Life is hectic. We all have places to be, people to see, and a revolving list of things to do. Rarely however, are those places, people, and things urgent. Sure, we have schedules to keep as closely as we can. And, certainly, it’d be nice if we were never again late for work or school or the season premiere of Game of Thrones. But if we are, in nearly every case, it’s not a matter of life or death. It’s not a world shattering event. It’s not a defining moment in our lifetimes, however delayed it may be. Your boss understands that you don’t make it a habit and we’re all human, your teacher understands you’re putting in your best effort and is happy to see you safely in your seat, Game of Thrones can be streamed online later.
If you had to spend any amount of time on the side of rural roads during harvest season however, you wouldn’t know any of this based solely on how people behave. If behavior is any indicator every moment of every day, every task on that never-ending list, is perhaps not even urgent, but emergent. If behavior is our indicator, every minute is a harried dash for an imaginary finish line and every delay or obstruction towards it a rage inducing aggression against our very existence.
Because I want to believe people are inherently decent, I like to think this is because they just don’t know. They don’t farm so they lack experiences and perspective that might otherwise help them behave more maturely, to exhibit more kindness, to accept that any delay they encounter at the hands of farmers and farmworkers trying to do their jobs is neither personal nor malicious. Certainly, in those moments when I have acted like a fool in the past I was operating without perspective. It only seems fair to give others the benefit of the doubt in these moments too. And so, I offer a guide to rural roadways during harvest. A few quick things to keep in mind, when traversing rural America during the late summer and fall…
1. We’re really busy too.
When you drive by, it may look like we’re just standing or sitting around in tractors, trucks, combines and on the side of the road shooting the shit, but this is just a snapshot — and a misleading one at that. Unless it’s recently rained or it’s the very first days of the season, chances are not one person you see when you pass a harvest crew at work has had more than a few hours of sleep in weeks. And it’s not because they’ve been binge watching Netflix. It’s because they’ve been working nonstop. If you happen to pull up in the brief moments where someone is handing off food to drivers or hoisting a kid into the cab of a combine or semi truck, you’re probably witnessing the only hot meal that farmer is going to get that day and the only time that parent and child will have together for weeks. The old saying, “make hay when the sun shines,” isn’t a colloquialism for nothing. We make hay — and wheat and straw and corn and soybeans and sugar beets and silage and canola and virtually every other crop — when the sun shines, because that’s the only time it can be made and, generally, there is a shortage of that time each season. We have to seize the sunny, or at least dry, hours when they come. Which means twenty-hour work days and neglected home lives in a race against Mother Nature we usually don’t win and mostly just hope we come out of unscathed.
2. There’s a reason, probably backed up by tomes of research, for everything we do.
For instance: why don’t we put those trucks in the field, instead of on the side of the road? After all, everyone used to pull the trucks right into the field and some still do. The thing is, just because it was once done a certain way — or just because some people still do it that way — doesn’t mean there’s not a very good reason for the way it’s being done in any other case. In agriculture, we’re constantly learning and improving. When we know better, we do better and what we’ve learned in recent years about soil compaction has changed the way many farmers handle traffic patterns on their fields for the better.
Trucks are heavy, and get heavier as we add grain to the trailers. Soil compacts quickly under the weight of large vehicles and the effect is multiplied when you have heavy equipment sitting on relatively small tires. Which means trucks are some of the worst compactors out there. Compacted soil is really bad for the health and biodiversity of the fields. In fact, the vast majority of the negative effects of compaction are realized the very first time a piece of equipment rolls over a patch of ground. To try to combat this, many farmers try to keep minimal traffic patterns over their fields, and keep the worst compactors off them completely. This means more trucks being loaded on the side of the road. Where yes, they might cause more delays. Just know it’s not because we’re too lazy to pull into the field. It’s because we’re trying to balance the best possible practices for the land in our stewardship with a practical way to get the job done.
3. This doesn’t have anything to do with industrialization or “big ag.”
Our farm is so tiny it doesn’t even really qualify as a farm by conventional standards and yet even I’ve slowed or momentarily held up traffic on our infrequently traversed road. Farms of all sizes and types have to do work that will occasionally put them in the roadway with large, slow moving equipment for one reason or another. We try to do it as quickly and seamlessly as we can, but it’s not always possible to avoid every single other vehicle in these shared public spaces.
4.Food security is worth five minutes.
As is clothing and health care. I’ve spent time in places in the world where the agricultural system is so primitive people are at risk of starvation at the first meteorologic or political upheaval. One season of drought, one late or early frost, one egotistical regime who won’t permit the global community to help in a pinch… as Americans we don’t know what it is like to go through life not knowing when one of these things will mean the difference between feeding our kids a bowl of porridge or watching them die because we couldn’t. That you only have to spend a few minutes working to earn enough to buy a loaf of bread, and that you can walk into any store and find loaves upon loaves of it for sale at any time day or night is a spectacular privilege. And it’s not the only privilege we take for granted. Our ability to dress in quality clothing from long lasting fibers like cotton and wool also depend on crops getting in and out of the fields in a timely fashion. As does our access to a great many medicines and life-saving medical technologies. Insulin for diabetic patients is the direct result of the American agricultural system and its ability to not only feed us, but to feed livestock such as pigs as well.
5. Farmers are people too.
Radical, I know. But the farmers you see on the side of the road during harvest, and the ones you see criss-crossing the fields you pass? They’re humans. Humans who have spouses and kids and grandkids and neighbors and friends. They go home to families. They serve their communities. They pitch in when a friend or neighbor is in need. We need them to come home safe. Which means that you should slow down and be careful not to hit or physically injure them, sure. But it also means you shouldn’t yell obscenities at them out your window, beep your horn incessantly, or otherwise act like a jerk. Farming is a stressful occupation; it consistently ranks among the professions with the highest rate of suicide in the country. Today, some segments of the agricultural industry rival the rates of suicide found among even veterans of the war in the Middle East. And if ranking among the highest at-risk populations decade after decade isn’t bad enough, the volatility of recent years and the growing pains of the industry as they stand today means that farmer suicide rates are currently at an all time high. In fact, a recent CDC report puts the current rate more than 50% higher than it was in the 1980’s when farmer suicide was considered epidemic. You never know what a farmer is dealing with. You may be driving by a harvest-in-progress that’s yielding worst than any she’s ever seen before. He may have just broke his combine right there in the field and not know where the money to fix it is going to come from. Be kind. You never know when the words you hurl through your open car window are the last he can bear to hear. If you need to yell something try: “Thank you for feeding us!” Or, “great job! Hang in there!” It’s funny how a loud voice can cure frustration even if the words it forms aren’t angry or cruel.
6. The bigger the equipment, the bigger the blind spot.
As much as we want our farmers to make it home to their families and communities, we also want you to make it home to yours. While farm safety has come a long way, there are still logistical challenges any time you’re dealing with oversized vehicles and machinery. Not the least of which is the size of the blindspots around it. Give all equipment a wide berth. (The picture up top? It’s a what not to do.) If a grain cart and truck are blocking the road while they load, stop back a few car lengths and wait there. Don’t try to squeeze up behind the cart as close as you can get. I promise you, they won’t be long. Getting up close behind won’t make the transfer any faster; we’re already going as fast as we can. If a truck or tractor is on one side of the road, slow down and move over as far as you can to the other side to pass safely. We’re all just humans working and living in the best ways we can. We all make mistakes, but we can all do our part to prevent accidents as well. And if we’re proactive in it from both sides of the equation, we can eliminate many problems before they arise.