In the next two posts I’m going to tell an Oregon farm story. It is also an American farm story, a homestead story, and most of all, a family story – one that could most likely be told similarly most anywhere that the US expansion efforts included homesteading. At the request of the family who so generously let me poke about their farm snapping photos and generally being in the way, I have changed all names (except my own).
In this first post I am presenting my observations of what was going on during harvest, 2013. The second of the two posts will focus on the past generations of the farm. The original homesteaders on this and many other farms like it, along with the generations that came after, represent many of the hardy, courageous Americans that built this nation as it expanded westward during its formative years.
In late July, the height of wheat harvest in Eastern Oregon, I visited the Miller family in Umatilla County. Last spring, when the Oregon GM(genetically modified) wheat debacle story broke and was making headlines worldwide, I immediately thought of the people that have been part of the Eastern Oregon wheat “scene” since before the 20th century. How would these rogue GM plants found in a field near Pendleton affect them? Lawsuits against Monsanto were popping up in other states and it looked like before the feds could even figure out what happened, futures market chaos might ensue. I immersed myself in local articles about the mystery wheat plants and because I know the Millers, I felt a personal connection to the developing story. I knew they sold their wheat primarily to Japan and Japan seemed to have the most bees in its bonnet over the appearance of the rogue GM wheat plants . So, I emailed Mrs. Miller, lady of the farm, someone who has lived her entire life in Umatilla County, and we began to write back and forth. The weekend visit was planned soon thereafter.
As the mysterious case of the GM wheat played out in mass media, it was pretty much business as usual on the farm. The crop looked good and would be harvested – no matter what – and of course, close scrutiny of the markets and fluctuating prices was inevitable but meanwhile, there was work to do. Midway into the investigation, a knock on the door from the feds did come. APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a branch of the USDA) workers were interviewing local farmers as part of their continuing inquiry into the matter. Apparently they were a friendly lot, and upon completion of their official questions, asked where there was good weekend fishing and hiking in the area.
So who are the Millers? Phillip Miller took over operations on the 2,000 acre farm in the late 70s after marrying Sarah, heir to the farm along with her sister, Christina. They have been farming steadily since, though the amount of acres devoted to wheat has varied over the years. Some of the land was leased to and is currently under contract with the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) .
Phillip and Sarah raised two sons on the farm, John and Jeff. John, now 34, has recently taken over the operation of Miller farm and he and his wife, Jeanette, live in what was the original homestead building on the property. Phillip and Sarah still live in the main house and during this year’s harvest, brother Jeff, now 31, stayed to assist along with a few members of Jeanette’s family.
I had quite a memorable time experiencing this particular slice of American farming culture. I rode in the combine , got a throat and nose full of wheat, chaff, and dust, strolled fallow and stubble fields at 10 AM when it was already 97 degrees, and even poked around an abandoned grain elevator that was operational even into the early 1980s. I heard stories about the way farming used to be, the way it has been for the past several decades, and how, like in so many other areas, technological advances are revolutionizing the modern farm.
Looking out the front of this behemoth of a harvester, it looked like I was riding on a giant lawnmower, but a combine harvester does so much more than mow down crops. The first of three functions offered by a combine is the reaper function, which includes both the cutting and gathering of the wheat. The header rotates and chops ceaselessly while the reaper gathers what has been cut and sends it back to where the thresher and winnower, the other two functions, perform their respective tasks. The thresher loosens the edible part of the grain from the chaff. The winnower uses an air current to separate the chaff from the wheat. When the combine becomes full, the wheat travels through a conveyor auger to land in a grain cart or truck. The Millers use a 450 bushel grain cart, or ‘bank out’ wagon (below).
Ask any Miller and he or she will tell you that this 450 bushel grain cart is not especially big. I can’t imagine. The picture to the left is of John and grandmother Dorothy Miller standing next to one of the grain cart tires. Looks pretty darn big to me!
I made a video (see below) of my time both in the cab of the combine and standing next to the grain auger, which pumps harvested wheat from a dump truck into a tall grain bin, or silo. For any wheat farmer, this is every day harvest fare but for me, it was a thrilling highlight of my weekend in Eastern Oregon.
Pendleton Grain Grower trucks regularly make their rounds and pick up wheat from the area grain bins. Wheat is cyphened out in much the same fashion as the way it is goes in. The trucks haul the wheat to the nearest port city, Umatilla, where it is weighed and loaded onto barges headed down the mighty Columbia to the Port of Portland, which is the largest wheat port in the United States and the third largest in the world. From there it is loaded onto ships which cross the Pacific to Asia and beyond. Some wheat is sold right away to pay expenses and the rest if stored until a time arrives to “sell high”. All the wheat farmers in the area are no doubt sighing in relief that exports to Asia are back on in full swing and prices are stabilizing.
I would like to offer my warmest thanks to the Miller Family for allowing me a glimpse of their historic farm.
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