000 times as much work per person in 175 years. That is an incredible change!

It has been said that a farmer with all acres in spring annual small grain crops needs to be able to seed in 10 days, spray in 10 days and harvest in 10 days because that is the window of opportunity that the weather will allow in Manitoba.

Therefore one combine at 200 acres per day can do about 2,000 acres unless you are a bit more diversified and start your hay harvest in June with alfalfa/grass hay, continue on to forage seeds in early July, then on to winter wheat at the end of July early August then on to spring annual crops, then on to soybeans and corn later in fall, then finish with sunflowers when the snow flies in October.

With that much diversity you would have much more than 10 days and could either have a smaller (cheaper) combine to harvest the same number of acres or the combine you have could harvest more than 2,000 acres in a season.

Grain farming is becoming a lonely job because so few people are required and for such a short time. I just came back from buying some honey at my neighbour’s honey farm and three generations were working on the farm. Grandparents were filling the containers, parents were taking the supers off the hives and the kids were extracting the honey in the yard. There is more labour required on a honey farm compared to a grain farm and the labour can be done relatively safely by young people. There was conversation and the feel of community on that honey farm.

Grain farms still have some sense of community, especially around the dinner table — which is probably the pickup tailgate at harvest. Harvest dinners for the workers are as anticipated as Christmas is for kids. At harvest time I looked forward to full-course meals of fried chicken, potato salad, cucumber salad and of course saskatoon or raspberry pie every day.

The harvest sequence

“To every thing there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3)

Among all of us in Manitoba, we harvest an incredible diversity of crops and livestock. All of our farms together could be in harvest season almost every month of the year. I tried to list all the crops we grow in Manitoba and their harvest sequence.

  •  May: Maple syrup and rhubarb in April. Lettuce and spinach.
  •  June: Strawberries, first cut of hay, saskatoons and garden peas.
  •  July: Zucchini, raspberries, kale, honey, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, cherries, plums, tomatoes, forage grass seed, second cut of hay.
  •  August: Fall rye, winter wheat, field peas, barley, wheat, oats, apples, sweet corn, straw, canola, alfalfa seed, leafcutter bees, hemp, onions, garlic and chokecherries.
  •  September: Flax, chickens, potatoes, carrots, edible beans, soybeans, deer, waterfowl, field corn, hazelnuts, watermelon and turnips.
  •  October: Pumpkins, squash, sunflowers.
  •  December: Pigs, lamb, beef, firewood in December.
  •  Winter: Fence posts, lumber, fish in winter.
  •  Any time, all the time: Milk and eggs.

Did I miss any? What do you harvest that is not on the list?

I wish you a great harvest this fall.

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