For the 2017 hemp crop, Chad and I will be responsible for harvesting our hemp seeds. This will involve renting and operating a combine, or hiring another person to work with us. To ensure we understand how to operate a newer model combine, and gain first hand experience in the event that we harvest the crop alone, I spent 2 days at Larry Marshall’s farm learning to drive a combine.
I arrived in Saskatchewan on September 18th and stayed with close family friends who live down the street from Larry. It was raining quite hard on the Sunday night, and I was worried we would be unable to combine over the next two days. Larry called at around 8pm to let me know that due to the rain, most of his team (his sons and another worker) would not be arriving early on Monday morning. It was starting to feel like I would be on a farm vacation rather than a learning experience.
However, when I arrived at Larry’s around 11am Monday, he was confident that I would be able to combine that afternoon. I was stoked! Larry made lunch in the kitchen at the back of his large shop while I snacked on grapes fresh off the vine.
After lunch, I went out to combine with Larry’s eldest son, Josh. We drove out to the field where the combine and grain truck were parked, checked the combine over and got to work. I rode next to Josh and asked lots of questions about which controls he was operating and how he decided what to do first and where to watch. Like driving a car, once something becomes a habit, it is difficult to break it down into steps. However, Josh did and excellent job explaining how he simultaneously watched the steering, the height of the table (where the hemp moves on a conveyor towards the centre of the combine) and the height of the reel (which pushes the hemp stalks towards the blades which cut the plant and move it onto the table).
Suddenly, it was my turn to combine! Josh patiently explained the controls and the order in which the process is engaged. Most of the controls are operated with your right hand, while your left controls the steering wheel. It was definitely a struggle for me to follow the line of the row (steer straight), control the speed with the pressure in my right hand, and operate the height of the table and the reel with my right thumb. When I got confused or flustered about the height or tilt of the table and the height of the reel, I found that I accidentally accelerated (slightly, as combines move at about 2 to 6 km/h) thinking that the pressure would lift the table. It was a lot to learn, and I was so grateful for Josh’s patience and even more so when he called out directions such as “Table UP!” and “Reel DOWN!”.
By 4pm I had combined about 5 rows and we had gone back over some patches that I missed. At this point, it started to rain again, so we emptied the combine of seeds, covered the grain truck and drove it back to Larry’s farm.
The next day started about the same and Josh and I went out to the same field at around 1pm. When we arrived at the field, we inspected the combine for hemp wrapped around important parts. Inside the combine, the hemp often wraps around the rotor, which can lead to wrapping in other parts, and can sometimes cause fires. I discovered quite a bit of hemp wrapped around the front axel on the right side of the combine. We used dull kitchen knives, razor blades and pliers to cut and rip the hemp out of the places where it had wrapped. Much of the wrapping was most likely due to my driving: when we drove back over missed patches, I drove over the chaffe, which is the waste left behind the combine. This chaffe is mostly loose straw and wraps quite easily. Needless to say, you should not combine over the same spot twice!
When the combine appeared to be free of hemp straw, we set out to do the perimeter of the next field. This must be done at least twice so that there is enough room for the combine to turn around. Halfway through our first round, the controls alerted us that there was a blockage inside the combine. We drove back over to the grain truck and climbed inside the back of the combine to investigate. It was clear that there was a lot of material stuck in the beater of the combine, and the only way to free it was to cut and rip until the beater could be rotated. Josh and I spent about 2 hours freeing the combine of all the hemp straw material trapped inside and had to call Larry to bring us another tool in order to use leverage to rotate the beater.
Around 7pm, the combine was all clear again and we set out to finish the round so I could combine a few rows. When we cleared a small section so that I would be able to combine, the sun was almost set. I got behind the controls and drove about 10 feet before a pulley on the feeder header (the front attachment with the table and the reel) broke. This was classic farming as I remember it: spend all day fixing things and when you think it’s time to work, something new breaks!
In all, it was an unbelievable lesson in combining and farming. It was awesome to get to drive the combine, discuss the process, learn where fibres get wrapped, how to get them unwrapped and remember that farming is hard work. I am beyond grateful for the time Larry and Josh shared with me. There was also plenty of time to discuss organic farming practices such as effective microorganisms and beneficial fungi while it was raining. It was such a valuable experience and I can’t wait to be the most annoying backseat combine driver ever!