Ranch Life Diary

Tracy Wortman

Harvest the old-fashioned way


In this modern technological world, a farmer might drive his tractor by satellite. A rancher might search for his lost cattle with a camera-toting remote-controlled drone. I recall as a teenager, the novelty of combine-to-truck-driver communication provided by CB radios during harvest. Dad would often key the mic to a snappy tune on the radio giving us combine skinners some break from the hypnotic churning of sieves, cutter bars, sprockets, chains and header boards against wheat. That was late in the 70s, years after our first combine in 1966.

My sister Glenna was 12 the first time Dad sat her in the drivers’ seat of the International purchased from the neighbors. Its name was Elsie. There was no cab, just a wobbly umbrella, and only the wind’s direction to provide relief from the itchy fog of chaff. She was a tiny warrior skooched forward so her feet reached the brakes, a ball cap pulled aggressively over her white blonde curls and ridiculously large sunglasses protecting her sky blue eyes. Dad explained the throttle, the turning brakes, pointed out the machine clutch, the variable speed and header depth, the unloading lever, admonished her against rocks and using the steering wheel knob, rode one round with her, and stepped off at the turn. She never missed a beat. She was the star on the combine.

Dad drove another International combine named George. Their headers were 12 feet wide. I recall looking up at Dad’s face as Glenna came churning down the rows and knowing someday I wanted to do something that would make him look at me that way.

We started out with two trucks. One was my grandfather’s red 1948 five-window Chevrolet 1 ½ ton. Obviously, we called him Reddy and he carried 300 bushels. Then there was Billy, a one-tonner that with added sideboards could manage 150. We were really moving bushels of wheat now. Driving a stick and running a dump truck were vital skills.

Like most farm and ranch families, nobody was exempt from work. Mom and I were the truck drivers for a time. Mostly, I just rode along. My sister Glenna must have received all her steel, as well as her looks, from Mom who was also diminutive and tough as nails. Norwegian fair, they both suffered the sun’s wrath, but Mom was in charge of unloading at the grain bins. The motor of the auger, mounted literally head high, required winding a rope on a pulley, pulling with enough force to turn the motor over and make it fire. I became adept at the careful manipulation of the choke and sometimes application of starter fluid. Usually it took Mom two pulls, rarely three because the effort required to turn the motor was Herculean. When the combines are moving, the truck driver is on the time clock. The further away the bins, the quicker the truck driver had to be.

Mom, a force of nature, also managed to keep the crew fed. Harvest the old-fashioned way in a tiny hot corner of Montana will teach anyone a solid work ethic, and provide numerous stories for the telling.



How much time do you spend using a computer or smart phone during a typical day?