Farm Journal: why harvest can make you laugh (or cry)

Sun and clouds hang over the dastardly oats. Photo: Anne Riordan.

Sun and clouds hang over the dastardly oats. Photo: Anne Riordan.

This is part of a series of Farm Journals, farmers writing regularly about life on the farm, week to week, through the season. Anne Riordan is field manager at Cayuga Pure Organics outside of Ithaca. Read all her journal entries here.

There is a mantra I have been repeating to myself for the last two weeks as I’ve tried to harvest these oats.  It goes:  "next year I will have no more ragweed…next year I will combine direct." I repeat it endlessly. It kind of goes to the tune “my baby flew over the mountain”.  Try it and see!

I am repeating this because due to several factors (mechanical, bad weather, and poor timing), I have come up with such a crop of ragweed in my oats that I’ve had to swath the whole entire 80 acres I planted. When you swath oats, you must wait three days for the ragweed to dry down and then you can combine. Swathing moves at the rapid-fire speed of about 3 acres an hour; combining slightly less.

How many of you all want to guess how many rain-free days we’ve had this summer?  In July – 7.  In August – there was ONE 7-day period where there was no rain.  It’s a losing proposition!

I think I should just switch CPO’s style. Instead of beans and grains, we can do ragweed and apples. Brooktondale is full of apple trees. Chock-full. On every street, there are about four to fifteen, none of which taste the same.   I wouldn’t have to do a single thing to get a crop of apples except truck my ladder around and pick them. They are all bona fide supermarket quality. And they make delicious applesauce!

And ragweed – well, I could start a really excellent and profitable joke store.  Who doesn’t know somebody who’s allergic to ragweed?  I could make a killing!  Stuff pillows!  Sprinkle on car seats.  Come to think of it, oat dust makes a gnarly revenge as well. Oats are particularly vile. At the end of every oat harvesting season I want to burn the clothes I’ve worn that two weeks, because the itch never goes away.

You can all probably tell I’m in a bit of a testy mood. It’s just been that type of couple-of-weeks.

Sometimes when I'm harvesting, it goes so slowly that I try to make up math problems to figure out when i'll be done. Here is one I have been doing.  Maybe you guys can help me out.  Both of my parents were math majors, but I seem to have been left out of the loop. Remember, you have to pretend you are combining oats when you do this, so no pencil and paper. Here we go…

Lets say first I swath the field. I have a 15 foot swather. It takes me 32 rounds to completely swath the field. That means there are 16 rows parallel to each of the four square side of increasingly shorter windrows.  It's like a square spiral. If you take a square field and trace around the outside, then when you come back to your original place, you start fifteen feet in and continue by making a slightly smaller square around the field. (For all intents and purposes, lets say this field is square… equal length sides.)

Are you all with me? So, can you figure out 1) how many feet the sides of the field are long?  And 2) when I harvest, by picking UP those windrows, when am I half done?  Because it's not when i reach the middle of the field, because those squares of windrow are so much shorter than the long travels around the outside of the field.

OK, I might not have explained that well, but feel free to comment and ask questions. I can also send in a diagram.

Try to do math while you're watching the sunset from this tractor. Photo: Anne Riordan.

Try to do math while you're watching the sunset from this tractor. Photo: Anne Riordan.

What else has happened?  The steering column on my farm truck (a nice, respectable 1993 f250 with a beastly diesel engine) decided to cease functioning properly.  This would be okay (although it does feel like it’s about to fall off which is never pleasant on the highway) BUT!  While taking a hiatus from proper function, it managed to bind up the wires leading to the horn, causing it to emit erratic, varying length horn blasts whenever it wants to.  This is extremely amusing but not for long. After a week of this I finally caved and pulled the wires leading to the horn.

What else have I done? This poor truck. I managed to (while finishing fueling up the combine) somehow catch a piece of the (somehow) open door as I was slooooowly driving past the truck and wrenched the truck door into a permanently open (or permanently shut) position. You know what this means. Yep, that irritating door chime never goes off. Next step is to tape down the sensor. Obviously, I just shouldn’t work with machinery.

Let's have some good news. The plan for the new CPO beanery is up and running!  We have pictures, diagrams, funding (yay, Indiegogo and private donors, all of you, THANK YOU SO MUCH!) and we are planning on putting it in motion.  It looks to be much more efficient than our original set up (although the last Beanery was prettier).

This means we might have the whole set-up completed in time for bean harvest, which would be a huge relief, since the beans come out of the field quite, quite filthy.  In fact, Erick joked last year that our navy beans should be called espresso beans, due to the fact that after being harvested and dumped into a wagon, they were no longer that wonderful white-ish color they’re supposed to be. They were brown/cream-ish.

Three ears of corn! Photo: Anne Riordan.

Three ears of corn! Photo: Anne Riordan.

Other good news – Thomas McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distillers stopped by to see his white corn and he was quite pleased!  Not only with the freakishly tall stature but the giant ears. I went back yesterday and I found three ears on some of the plants!  I’ve never had three ears before. I need to bone up on my corn literature, because I am feeling uneducated about corn and its ear production this summer. And that’s no good. I don’t feel good about growing something and only understanding half of its story.

This is a jumpy and piecemeal journal entry, for sure, which is pretty fitting for my life for the last two weeks and probably the rest of harvest as well!  So, after ingesting/inhaling about 10,000 pounds of ragweed dust today, I am going to hit the hay.

Til next time.

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  1. When cold weather comes, you can kick back and enjoy a book called "Corn" by Betty Fussell. It's not a field guide, but a historical overview of the whole corn thing. If you can't find it contact me.
    You have my support on the ragweed fight. I've been at it for about five years, and have just about conquered it. The only question that remains for me is, How long does a ragweed seed remain viable in the soil?
    One more question about your swathing. Would it more efficient, or thorough to swath in long straight rows rather than around the spiral? It seems to me that you'd lose some crop at each corner.

  2. I'd love to read that book!

    One day, I too will conquer the ragweed. I'm hoping my rotation (spring grains, winter grains, clover, corn, beans) will fight the good fight for me.

    I do lose a little bit while swathing, but I have it nearly perfected. If you turn at exactly the right spot, the ass of the swather swings out and pivots backwards to start completely straight again. It took me about three years to perfect though… and wierd-shaped fields are still quite a challenge. It's kind of like mowing with a sickle mower, that turning scheme.