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Vine Maple Studio: Thrashing in a bad year

The marine climate of Whatcom County is mild compared to the Midwest, but it does not guarantee that every crop succeeds. This time of year, late September, my father, Ted, and my grandpa, Gus, worried about rain. A heavy thundershower or a few consecutive days of steady rain could destroy the grain crop, meaning less milk to ship to the dairy, fewer eggs from the chicken house to sell to the grocery stores, and the pigs would not fatten up the way Grandpa liked. A farmer who is not prepared to face a bad crop doesn’t last long on the farm.

Dad and Grandpa never complained about a bad year in my hearing, but I could see it on their faces. One year, probably mid 1950s, the oats were ready to harvest. It had been a good year: the oat heads were heavy and drooping. In those days, Dad and Grandpa grew a traditional mixture of oats and vetch.

Dad went out into the fields after breakfast to check on the oats. I went with him. The days had begun to shorten, the air was cool, and the morning dew was heavy, but the sun burned into the back of my neck. A stiff breeze rattled the dry stalks. Dad thrashed out a head or two of oats in his hand and bit down on a kernel to test its hardness, then spat out the hull. I copied him. He said the oats were ready to cut and we had better get back to the barn and grease the binder.

I know it was the fifties because it was one of the last years Dad used the binder and a thrashing machine. By 1960, he was using a combine and the binder was relegated to the back of the machinery shed until he finally hauled it off for scrap.

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I helped Dad by handing him wrenches and the grease gun when he asked for them. By noon, the binder was lubricated, a sickle that Grandpa had sharpened while we greased was mounted, a fresh ball of twine was threaded into the knotter, and the canvas apron that carried the cut grain stalks into the binding mechanism was tight and ready to go. Mom had called a few neighbors on the telephone. They arrived, and we all went in to noon dinner. The bundles from the binder would sit in the field a day or two before the thrashing machine arrived. I seem to remember it was Sorenson’s outfit from Everson.

While the men were eating and drinking coffee, the clouds began to come in from the West, rain clouds coming through the Strait of Juan De Fuca and over Georgia Strait (now called the Salish Sea) from the Pacific where they had loaded up with moisture. Dad cut the back swathe, the first cut around the field in the reverse direction and right up to the fence.

I helped the men pick up the bundles as they came off the binder and set them upright and to the side in shocks, so Dad wouldn’t drive over them when he began cutting in the right direction. All the while, the clouds were darkening and piling up against the hills to the east.

As I remember, Dad cut the back swathe and two rounds before the thunder cracked and rain came down like the clouds were emptying buckets from the sky. The rain flattened the standing oats already bowing under the weight of heads fat with heavy grain. Within a minute, the binder was jammed up with the wet straw that wouldn’t feed, and Dad had to stop. All the crew could do was go home. A few went in to Ferndale to the Cedars Tavern for hands of cutthroat three-hand pinochle in the back room, something Dad or Grandpa never did.

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The thunder storm crashed and poured all night. In the morning, the oat field was flattened. The sun didn’t come out for a week and by then grass was growing through the straw and the oat crop was a total loss.

Dad and Grandpa were lucky. They also had a field of wheat that was shorter and a week behind the oats. Dad had wondered if he would have to cut the wheat before it was ready because we would have the thrashing machine for a few days before it moved on to the next job. The shorter stalks stood up to the rain and were not flattened. By the time the sun returned, the wheat was in prime shape and delivered a good crop that didn’t make up for the lost oats, but averted disaster.

It wasn’t the best year, but we made it through.

Copyright (c) Marvin Waschke. All rights reserved. 
Marvin Waschke
Marvin Waschke

Waschke is a Ferndale native who grew up in a farmhouse on the farm his great-grandfather’s family homesteaded. As a software architect, Waschke worked on IT management projects for close to 30 years. He has authored 3 books on computer technology including “Personal Cybersecurity” (available at the Ferndale Public Library) which addresses problems faced by individuals in a computing realm that is becoming increasing hostile to users. Waschke currently serves on the board of trustees of the Whatcom County Library System.

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