The harvest season is a special time of year for farmers. It’s their opportunity to, quite literally, reap the rewards of months spent working long hours in the fields, nervously tracking weather patterns, and precariously balancing finances. But for many farms across the drought-stricken Upper Great Plains, 2017 will be remembered as a year where the rewards were – like a good rain – hard to come by.
I returned to my family’s 3,500 acre farm for a week in August to assume the typical harvest routine. The morning started early with a trip to the gas station, where conversations about yesterday’s yields and tomorrow’s weather were inevitable. As the dew lifted, I assumed my usual post in the cab of the combine, where I stayed until the long afternoon gave way to another cool fall evening.
But this year’s harvest was different. The excitement usually felt at every tick of the yield monitor was replaced by at worst disappointment and at best relief. The ground speed was set at a breakneck 7 mph, and the grain cart sat at the corner of the field, largely unneeded. A coulee that cuts through our land was dotted with hay bales, the product of an area rancher in search of any green grass he could find. The bales stood at the field’s edge, serving as a reminder that someone always has it a bit worse.
As the afternoons wore on, I was reminded of something my dad had said to me earlier this summer: “It’s like walking into a strong wind. You just have to put your head down and keep going.” I can think of no better statement to embody the resilient spirit of generations of family farmers and ranchers who have survived times even tougher than these.
My family has been fortunate that through hard work, the support of farm bill programs, and the right amount of luck, our proud farming tradition has survived five generations. My great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant came to North Dakota for the promise of 160 acres and the opportunity to forge a better life for himself and his family. My great-grandfather got his start in the midst of the Great Depression and my father started farming in the late 1980s. Each struggled through hardship in order to eventually have his hope of a better tomorrow fulfilled.
This has been a tough year for farmers and ranchers across the country, but farmers are a resilient bunch. This winter, small town coffee shops will be full of farmers hoping for improved prices, better weather, and a bit more luck. Until then, they’ll put their heads down and keep going.